The greatest of the Hindu pilgrimage festivals, the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad is a riverside religious fair held every 12 years at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna (Sangam). Bathing in these rivers during the Kumbh Mela is considered a meritorious act that cleanses body and soul. The Maha Kumbh Mela is even rarer, held every 144 years. A Puranic legend has it that when gods and demons fought over a pot
(kumbha) of amrit—the elixir that arose from their joint churning of
the milky ocean—drops of it fell on four
earthly sites, the four sites of the mela (festival), among which is Allahabad.
The festival has been held continuously for well over a millennium. In 7th century CE, the Chinese Buddhist traveler Hsüan-tsang attended the fair with emperor Harsha. In the 8th century the philosopher Shankara exhorted the sadhus (holy men) to meet at the Kumbh Mela for an exchange of views. The informal assembly of ascetics and yogis that took place here served as a kind of "parliament of Hinduism" for the discussion of religious doctrine and possible reform and has remained a major attraction for the pilgrim. Sadhus who stay naked all year, ascetics who practice severe physical disciplines, hermits who leave their isolation only for these pilgrimages, teachers who use modern technology to address the crowds, frauds, and true saints—of all sects and from all parts of India—gather in camps along the riverbank and are visited by the pilgrims. *
In 2001, an estimated 60 million—1% of all humans on the planet—came to the festival over six weeks. I went at the start and left a day before the big crowds arrived for a particularly auspicious bathing day. It was bitterly cold that second week of January, with lows near freezing. Fortunately, the Indian government had worked to ensure the basics: functional toilets, garbage pickup, free blankets and firewood, crowd control, security, transportation, pontoon bridges, etc.
The fair abounds in devotional chanting, singing, and dancing, processions and floats, free food for the poor, and smoking of ganja and hashish (illegal but tolerated, especially for "religious use"). Amid the din, anarchy, and unholy superstitions on display are scenes of joy, charity, tolerance, and cooperation. Young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, godly and atheist, pandit and chamar, fakir and mystic, brown and white, all come together in this giant human spectacle, an intense, absurd, spontaneous commedia dell'arte that offers to anyone who cares a great mind-expanding experience.
Below is some footage I shot there (~20 minutes), with music from my Indian jukebox woven in.
* Text adapted from the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998