It took me all of three seconds to realize this wasn’t going to be a “Folklife” experience. Or a Bumbershoot one for that matter.
No, this was the most revered day at the 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. This Hindu gathering that only takes place at this level of spiritual significance once every 144 years (other forms of Kumbh Mela happen every 2, 6 and 12 years). This year it was estimated to draw around 100 million visitors over the full two months of the festival.
Over 30 million religious pilgrims were in attendance on Feb. 10 to bathe in the Sangam site where the rivers Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati intersect in a holy trifecta. That’s over four times the total population of Washington State gathered in an area around half the size of West Seattle.
As the sun rose, hordes of men, women and children made their way to the river banks in an inconceivable display of mass human migration. Once in the water, some kneeled down to fully submerge while others stood in silent prayer.
Farther inland, parades of holy men, sadhus and mystics flowed through the crowds with a stream of devotees in tow. Beneath it all, laying in the mud, beggars clawed at passersby—coaxing coins and crumpled paper notes from the hands of some. In Sector 4, an area along the Ganges River, a man smiled as he carried a platter of sesame candies, handing them out at random to the hungry masses.
Days later, when my “Kumbh cough” was just beginning to subside, I realized why I’d had such difficulty pinpointing my own experience at the festival. In fact, it was the word “festival” that had been tripping me up all along. The Kumbh had proven to be much more than just a festival.
It was humanity itself on full display.
A religious devotee dances amid other followers. Thousands of holy men, sadhus and spiritual guides congregate at each holding of the Kumbh Mela festival which takes place in different locations across India every 2, 4, 6, 12 and 144 years. (Photo by Ian Terry)