The biggest pilgrimage in the world has been taking place in India. And from my home in rainy London, the Kumbh Mela, which started on 14 January, seems so far away.
But my mind goes back to earlier melas and the extraordinary experience of being in the midst of an event on a scale that you would not witness anywhere else on earth.
For the mela in 2001, my wife and I took our daughters – then aged 10 and eight – to stay right in the middle of the festivities. We stayed with Tamil friends in a tent in the holy men’s sector (you can imagine what my mother thought about that).
But it was worth the worry for the grandparents – and worth begging the head teacher to allow our girls the time off school. We had the time of our lives. It really was the greatest show on earth.
50 million pilgrims
The mela takes place every three years at four holy sites, the greatest of which is Allahabad in North India at the junction of the sacred rivers, the Ganges and Jumna.
It draws millions of pilgrims: in 2001 the Indian newspapers estimated that 25 million people had bathed over the 36 hours round the most auspicious date, and 50 or 60 million during the whole six-week festival.
The children were full of stories. Already they were talking of strange sights from another world”
This year, the numbers are predicted to be even higher; crowds that dwarf any other gathering on the planet in history.
Our main concern was warmth and comfort; it can be very cold in North India in January. With our rucksacks, sleeping bags and warm clothes, we headed in to Allahabad on the Grand Trunk Road from Benares, and soon began to sense the presence of the millions of pilgrims.
Several miles out, we began to see tents along the road, then serried masses of them in huge camping grounds. We passed crowds moving on foot, many barefoot, cloth bundles and tin boxes on their heads.
Finally, we headed out on the long bridge over the Ganges. That is when we first caught site of the mela, and what a sight it was.
Towards the setting sun, the vast encampment stretched away into a smoky pall towards the Sangam, the sacred junction of the Ganges and the Jumna about a mile to the south.
There was row upon row of tents. The wide avenues were lined with gigantic tented enclosures, some with huge marquees that were as big as palaces and festooned with flashing party lights.
We turned around in our seats and looked out of the right-hand window to the north, and there was the same sight stretching away into the dusk, as far as the eye could see. It looked impossibly big.
Organising the millions
Yogita Limaye investigates the economic boost and the enormous logistical challenge that is the Kumbh Mela
The whole camp is a truly incredible feat of organisation – all laid out on the whitened sand of the riverbed.
We went down to the camp soon after dawn. We were booked into an ashram right in the middle of the most important part of the camp, where the sadhus, or holy men, stay in their many religious orders.
We were a relatively short distance away from the Sangam – within half an hour’s walk. Our temporary canvas home even had its own address: Santoshi Matt, Triveni Marg, along from Pontoon Bridge number 5.
We unloaded our bags, paid the rickshaw man, went in and got our badges. Inside there was a main marquee, and a dozen smaller tents in two rows; there was a cook tent; taps for washing clothes run from standpipes in the sand; a “bathroom” with a concrete slab enclosed by corrugated iron sheets and a curtain where people could wash themselves.
There was even a double row of loos – ceramic holes set in concrete blocks with two bricks for the feet. There was one row for men and one for women, separated by canvas curtains.
This was all very well organised and cleaned twice a day. We asked ourselves where in the world but in India could something like this be done on this scale?
Our tent was made of cloth, with bright yellow, red and blue stripes. It comfortably held a dozen of us.
Inside the tent, stuffed mats laid directly on top of the river sand made it all rather snug and comfortable. By the time we had had a chance to investigate our immediate surroundings, the kettle was on, and in no time tea was brewed in the cook tent.
Breakfast consisted of sliced bread and vegetable samosas with chilli sauce. And once we’d eaten, we made our first explorations; or at least the kids did.
Our Tamil friends’ daughters asked whether they could take our kids next door to see the sadhus, and in no time at all they had disappeared into the melee of the camp.
When they came back an hour or so later they were full of stories. Already they were talking of strange sights from another world; fearsome looking ash-striped naked renouncerskkm with their strange austerities, who nonetheless plied our kids with tea and cake and kindly conversation.
‘Since ancient times’The roots of the mela lie deep in Indian history.
Though it only reached its present form during the British period, a Chinese visitor around 640AD describes a huge gathering of half a million pilgrims here on the “Sands of Charity”, which he was told had “gone on since ancient times”.
Still earlier, the place is the climax of the sacred circuit of India listed in the epic Mahabharat. Indeed it may well have been here that the periodic “great synod” was held which is recorded by the Greek ambassador Megasthenes in 300BC. No wonder it has always been seen as “the king of pilgrimage places”.
The key ritual in the mela is to bathe in the sacred rivers at the most auspicious time. This is a very ancient idea in Indian culture, perhaps prehistoric: and the pre-eminence of this place is probably due to the idea that the junction of the Ganges and the Jumna was seen as the axis mundi, the place of creation, rather like Delphi to the Greeks or Cusco to the Incas.
The story told today – of the battle of the gods and with drops of nectar falling to earth in the four places where the mela is held – appears to be a fairly recent invention with no early scriptural authority.
Taking the plungeOn our first evening we made our own way down to the Sangam, the junction of the rivers. We packed our towels and spare clothes and strolled through the camp.
The main avenues were lined with stalls: phone booths, chai stalls, bookshops, bottled water shops, astrologers and lots and lots of barbers.
The water wasn’t as cold as a chilly summer day off Dorset, but still took the breath away”
Many more traders had just spread cloths on the ground, with all the wherewithal for puja – the act of worship. There were religious pictures, garlands of marigolds, heaps of dazzling red kunkum (for marking the forehead), rudraksha beads, saffron threads, amulets, sandalwood, incense, leaf lamps, oil, wicks, and all sorts of other wonderful bits and pieces.
The kids couldn’t resist any of these souvenirs; they shelled out rupees right left and centre – especially for the cheap bangles.
Along the river bank, we passed masses of people standing waist deep, plunging in, hands lifted in prayer to the setting sun, rapt in concentration.
In the open, on the sand, crowds were camped with their bundles and bedrolls, smoke swirling from their cooking fires.
Soon we reached the Sangam itself, where the muddy brown current of the Ganges meets the blue of the Jumna.
It was a truly breathtaking scene: the last golden light shimmering on the water, boats with their colourful awnings; flags, lamps, music, and sari cloths drying in the wind. There were streamers of every colour snapping in the breeze – crimson, yellow, gold, green.
All around us there were exultant shouts: bright-eyed, shivering women coming out of the river with soaked saris clinging to their bodies and glossy black dripping hair.
Becky and the girls went in first with our Tamil friends, walking in waist deep then taking a quick dip. As they dried off, Indian pilgrims clustered round.
One woman hugged our younger daughter Mina and asked to have her photo taken with her.
A cluster of Rajasthanis with huge white turbans approached and a tall old man with a fine handlebar moustache held our hands and thanked us for coming.
He patted the kids on the head as he told them they had done well; his voice rumbling like a camel: “You are very good girls.”
Then it was my turn; I stripped off and went in. It wasn’t as cold as a chilly summer day off Dorset, but still took the breath away.
Taking care not to drink any of the water, I splashed myself all over and plunged in. I then faced the setting sun, which was now casting a golden path across the river.
I found myself wondering where we will be when the sacred rivers dry up and become seasonal, as the scientists now predict. We can see now that the ancients’ perception was true. These rivers, glaciers and snow capped mountains are life-giving beings, which are indeed, in a profound sense, sacred.
Back in our tent that night, as we mulled it all over, our eight-year-old said something that gave us all pause.
“The Indian people think that rivers are holy,” she said, “and it could be true because millions of people came here to do this ceremony and they all believe the same thing – that rivers are holy.
“I also think that they maybe they are saying that nature is holy and you have got to look after it.
“Because if it gets polluted, all the creatures die. So they are saying that…
And that I guess touches on the point of any pilgrimage, but especially one as great as the Kumbh. It is about shared experiences in a splendid natural setting; it is about the age old rituals, but above all it is about a feeling of human solidarity.
They leave an indelible memory. And the Kumbh did for us.