For those who don’t know, the Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage held once every three years at at a rotating set of four cities in India. It is generally considered to be the largest human gathering in the world, with numbers growing each year, and (questionable) estimates ranging upwards of 70 million pilgrims visiting over the course of a month. This year was a Purna Kumbh Mela, held once every 12 years at Prayag, also known as Allahabad, a particularly auspicious site for ritual bathing, because it contains the Sangam – the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers (as well as a third river, according to some believers).
I only became aware of the Kumbh last year, and although I didn’t exactly plan this trip around it, it did seem like fortuitous timing. Adam and Aislinn and I had discussed the possibility of doing a day trip there from Varanasi, and for a variety of reasons, it came down to a choice of going on their last day in India or not. Allahabad is only 123 km from Varanasi, but the normal travel time is three hours. Because of the Kumbh, however, we were told to it might take as long as 4 hours to get there and 8 hours to get back on that particular day. There was so much uncertainty, and none of us could quite decide, so in the end, at Adam’s suggestion, we made our decision with a coin-toss.
Since leaving Varanasi I’ve run into several people who went to the Kumbh and stayed for a week, and they have some pretty insane stories about things they saw, especially concerning the Sadhus, a group of wandering monks known for their extreme asceticism, dreadlocks, and in some cases going about completely naked. Because of our limited time, I don’t think we really got the full Kumbh experience, but we did go, and it was a pretty awe-inspiring sight.
Imagine if you can, a temporary tent city set up to handle 10 million people. It’s hard to describe (and even harder to photograph) the sheer scale of such an deployment, but that is basically what we found at Allahabad. Amazingly, it was remarkably well organized (at least the parts we saw), and felt like some combination of a military operation and a massive refugee camp.
We hired a car (with a fantastic driver who sadly spoke no English), and he got us right into the centre of things in good time. As we approached, we crossed a huge permanent bridge, where I took the following photograph. In it, you can see the dozens of temporary bridges that had been built to facilitate people and vehicles crossing from one side to the other.
Here’s a second taken at river level, with the permanent bridge in the background, and another showing people crossing in large numbers as the sky darkened:
The following photograph is taken from the far side, after we crossed the foot bridge, looking back across the water at Sangum. I’m not really sure what the kid in the photograph is doing, but the sign apparently says that the water here is too deep.
As Aislinn commented, the whole place a the feeling of the end of the world. We only ended up staying about an hour and a half, because a storm was approaching, and we didn’t know how long it would take us to get back. None of us availed ourselves of the opportunity to take a purifying bath in the Ganges, although one of my feet did get a bit soaked as I approached the river bank, so perhaps that counts for something : )
The trip home ended up being far shorter than expected (less than four hours), but the storm was fully raging the whole time, and I saw some of the best lighting in my life in the midst of the Indian countryside. The rain, however, didn’t stop the kids in Varanasi from the usual all night partying. We hadn’t really eaten anything all day, but as we approached the city, I began to feel quite nauseated. We were getting very close to our guesthouse, but whether from dehydration, exhaustion, or the day’s experience, I had no choice but to roll down the window and throw up – just a light chuck. I was naturally worried that I had already come down with the dreaded Delhi-belly, but by the next morning I was feeling fine, and was able to wish my friends well on their onward journey into Nepal.
For more photos of the Kumbh, (and hopefully more stories to come), check out their blog too!