After an hour hiking alongside the Ganges, what loomed ahead was a sight that could’ve been either a music festival 50 times larger than Glastonbury or an immense refugee humanitarian crisis. Stretching tens of kilometres across an exposed floodplain east of Allahabad was a temporary canvas-and-tarpaulin city. Its skyline was pierced by great tented ashrams with towering fake facades built to resemble Mughal forts and Taj Mahals.
Around these camps, swollen crowds marched, waving giant flags and tridents (the symbol of Shiva). I became embedded amid a thousand-or-so orange-robed pilgrims chanting and singing, and passed a dreadlocked sadhu with both legs tucked behind his neck. An elephant daubed in swastikas manoeuvred deftly through us all.
Braiding rivers of buffeting pilgrims were flowing in one direction: towards the mela’s epicentre at the sacred Sangam. Here, the Ganges, sluggish in low season, meets the River Yamuna, which arrives from Delhi. It’s at this confluence that the amrita fell. Local legend even claims a third unseen river flows beneath both – the Saraswati, which manifests as a goddess of knowledge. Everybody wants to bathe here.
It was only 8am yet tens of thousands besieged the Sangam’s exposed sandy riverbank; many had made long pilgrimages across India to be here. Mark Twain experienced this energy when he visited the 1894 mela. It is wonderful,’ he wrote, ‘the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys.’
Most pilgrims were in a state of undress. Men were stripped down to their underpants, while women entered the Ganges in full saris, which they later dried by holding them to the wind like kites. Some devotees meditated cross-legged, oblivious to the surrounding brouhaha. Others recited invocations, scooping up Ganges water in brass puja pots before allowing it to cascade downwards. Youngsters frolicked as if enjoying a beach holiday. The noise deafened: yelling and laughter; ululating women; vendors touting candyfloss; whistling policemen vainly attempting to enforce some crowd control.
I saw familiar faces from my last mela including Saroj, a sadhu who balances a calabash of sacred water on his head for 18 hours a day. He’d changed. Last time he bore a vase of flowers. He was symptomatic of everybody seemingly doing his or her own thing, the meaning of which can seem baffling to non-Hindus. I met Dr Charak, a Delhi physician, who explained that pilgrims might follow any multitude of rituals and prayers prescribed by teachers and scripture. The merit from these rituals intensifies during the Kumbh Mela’s auspicious timing, he explained: “I’m not a particularly religious man, but I trust the ancient sages’ wisdom about the relevance of astronomical factors at auspicious events like the Kumbh.”
I didn’t fancy putting this concept of unquestioning belief to the test. The Ganges looked grimly stagnant, awash with floating debris such as sopping marigold garlands and frivolously discarded undies. Yet those returning from their dip radiated energised smiles. I asked the sopping doctor how he felt after his.
“I feel the immense faith and sacred thoughts of millions generating powerful benevolent vibrations, so you come out of the water feeling spiritually, mentally and physically rejuvenated,” he replied.