Starting January 14 and continuing through the beginning of March, tens of millions of people will descend upon the Indian city of Allahabad, together forming the largest gathering of people on the planet: the Kumbh Mela.
Hindu myths tell that the gods and the demons once fought over the nectar of life, spilling several drops upon the earth in their struggle. The largest drop fell in Allahabad, where the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers meet the mythical Sarasvati River. According to legend, the gods still come down and bathe in these waters in order to renew their immortality. And, many Hindus believe, if a person can manage to bathe in these rivers at the proper time, they can achieve moksha, release from the cycle of reincarnation.
During the days of the Kumbh Mela, the riverbank is a mass of tents, with the luxurious tents of the rich sprawled in some areas and the frayed tarps of the poor huddled in others. Parades of different Hindu sects rumble through the streets for days on end. Dreadlocked, naked sadhus (Hindu holy men) cover their bodies in ashes and sit teaching and blessing the hordes of people who have gathered for the Mela.
On the main bathing day (Feb. 10), millions of people teeter on the banks of the river, waiting for the priests to sound the trumpet that indicates the gods have entered the water. At the trumpet blast, the crowd swarms into the river, each desperate for a few drops of holy water to wash them clean of sin.
1. This festival is held annually, but the greatest Mela, the Maha Kumbh Mela, occurs only once every 144 years. This year is a Maha Kumbh Mela year.
2. In the chaos of the Kumbh Mela crowds, many family members are separated from each other, sometimes permanently. Children can be orphaned simply by getting lost in the crowd.
3. On the main bathing day, many devotees bring sticks that represent dead or absent family members. By dipping these sticks into the water, many Hindus believe they can achieve salvation for their loved ones.