What is the Kumbh Mela?
The Kumbh Mela in India is considered the largest religious gathering in the world and the world's largest peaceful gathering. This ancient northern Indian festival is what Indians consider a meeting of mystical minds. It brings Hindu holy men (sadhus) together to discuss their faith, disseminate information about their religion, and interact with worshipers.
A Kumbh Mela is attended by millions of people each day over the fair's two-month period. Up to 75 million have been recorded at a Kumbh Mela. For a major event such as a Maha Kumbh, which occurs every 144 years, more than a hundred million pilgrims have been estimated to attend over the fair period.
The main event of a Kumbh Mela is an auspicious ritual bath in the holy river, where pilgrims and holy men alike believe they can be cleansed of sins and liberated from the cycle of rebirth.
In December 2017, UNESCO included the Kumbh Mela on its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in recognition of the festival's importance.
What Is a Sadhu?
A sadhu is a religious ascetic who practices spiritual discipline aimed at "liberation" through meditation and contemplation. Most sadhus are yogis. Most wear simple saffron sheets and cover exposed skin in white ashes; the naga, or naked, sadhus wear virtually nothing, even in extreme cold, as a renunciation of worldly possessions and cover their bodies in white ashes.
It is not unusual to see a sadhu praying as he sits on the banks of a holy river during a Kumbh Mela, literally a "kumbh fair."
Where is a Kumbh Mela Held?
Each mela takes place over a two-month period on a rotational basis in four of the holiest Hindu places in India: on the banks of the Godavari river in Nashik (Maharashtra); the Shipra river in Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh); the Ganges river in Haridwar (Uttarakhand); and at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati rivers in Allahabad, Prayag in Uttar Pradesh. The confluence of these rivers is referred to as the Sangam.
When is the Kumbh Mela Held?
It is held in each location once every 12 years. The exact time and place of the festival depends on astrological and religious considerations. This means that the mela sometimes happens only a year apart at some sites.
The photos of a Kumbh Mela that follow reveal some of the amazing sights of this ancient festival.
Sadhus Arrive at the Kumbh Mela
The various sects of sadhus each arrive in a ritualistic Peshwai Procession, with much fanfare, at the start of the Kumbh Mela. The greatest spectacle is the procession of naga sadhus, who are naked Hindu holy men.
Pilgrims Arrive at the Kumbh Mela
Millions of pilgrims also arrive seeking enlightenment. They come to take a ritual purifying bath in the holy river and to meet various sadhus. Pilgrims arrive in droves, carrying their belongings in sacks on their heads.
A Kumbh Mela Crowd of Pilgrims
The Kumbh Mela isn't called the world's largest religious gathering for nothing. One look at the masses of pilgrims who attend, and you'll understand why it's considered one of the most crowded spots in India.
Tent City at a Kumbh Mela Campground
A temporary tent city is set up at the Kumbh Mela to accommodate pilgrims and visitors. There are dedicated arrangements for foreigners, including special tourist camps with luxury tents for "glamping."
Pilgrims Sleep in Close Proximity at the Kumbh Mela
The pilgrims at the Kumbh Mela commonly all sleep together in close proximity on the floor. There are so many that they fill large areas.
Sadhus Camp Out at the Kumbh Mela
Each sect of sadhus has its own camp at the Kumbh Mela. Their tents are intentionally close to the pilgrims' to facilitate interaction.
Naga Sadhus at Their Camp
Naga, or naked, sadhus gather at their camp at the Kumbh Mela.
Who Are Naga Sadhus?
These naked holy men are all naga, or naked, sadhus. Most of them smear their bodies with ash (a ritual associated with Lord Shiva) and have long matted hair. Constant exposure to the weather makes these men resistant to temperature extremes. Their eyes are bloodshot from smoking cannabis-filled chillums—hookah pipes or funnel-shaped clay pipes used for smoking marijuana.
Sadhus Smoke Cannabis at the Kumbh Mela
The sight of sadhus smoking chillums, usually in the form of a funnel-shaped clay pipe, is common at the Kumbh Mela, particularly among naga sadhus. They do it as a way to connect with a higher consciousness and aid their enlightenment.
Sadhus Draped in Marigolds
Sadhus decorate themselves with massive garlands of marigolds during the Kumbh Mela. The marigold is greatly revered for its color, which represents the purifying flame of fire.
Marching Bands Play at the Kumbh Mela
A traditional marching band performs as sadhus walk in procession to bathe in the river.
A Crowd of Naga Sadhus Bathing at the Kumbh Mela
Witnessing a crowd of naga sadhus storm a holy river to take a ritual dip is a highlight of the Kumbh Mela. For some pilgrims, it's a spectacle worth their trip.
Pilgrims Bathing at the Kumbh Mela
Much of the bathing at the Kumbh Mela takes place during the auspicious very early hours of the morning. Sadhus rise as early as 3 a.m. to prepare.
Women Perform a Ritual at the Kumbh Mela
Women often perform rituals at the holy river of a Kumbh Mela. For the women in the photo, the marigolds at their feet and the fire represent the purifying flame. Though these particular women are pilgrims, women can also be sadhus (called sadhvis) in the Hindu religion, although it is rare.
Blessing at the Kumbh Mela
A pilgrim gets a blessing from the naga sadhu Ram Giri Naga Baba at the Kumbh Mela. Pilgrims seek to interact like this with sadhus for instruction in their spiritual lives, and sadhus attend to make themselves available for such interaction. With interaction, a pilgrim hopes to receive darshan, a respectful visual exchange with the sadhu, that enables the pilgrim to visually "drink" in the divine power of a religious deity.
Child Beggars at the Kumbh Mela
Children and their mothers go together for their ritual bathe in the river, and for the children, this is often like play. Away from the river, where there are street vendors selling food, candles, and photographs of Hindu deities, parents leave children as young as toddlers dressed up prettily as Hindu gods and goddesses to sit quietly with a metal plate or bowl in front of them. Like the girls in the picture, they are begging for alms; many pilgrims can't resist and hand them coins. It's a little tradition that reveals the commercial edge of a Kumbh Mela.
A Contortionist Beggar at the Kumbh Mela
Adult beggars contort themselves into all kinds of strange positions to get money in this commercial no-man's-land of narrow streets away from the river.
Prayers During the Kumbh Mela
A sadhu reads from the scriptures in the photo. Sadhus come together at the Kumbh Mela to discuss the doctrines of their faith, disseminate information about their religion, and feed the poor.
Religious Books for Sale at the Kumbh Mela
Street vendors on the side streets away from the holy river hawk a little bit of everything related to a Kumbh Mela, from white devotional candles and sweets to religious books that teach about Hinduism.