Amongst the Believers – India’s Kumbh Mela

India’s religious festival, the Kumbh Mela, is the largest gathering of humans on the planet. Many million people came together for this six to eight-week long fair, an outpouring of faith and religiosity that’s truly the greatest show on earth.

The Kumbh Mela is all about scale. It’s a massive enterprise where on certain days more than 10 million people at a time come to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges, to wash away their sins and free themselves from the cycle of death and re-birth. A mini tented city springs up on the banks of the river, the local government sets up a special administration, a massive police force is deployed, extra trains and buses are run. Pilgrims, religious leaders, shopkeepers, merchants and wandering minstrels, stream in from all corners. And then there are the sadhus, Indian holy men: ascetics of all kinds. The rock stars of them all are the Naga Babas – stark naked, wild, irreverent, hashish smoking ascetics. Raised as an army to protect the Hindu saints, they have become the centerpiece of the Kumbh, viewed with more awe than the religious leaders whose processions they grace. The majority of the pilgrims are rural poor people, who walk miles, carrying their meager belongings on their heads and shoulders, crossing the pontoon bridges, clutching on to a family member’s shawl or sari to avoid getting separated and lost. They will reach the river bank, camp out in the bitter cold night, cook their simple meals on cow-dung cake flames, prepared to bathe in the holy waters at the crack of dawn at the most auspicious moment. I saw trans-gender Hijras singing songs for the naked Naga Sadhus in their camp, who in turn blessed the pilgrims milling around, while fellow travellers smoked hashish in an invocation to the god, Shiva. And if you could ignore the loud and screeching announcements over the public address system, you would hear the sound of many different languages and dialects mingling in the air. A group of Kalpvasis (people who pledge to live and worship on the bank of the river for a month) freshly bathed in the river, heads shaved and draped in white, formed a tight circle in the crowd of millions, to pray and sing to their god. It is India in its extreme diversity.

The Kumbh Mela is also about an India that we urban Indians are losing touch with, and the world, seduced by the potential of India’s economic growth and the promise of a large consuming middle class, is starting to ignore. The pilgrims who come to the celebration are from an India whose people are connected to the past, trying to survive in the present, even as the growth of urban India threatens their future. For all its complexity and enormity, the Kumbh is actually about the simplicity of faith that drives this massive enterprise. It is about how every person is able to make a connection with his or her belief while being part of such a large noise. You don’t have to be a Hindu, or even a believer, to relate to that idea.

– Prashant Panjiar