The most spectacular humans gather on earth. No other even on the planet brings more people together in one place at one time. Pilgrims, visitors, curious seekers. And they arrive in greater numbers every Kumbh.
They come from across India and the globe. But it’s more than just a spectacle. For the millions who journey to the Kumbh Mela it’s an experience like no other.
Ganga, India’s longest river. Sacred to Hindus. In the state of Uttar Pradesh the river Yamuna meets the Ganga. The confluence is considered holy. And here, a river of myth and legend the Saraswati is said to join them. This confluence of three rivers or Triveni Sangam makes Prayagraj special. It’s Sangam, right.
It’s a confluence of Ganga and the Yamuna and the Saraswati which is a dried up river it is said to be underground now and you can see it you can see the churning the river actually join it is slightly different colours and the currents move differently and I think this idea of Sangam a convergence of ideas is one that also a rich idea that appeals to many people.
According to belief a dip in these sacred waters particularly on auspicious days leads to the cleansing of sins and release from the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The idea is that everyone has lived a life committing some sin and the sins keep accumulating.
In the hope that you will be granted a life which is pure if the sins were committed in the course of time in the course of life you go take a holy dip you wash them off to start your life with a clean slate, start afresh.
According to folklore a curse by the great sage Durvasa made the Devas or Gods lose their celestial powers Lord Vishnu The Preserver advised the God to churn the cosmic valley of the milky way for the nectar of immortality or Amrit. But the God’s couldn’t do this on their own. Expecting a share of the Amrit, the demons or Asuras were persuaded to help. The manthan or the great churning began. The mountain Mandrachala was the churning pole. The serpent king Vasuki became the massive rope.
The devas and Asuras on opposite ends of the rope churned for 1,000 years before the Kumbh or sacred pot of Amrit emerged. A fight out for the pot of Amrit Lord Vishnu, handed the Kumbh to his mount Garuda the king of birds. The war for the pot nectar raged for 12 divine days. Equal to 12 human years. And as Garuda flew four drops of the divine nectar fell from the Kumbh, in four places. Haridwar, Nashik, Ujjain and Prayagraj making the lands sacred for all time to come.
Traditionally, a Purna Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years. However, over time several versions of the Kumbh Mela have developed including the Ardh Kumbh of half Kumbh as well as the Simhasth Kumbh in Nashik and Ujjain. Specific relative positions of the sun, planets and constellations determine the date of each Mela.
Once every 144 years the Maha Kumbh is celebrated in Prayagraj . The Kumbh of Prayagraj is the largest religious gathering in the world. You don’t find it in any other religion. To accommodate the ocean of humanity converging in one place you need a huge area.
Preparations Before Kumbh Mela
With a mega event just weeks away a Kumbh city rises. The largest temporary city in the world spread over 32 SQ. km on the river bank. It will provide accommodations for religious orders pilgrims and visitors. It’s a logistics challenge without equal.
Planning has been underway for over a year. In the last few months 22 floating bridges have been laid using over 2,300 pontoons. The longest is over a kilometre long. The pop-up city is made entirely of bamboo wooden poles and tenting material.
It has the basic infrastructure of a permanent settlement and costs over 40 billion rupees. An estimated 130 million people will camp here for several weeks. That’s almost double the entire population of Great Britain Squeezed into an area just two percent the size of its capital London.
There are plans prepared for each and everything right from electricity to water supply to tenting to city infrastructure and we have almost 300km worth network of roads wide network of electricity supply and they will build pontoon bridges and also make sure all saints and all the peoples get the best in class facilities.
The main city of Prayagraj, formerly Allahabad also gets a face-lift. Thousands of artists from all over India have been busy bringing Hindu mythology to life on city walls by painting them.
The Mela is now three weeks away. Hindu monastic orders or Akharas present themselves with customary fanfare.
Devotees of Shiva the Naga Babas in trademark ash and dreadlocks make quite an entrance. Some even carry traditional weapons. Many travel the ancient way like on elephants.
The procession makes its way to the tent city, where the Akharas will set up base for the coming weeks. The Akharas do not arrive in Prayag at random. They follow a sequence governed by ancient convention.
The Naga Sadhus are a star attraction. They will be the first to take a holy dip on the bays of Shahi snan or the great baths. Kumbh proceeds Akhadas. The Akhadas existed much before the shahi snan word came because it is not Arabic its pure Persian word because there were no Shahs in India so how can something be royal?
The Sadhu crossed over the temporary city, consecrated the land, set up their land, set up their gods and began their ritual practices. The 13 Akhadas or monastic orders represent various sects of Hindu Sanatan Dharma the Timeless Religion.
The first ten akharas were set up in the eighth century by the hindu philosopher and theologian adi shankaracharya. These akharas represent both vaishnavites, the followers of lord vishnu the preserver as well as shaivites, the followers of lord shiva the destroyer. Each shaivite order is divided into shaastradhari the scripture-bearers and the astradhari the naga warriors the weapon-bearers.
The udaseen akhara stands out. These holy men interpret sikh philosophy in vedantic terms. They view the founder of sikhism guru nanak as a defender of sanatan dharma. The sect was founded by baba sri chand the eldest son of guru nanak. The akhara is testament to the syncretic nature and composite culture of india. While mantras are being chanted history is quietly being created. For the first time ever kinnar akhada representing the third gender has been granted affiliation by the juna akhara at the Prayagraj Kumbh. And will take their first official shahi snan.
This fight was for self-respect. And we have been fighting since 1996. We were fighting for our identity. The respect we deserve has been written in the ancient texts by tulsidas many years ago that the gods, the eunuchs and everyone else can take a dip in the holy river in the Kumbh at prayag.
Fate has chosen us. Eunuchs had to emerge in the society and we were trying to make our identity prominent. A eunuch’s job is to pray for the society, pray for the people and prove to ourselves that we are special. We will be a part of your happiness. So, how can our gods be different? Our gods are the same. If you believe in sanatan dharma and if you are interested in doing something for the religion you are welcome here. The floodplains of the triveni sangam look festive.
The trickle of pilgrims has turned into a flood. All roads seem to lead to the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela. Pilgrims come from far and near. According to official figures the last Kumbh here received 120 million visitors. This time, the total numbers are expected to double. Kumbh Mela is a spectacle of faith. You know, it’s something that people do voluntarily, you’re not obliged to do it.
So a large number of people gather in one place at one time at regular intervals to take a dip in a river. A vast sea of humanity wave after wave of faces, expressions, colours. It’s a magnet for visual artists. Acclaimed cinematographer and photographer, Hemant Chaturvedi has seen many Kumbh.
His keen eye seeks out images that tell human stories gritty, cinematic and real. The Kumbh became something that was a kind of a habit almost. Every time the event takes place it’s a kind of urge that comes upon me to be here and participate in whatever capacity I can. So the general representation of the Kumbh was always sadhus. It was sadhus, more sadhus still more sadhus, chillams, you know naked men with ash jumping into rivers and flailing their dreadlocks and so on.
Each of them came with a certain commitment whether they were south indians, shaivites, vaishnavites and that for me represented the Kumbh, the people of Kumbh the faces change the numbers grow the quest remains. Young and old, rich and poor millions flock to the Kumbh seeking something intangible immeasurable. Some come for spectacle, some for spirituality others for salvation. Some arrive to escape. Others renounce the world and find themselves.
The Kumbh is the ultimate melting pot. It’s the world’s largest religious gathering. Unesco calls it the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. The triveni sangam of Prayagraj has welcomed many Kumbhs on its banks. For centuries, the Kumbh Mela has attracted people from around India and the world. Its origins and antiquity are uncertain. The dates of every Mela are still determined by the panchang and ancient hindu calendar based on the movement of the moon, sun and planets. The earliest historical record of the Mela is from the seventh century.
Chinese traveller xuanzang mentions king harshvardhan visiting a cyclical fair in the month of magh at the confluence of rivers in what is believed to be Prayagraj . Was this magh Mela the Kumbh? The term Kumbh Mela appears in a 17th century mughal chronicle during the reign of emperor aurangzeb. Later, in the colonial period the British recorded many accounts and pictures of the Kumbh Mela.
What draws foreigners to Kumbh initially is the pictures, the images that they have seen. The ocean of humanity converging in one place the tent cities no dresses at all of the nagas. So everyone is making an attempt to figure out what Kumbh is if they can decode it. To this day, the Kumbh Mela attracts travellers from all over the world seeking the experience of a lifetime. Their reasons for coming are as varied as their appearances.
Can you imagine if the world is only one kind? This world would look ugly because of the difference, you know and that makes it look so beautiful. Many foreign visitors are pilgrims. But a select few have made the leap from devotee to guru.
India’s philosophy is Sanatan religion, nature, power, sound and light one by one to purify and go beyond the body, each body, to the source. Reach the source, what, who am i? 60 million people have come together in the name of spirituality in the name of divinity in the name of purity.
Over here there is no burden and no boundaries. Over here it is love. In 1996 sadhvi bhagawati saraswati visited india to find her anchor in the folds of hinduism. An American and Stanford graduate, Sadhvi decided to embrace the life of a sanyasin or hermit.
The Kumbh is a hive of activity. I welcome you all. And I’d like to tell you. Festive dazzling. Even by night the Kumbh never sleeps. It is a Mela, it’s a fair, it’s a festival, it’s.. There’s so much happening actually on the grounds even from the 19th century there are various kinds of attractions that bring people to the Mela.
Kumbh has wonderful records from the, you know, 1820’s that could buy almost anything at the magh Mela in Allahabad. So, it’s been many things over many other times. It’s a constantly evolving festival. And it is religious but it’s not only religious. It’s many things.
It’s a cold mid-january night at the Kumbh Mela. Pilgrims huddle around fires. But it’s no ordinary night. Soon the naga sadhus shall be in the heat of the action. At the appointed hour they will lead the first of the great baths, the shahi snan. Makar sankranti festival of the sun god, surya.
It celebrates the arrival of longer days, the shortening of nights and the waning of winter. Officially, it’s the first day of the Prayagraj Kumbh, a day to wash away past sins and pray to the sun god for good fortune. India is a land created by pilgrim sites. Amongst the pilgrims the most important pilgrims are these babas, these munis, sadhus but basically people who have abandoned the household life. These are wandering mystics of india. In fact, they’ve even performed their own shradh at their funeral ceremony so effectively they are dead.
They are digambaras and they wear no clothes. Digambar means the sky clad which is an euphemism for being naked. They cover their body with ash, they have matted hair and they travel all the time they don’t stay anywhere. Hail lord shiva! Just as they have renounced worldly pleasures, material possessions and ties of blood, so too have they shed their clothing.
To this day the nagas stride unclad and lead their fellow faithful into the ice-cold waters of the sangam. They are carrying the energies of all the sacred places that they’ve travelled and therefore they lead the processions. The ones who own nothing will lead those who own something. Hail lord shiva! Hail lord shiva! Hail lord shiva! Mounted police and 50,000 security personnel stay watchful carefully surveying the proceedings. It’s their job to ensure that the peace and sanctity of the occasion are not marred. The atmosphere is charged.
Millions of people will take to the water. The punishing winter temperature shall not dampen their spirits. Chanting fills the air. The first snan and the last one the amavasya one and the purnima one are most important. People like spectacle , people like consecration. There is a mass unconsciousness there is a shared experience.
You go there for a reason of your own. But there’s a transformational experience in any case. Logistics and security arrangements may alter with changing times. But the cosmic alignments that propel the faithful towards the Kumbh have not changed. This scene has played out over and over again for centuries.
The march of the naga sadhus the fever pitch of faith that first plunged into the bone-chilling waters of the sangam. Festive processions of sadhus and akharas arrive on the scene. Keeping to custom, ordinary mortals will not bathe just yet. It is believed that spiritual benefits are earned through the ritual of taking the dip after the babas have bathed. And so, they wait patiently while sadhus rush in.
The process of bathing starts therefore the snan becomes very important. The water is assumed to have these magical powers that will cleanse all your karma, remove all the burden of debts and you can start life afresh. The nagas have led the way now others shall follow. Hundreds of thousands have braved the freezing cold but this is just the beginning. Millions more will flock to the bathing ghats for ritual cleansing a reset button for life.
Day breaks on the first of the great baths or shahi snan at the Kumbh Mela. Bare-bodied naga sadhus and saffron-clad men and women brave the icy waters at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the legendary saraswati. One after another the hindu monastic orders or akharas take the ceremonial plunge. The naga sadhus cover themselves in ash in tribute to lord shiva. The layer of ash is their only protection from the bitter cold. Their nakedness signifies the renunciation of everything material and worldly including social norms.
It’s interesting that one of the things that challenged the British the most was the naga sadhus because, of course from the British perspective, to be naked at any time is an outrage of public decency. And the British actually spent a lot of time trying to work out ways they could actually arrest the processions of the naked sadhus after the 1857 rebellion. But given the risks the British stayed away from interfering with nudity sanctified by religion.
Traditionally, a naga sadhu has no worldly possessions. Living off charity and alms he lives a life of austerity remains celibate and has no bonds of family. Naga sadhus even perform their own last rites. These ascetic warriors of shiva arrive in the thousands during Kumbh Mela only to return to their solitary nomadic ways. They inspire awe as much for their appearance and renegade image as for living by their own rules. In the late 19th century in particular, there were a couple of major accidents at the Kumbh.
Way back in the 50’s there was a stampede because the nagas could not be restrained. They came with their tridents and they stampeded and they could not be controlled and lots of people lost their lives and were injured. But since then there have been better arrangements. The call of the Kumbh may be spiritual, but organising it is an earthly challenge. Bathe and leave. Please hurry up. On any given day up to 10 million visitors visit the Mela site. Far larger numbers arrive on official bathing days.
And the crowds need managing. This is the focal point of the Kumbh Mela security. From this control room every movement is monitored. Cctv cameras keep an eye on proceedings relaying images to the integrated command and control centre. The entire Kumbh Mela area is divided into ten zones and 25 sectors each under a senior police officer. The 50,000 policemen deployed on the ground are controlled from here. Superintendent of police dev ranjan is in charge.
Control centre is working as a nerve centre or we can say this is working as a brain for each and every response that we are required to give. We have installed more than 1,000 cameras inside Kumbh Mela kshetra and outside, in the Allahabad city area.
These 1,000 cameras are providing us with access to, around each and every corner of Kumbh Mela kshetra. So, at every strategic location we have installed CCTV cameras and round the clock we are monitoring them. The already hard-pressed security personnel have a whole new challenge: the impending visit of the president of India.
But there is more than just security to consider as millions trek back and forth to the sangam for spiritual nourishment like food. Over the course of 49 days of the Kumbh Mela hundreds of community kitchens serve free meals to pilgrims. Organisations like om namah shivay sanstha serve three bhandaras or community feasts daily. With over a 100,000 visitors to feed every day 500 workers work round the clock in the makeshift kitchens. A supervisor oversees the cooking and distribution.
Meals take up to 4,000 kilos of flour, 5,000 kilos of rice and over 2,000 kilos of potatoes every day. The idea of giving is taken as a contrast to the idea of accumulating. The daan parampara probably started with this finding a middle path. It is left to you with the belief that if you adhere to the sanatan dharma you would actually follow it. The bhandara was organised by om namah shivaay institution. The aim of the bhandara.. The bhandaras are an act of charity food is served to all, free of charge without discrimination as anna daan the donation of food.
The food that you throw could come to use. Feeding the millions of people that have come to the fair is the aim of our institution. Every day, in the main camp 1.5 lakh people eat, per day. And at other places where we have organised bhandara around 20,000 people per day consume food. The anna koot, anna daan this bhandara is common to accruing punya. And you see, there is a vedic verse which says, annamvaibrahama annamvairassa.
Anna is the cosmic reality food and Anna is the ultimate enjoyment of life. There is a question of sharing with somebody what you have or giving something to reduce your needs. You don’t need religion to do that, it’s your conscience. But for some food is a great business opportunity. Kumbh is a grand fair. Our aim was to attract the new generation that attends the fair. And what can attract them? Food. If they get good food they’ll stay longer.
The priests that come to the Kumbh in the morning are given free food for the first two hours and then we start our business. Back in the command centre security personnel are on the alert.
The president of india Ram Nath kovind arrives and is received by the chief minister of uttar pradesh yogi adityanath. It’s the first visit by an Indian head of state in 66 years. The visit goes off without a hitch. The security team can breathe easy for now. It’s mauni amavasya , the festival of the new moon. On behalf of everyone we welcome everyone.. Traditionally, it’s a day of maun or silence of reflection and atonement for past sins. It’s also the second and biggest of the great baths or shahi sans.
The cosmic alignments are auspicious and the crowds are swelling. The administration is expecting up to 50 million visitors, the most ever in a single day at Kumbh. In the rising tide of people it’s easy to go missing. As many as 300,000 people were reported missing or lost at the last Kumbh. As they wade through the sea of humanity friends or family members can often get separated. Finding one, among the millions, looks impossible. We have 15 lost and found centres spread across different areas.
In these lost and found centres whoever has lost someone whoever is lost in the fair they go there and they are registered. Then his information will be displayed over led screens in all the khoya paya centres and announcements are also made over a public address system about missing persons. Attention please. Krishna tiwari. Krishna tiwari. 3,500 megaphones across the Kumbh mega city blare out names of the lost and missing all day long.
Lost and found centre sector number 4 near the veneration spot at the dam. At the lost and found centres scenes of anxiety and despair play out. There was a time when getting lost at the Mela and losing touch with loved ones was not uncommon. It even became the stuff of bollywood cliche. But now, thanks to modern technology the prospects of finding the missing are much brighter.
According to official estimates an incredible 240 million people came to the Kumbh Mela here, the highest number ever. The river banks have been the stage for spectacular drama. The shahi sans on the days of makar sankranti mauni amavasya and basant panchami brought sadhus, pilgrims and believers from across India and beyond. The actual bath is only a reminder that, please, think about if you have sinned if you want to get rid of your guilt if you want to mend your ways i mean, like the Kumbh metaphor.
The churning of the ocean brought out the poison churning of the ocean brought out the nectar. I think Kumbh allows you to savour a bit of the toxicity and a lot of the ambrosial quality of life of ordinary hindus.
The naga sadhus have been in the spotlight. Soon they shall return to life in the shadows. Until next time when the celestial bodies align once again as they have since the beginning of time.
Just as three sacred rivers merge at the sangam in ancient Prayagraj myriad faiths, castes and ideas from places near and far converge and meld into a shared human experience like no other. It is this that is the enduring appeal of Kumbh and the wonder that is india.