Fancy joining a party of 100 million people? India’s Kumbh Mela is a festival like no other – a mass of ritual bathing, naked sadhus, flashing lights and spiritual cleansing. We enter the fray …
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare…” All night long. Over and over and over again. They were driving me crazy.
When I rose at 5am, the chant had burrowed so deep into my subconscious I was considering shaving my head and taking up the tambourine. Instead, I unzipped my tent, yawned and gazed onto the Ganges. I couldn’t make out the opposite bank of India’s most sacred river because its silvery flow coalesced with a bleached sky to form one milky full-framed horizon. A phalanx of cormorants skimmed by; a black kite lurched overhead, swooping and rising. Then I heard it.
Despite being 5km upriver from the city of Allahabad, location of the 2013 Kumbh Mela, I could hear it. Now, the Hare Krishnas had been subsumed into a distant cacophony of devotional singing, arriving trains, gridlocked buses, beating tabla drums and the flute-trill of a thousand snake charmers. All underpinned by the murmur of a million people.
“We’re walking to Allahabad,” said Rajiv, a Delhi pilgrim from the tent nextdoor. “Come and join us.” I downed a milky sweet chai from the mess tent and we set off along the Ganges. Allahabad is so congested by pilgrims that I was lodged upriver in a temporary camp. Walking was the only way in.
Kumbh Mela attracts vast crowds of Hindus from across India. I’d visited the previous Kumbh Mela in Haridwar in 2010 and been swept along by a single day’s crowd of 11 million pilgrims.
Occurring four times during an astrologically determined 12-year cycle, each two-month long mela (‘gathering’) commemorates an ancient Hindu story. Thousands of years ago a sacred elixir of immortality (amrita) spilled from a pitcher (kumbh) during a celestial struggle between demons and gods. The elixir fell on four sacred river cities that now alternately host the Kumbh Mela: Allahabad (Prayag), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. It’s at these sanctified locations that pilgrims come to perform bathing rituals, believing they will wash away sins and hasten the breaking free from samsara (the cycle of reincarnation) to achieve moksha – final unification with the universal God, Brahman. Acquiring knowledge and karma, giving alms and practising meditation further this spiritual quest.