The early morning mist makes it hard to believe that just ahead, literally just a few metres ahead. Tens of millions of people are marching. You can hear them shuffling. Reach out in any direction and you will touch someone's garment. It's a sea of people headed towards what by the end of the day will become the largest human gathering in the history of the world.
This is Kumbh Mela, the river pilgrimage. Over 80 million people will come down to a single river bank to bathe and over the course of a month - over 30 million people in a single day. In Hindu tradition a pilgrim can wash away their sins in the holy River Ganges. The river's power to spiritually cleanse is most potent on certain holy days as determined by the alignment of the stars. And today is the most auspicious day in almost 150 years.
SANJE (Translation): If you bathe today you wash away your sins.
GUIDE (Translation): Do you like this large crowd?
SANJE (Translation): I like it, we don’t see such a crowd very often. People gather here because this place is special.
Sanje and his brother sell holy thread and there is no better place to push their wares than the Kumbh, Kumbh Mela is a festival held every 12 years at four sacred points on the river that lasts for 5 weeks and the population swells on the holiest bathing day. Holy men called sadhus roam the streets in saffron robes , loud speakers blare out the teachings of gurus competing for their share of souls.
MAN (Translation): There are lots of tents with sadhus where they play their music. They sing devotional songs with their devotees, the devotees come here to sing and pray together, they immerse themselves in prayer.
And so it goes for kilometres on end, the colour and the din of mass religious ecstasy.
WOMAN (Translation): Your life is precious, you are just wasting it, your destination is in one direction. Which direction are you going in?
Part of a pilgrim's religious duty is to donate food and clothes to the sadhus and holy men. Many of the pilgrims stay the entire month, taking that time to do religious service and to meditate.
WOMAN (Translation): I like that as it is different from ordinary life, a change in life.
Incredibly this area is underwater for much of the year, so everything apart from the bridges as far as the eye can see - and I mean everything - has been built in the last four months. It's a marvel of human engineering.
MAN (Translation): The government gives contracts to various departments, they all start working about four months in advance. Roads, lights, water….all that.
The Mela area has been called a pop-up mega city with improvised accommodations made for literally tens of millions of people - water, power, roads, security and sanitation. While there are some serious concerns, many of them environmental, few of the pilgrims seem to have many complaints.
MAN (Translation): The government makes arrangements, a ration card and an oil card, a card for a gas cylinder. The government gives a lot, there are no shortage of amenities. There is no danger here, it is all so well organised.
Incredibly theft seems not to be a problem - the threat of bad karma cannot be more severe than here now. When I ask about the obvious concern of water pollution given the almost uncontrolled waste of so many millions of people, well, I was told not to worry, the Ganges can take care of itself.
MAN (Translation): We all believe the Ganges water is nectar, not water, so much so that we drink the Ganges water, though scientifically the river is said to be polluted. Yet we drink that water morning, noon and night.
But on land you could spot cleaners in yellow vests doing what must be the hardest of all jobs at Kumbh Mela.
CLEANER (Translation): I don’t like it. I do the dirty work. It is not good work. I do it to feed my family. I’m helpless. I can’t find any other jobs.
There are a few who live here year round - in ashrams like this up on the hills away from the flood zone. This lady is 94 years old and has spent the last 50 years in this ashram and in all that time she has never wandered into one of the Melas.
OLD WOMAN (Translation): I don’t like crowds and large gatherings, this ashram was peaceful, but now because of the crowd there is no peace apart from the middle of the night. So I don’t like it.
Of all of the millions of visitors to Allahabad, the most revered are the naked Monks. Kumbh Mela is really their festival. These are the men who have renounced all material possessions and are often found performing extreme acts of penance for the sins of their community at large. This man is doing penance by lying on a bed of thorns in the blazing sun.
GUIDE (Translation): It’s painful, isn’t it?
MAN (Translation): It is, but he is an ascetic. You see for him it is like praying. An ordinary man would cry if a thorn pricked him and run away crying, even complain, saying it is hurting, it is bleeding, but he is lying on a bed of thorns. So many pricking his back!
One of the more famous naked Monks has been standing on one leg for the last decade. He stands like this, 24 hours a day, even sleeping in this position. He says he has three years of penance left to fully pay off his karmic debt. Meanwhile pilgrims come to receive his holy blessing.
SADHU (Translation): The Kumbh Mela is about naked sadhus, people come here to be blessed by the naked sadhus. People touch the feet of the naked sadhus for salvation - it’s their refuge and their way of repenting. That is why people are here, they journey to come and pray here. They feel the divine presence here.
The naked sadhus are meant to be a direct conduit to the spiritual world. They're said to keep company with ghosts. So respected and feared are the naked sadhus that when they march down to bathe at the most sacred spot on the river their devotees crowd in for miles to get a look. And when that happens, well, it's an experience that defies description.
By the end of the single day, 35 million people are gathered at the Ganges, the largest convergence of human beings ever recorded. So why here, why now? The pilgrims all seem to answer those questions the same way. Because this is India and the stars were in alignment.
WOMAN (Translation): You see, India is a very religious country - there is more faith in this country than anywhere else in the world. That’s why we believe that the Ganges is our mother, that is why we revere it in our hearts and after bathing in it, we feel peaceful.
I head home, marvelling at how all of this will be gone with the coming floods. A city which vanishes just as quickly as it appeared.
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