The Atlantic Selects
The Largest Gathering of Humans on the Planet
Dec 16, 2019
In January, an estimated 120 million people gathered at the confluence of three holy rivers in India: the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvati. The occasion was the Kumbh Mela, a historic Hindu pilgrimage that occurs just once every 12 years. It is widely considered to be the largest gathering of humans on the planet (and can even be seen from space).
“The scale is really something that can’t be captured—it has to be experienced,” the filmmaker Jeremy Snell told me. He tried anyway, and the results are astounding. Earlier this year, Snell traveled to Prayagraj and Varanasi, in India, to film Pilgrims, an immersive short documentary that depicts the Kumbh Mela in striking 16-mm film. “My approach was to look for faces and scenes that exemplified an enactment of faith,” Snell said.
According to Hindu tradition, drops of the nectar of immortality fell from an urn (or kumbh) during a fight between Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe, and a group of demons, forming a pool where the three rivers meet. The Kumbh Mela is marked by a ritual dip in these sacred waters—an act that is said to cleanse sins and emancipate followers from the earthly sufferings of the Hindu cycle of birth and death. Festival attendees hail from all aspects of Hindu religious life, from militant ascetics to sadhus, or holy men who remain naked year-round. (For some monks, the pilgrimage is their only reprieve from a life of isolation.) Overall, the festival is a celebration of Hindu community and tradition. At the center of the immense pop-up tent city is a marketplace offering spiritual lectures and blessings from India’s most revered gurus. For this year’s event, more than 200 miles of new roads were built to accommodate pilgrims traveling from all over India, although many also arrive by boat, carrying their belongings balanced on their head.
Snell said he will never forget the surreal feeling of waking up before dawn in the tent city. “The hums and sounds of millions of people are propelling all around you,” he said. “The energy was palpable and never-ending.” For a few days, Snell was able to hire a translator, which enabled him to have personal encounters with pilgrims along the river banks. One day, he met a Hindu ascetic in a boat floating on the Ganges. “I asked him why he chose the isolated, lonely life of a holy man,” Snell recalled. “He told me how he was a career man when his wife and child died during childbirth. He had no family left, so his only answer to the pain was to surrender himself to a life of spiritual discipline.”
Pilgrims unfolds entirely wordlessly; its compelling imagery communicates the depth of the spiritual and anthropological experience. “Watching thousands dip in and out of the water at sunrise may be the most mesmerizing thing I’ll ever see,” Snell said. “When humans are in search of something beyond themselves, there is a sense of openness and eagerness that is hard to miss. It was an incredibly humbling and eye-opening journey.”
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Author: Emily Buder
About This Series
A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.