Between now and March organizers of the Kumbh Mela in the holy city of Prayag, expect about 120 million pilgrims to bathe at the Sangam – the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati Rivers in northern India.
Hindus believe that doing so will cleanse them of their sins and help them attain “moksha”, setting them free from the cycle of birth and death. Kumbh Melas have been held for centuries but became huge only in recent decades. The 2001 festival at Allahabad was seen as the first “mega mela”.
Every six years, tens of millions of Hindus pour into the northern Indian city of Prayagraj to take a holy dip in the Ganges River. The festival is called the Kumbh Mela, and in its different forms it is consistently the biggest gathering of humanity on the planet.
This year’s festival is an “ardh Kumbh” – a “half-size” version that falls mid-way between two Kumbhs – but there’s nothing diminutive about it. In fact, it’s much bigger than the last full Kumbh held in 2013.
The mela (Hindi for fair) is held in the northern city of Allahabad (recently renamed Prayagraj) every 12 years. The festivities and the rituals are expected 15 to 20 million visitors daily. On February 4th, the most auspicious bathing day, there were as many as 30 million pilgrims. The festival ends on 4 March. Over 49 days, visitors totaling more than the combined populations of Britain and Spain are expected to visit.
Some 6,000 religious and cultural organizations have been allotted land on which to put up a city of tents to accommodate visitors from India and across the globe.
With the general election to the Indian Parliament round the corner, political parties, particularly, the ruling party of Narendra Modi, has made every effort to attract pilgrims towards the saffron party/
The Bharatiya Janata Party which rules both at the federal and the state of Uttar Pradesh where Prayag is located, has turned this Kumbh into the biggest, most lavish and most expensive in Indian history, using it to please their political base and deflect from their growing troubles.
“It is nearly impossible to take 20 steps along the pilgrimage route without passing a huge sign featuring Mr. Modi’s face or the grinning visage of his close ally, Yogi Adityanath, the monk turned chief minister of this state, Uttar Pradesh,” writes The New York Times. “They aren’t technically campaign ads, but billboard after billboard trumpets their accomplishments in all areas of life.”
Pilgrims are provided with regular video-streams during this holy festival, publicizing “about his Clean India campaign, the bluish glow lighting up countless pilgrims sleeping on the ground. There’s Mr. Adityanath grinning from the side of a water truck, welcoming visitors — an estimated 35 million of them on Monday alone.”
The Kumbh Mela is one of the holiest events on the Hindu calendar, its date determined by astrology, its auspiciousness derived from a certain line up of Jupiter, the moon and the sun. It is celebrated in four different Indian cities, each on their own 12-year Kumbh cycle, and it usually lasts several weeks.
But this year’s festival in Prayagraj, which started in January and runs until early March, is not even a full Kumbh — it is considered a half Kumbh. The half Kumbh tradition started years ago when Hindu holy men would meet every six years, halfway between the full Kumbhs, to keep their dialogue going.
The most recent full Kumbh, held in 2013 in Allahabad, was also a Maha (or great) Kumbh, which happens every 144 years (after 12 full Kumbhs). It attracted an estimated 100 million visitors
The name Kumbh Mela comes from the Sanskrit word, kumbha, for pot or water pitcher, and mela, meaning festival. In a cherished myth, a Hindu god was carrying the nectar of immortality in a khumba and spilled drops in four different places — the four cities where the Kumbh is held.