You’ve Gotta See India’s Kumbh to Believe It

A man guards a pile of clothing at the Kumbh, where 30 million people converge in India.
A man guards a pile of clothing at the Kumbh, where 30 million people converge in Allahabad, India.

The first sight of the Kumbh in Allahabad is more Spielberg than spiritual. The place looks like a post-apocalyptic zombie movie set, the eeriness of its façade amplified by a dark, starless night. It’s a tented city that stretches as far as I can see, twenty-seven miles of temporary dwellings lit by tall, big-globed nightlights that seem to echo the stars.

The legendary river Yamuna surrounds the Mela grounds, the only evidence of her, the golden reflections that ripple on her face. Allahabad plays a quiet host; its unexceptional landscape of concrete homes and urban dwellings dwarfed by the otherworldliness of the Kumbh. And the outside is just a hint.

I had indulged in my share of image searches, pre-trip proliferation, and memories of childhood temple visits to map out an elaborate image of how the largest gathering of faith in the world would look like. A sea of saffron, ash, and millions lost in a deific trance. But nothing prepared me for this – a landscape that shifts swiftly, from faith to frivolity, from a saffron marked trident of Lord Shiva to a decrepit ferris wheel.

It’s a place where North Face jacket owners rub shoulders with naked Nagas, and the sounds of corn kernels popping on coal stoves mingles with the all-night humming of sacred chants. There are daredevil motorcycle stuntmen, magic shows, and ascetics who perform body-defying feats (like the Naga who lifts a ton of bricks with his genitals).

As for the purely pious, prayer is everywhere. The Sangam, the holy confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and the imaginary Saraswathi is the rapidly beating heart of it all. A dip in this spiritual nexus promises a clean slate, all sins dissolved. The one and a half months of the rituals in the Mela all lead up to these bathing ceremonies, the ones on auspicious dates like MauniAmvasya are the busiest, drawing nearly 30 million people – ascetics, journalists, tourists, and farmers.

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