The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering of humans on our planet. Over the two month period that this festival happens, once every 12 years in 4 Indian cities, millions of people come from all over the country (and outside of it) to take an auspicious bath in the holy waters of the river Ganga. This year’s (2019) mela was held in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad), and it is estimated that over 120 million people washed away their sins in the Sangam, which is the meeting point of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the invisible river Saraswati (which is believed to be flowing beneath the earth’s surface).
Pilgrims arrive in droves to the city, many with their belongings on their heads, and cross the river to make their way to the makeshift tent city setup to house them. Temporary platoon bridges are setup on the river which the pilgrims cross by foot seeking enlightenment. It is the greatest show on earth, and this year’s event might have seen the largest human gathering in one place ever!!
A Sadhu walks in traditional orange robe near the banks of the river Ganga. Sadhu are religious holy men who visit from all parts of India for this event, and live in their sect specific tents. Pilgrims visit these tents and seek blessings from them.
A Show Unlike Any
A child artist / performer can be seen walking over a rope during the mela. Sights like these are common during the event, and provide some entertainment to the crowds, and income to the artist and their families.
Pilgrims spend their time eating, resting and chatting on the sandy banks on the confluence of rivers Yamuna and Ganga. Every year, thousands of people get lost from their families. There are several groups dedicated to helping people relocate their loved ones, often using loudspeakers.
Naga Sadhus are naked holy men, often with ash smeared on their bodies. They come out of their remote locations (mostly in the Himalayas) for the Kumbh Mela. These sadhus wear virtually nothing, even in extreme cold, as a renunciation of worldly possessions.
Their eyes are bloodshot from smoking cannabis-filled chillums, and they stay in their own tents, where they perform puja (prayer) ceremonies and bless the pilgrims. Like other pilgrims, they too take a holy dip at the confluence of sacred rivers that is believed to wash away their sins
As these sadhus are the major draw at the Kumbh Mela, they willingly pose for photos while at the same time giving blessings to people gathering near them. I spotted the pair above sitting on their own decorated vehicle happily posing for photos and blessing people.
Men and women take baths in the sacred rivers, while women also perform some rituals by the river side. The rivers are a hub of activity. With millions taking baths every day, there is also a very heavy presence of security personnel and volunteers, who assist in managing the crowds.
After taking a holy dip in the sacred rivers, women can be seen drying their saris on the banks of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, while children play nearby. The torrent of colors on display as the women wait for their clothes to dry out presented me a lot of time to make these photos, and have some good laughs and conversations with the people around me.
The pilgrims transform the sandy banks of the Ganges and the Yamuna into a sprawling city. Clad in saffron robes and turbans, an astounding mix of people from all states of India, and even from beyond are present on the banks of the two rivers. In 2017, UNESCO included the Kumbh Mela on its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.
To carry the millions of devotees to and from the city, many special trains are run from different cities and towns of India. In the photograph above, you can see a devotee sleeping outside the railway station in Allahabad. In the photos below, you can see both sets of people – ordinary citizens and religious sadhus traveling in the train coaches.
Free Food (Langar) for Everyone
All throughout the festival area during the Kumbh Mela 2019 in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad), people serve free food to the visiting pilgrims. They are called Langars, which are communal meals and sacred offerings served free of cost to everyone around.
The city of Allahabad never sleeps during the Kumbh Mela. The procession of tourists continue day and night, as you can see in the photograph below. The rush of humanity on display with religious and spiritual chants always in the air, the Kumbh Mela 2019 was an event unlike no other I had been to. And I must admit, I witnessed an India I had never seen or experienced before.