ALLAHABAD: From bare ascetics covered with ashes to anonymous pilgrims from far away, tens of millions of Hindus are expected at Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious gatherings on the planet that began on Tuesday, for ablutions in the rivers sacred of northern India.
The Mela is held every 12 years at Allahabad.
Spread over seven weeks, nearly 100 million believers are expected to take part in this festival in Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh, north), a city that Hindu nationalists want to rename Prayagraj to erase its Muslim-sounding name. The Ganga and the Yamuna converge there and, according to the Hindu faith, the mythical river Sarasvati.
Before dawn, thousands of naked hermits skinned with a gray layer of ashes, some mounted on horses, others brandishing tridents, have walked towards the confluence of rivers. With the sound of mantras, whistles from the security service and splashing, they immersed themselves in the cool waters.
For Hindus, immersing themselves in these waters at Kumbh Mela allows one to purify one’s sins and get closer to salvation. “All the gods descend on this sacred place during this time, and it is the most beautiful event for a human being,” said Chandhans Pandey, a 60-year-old pilgrim.
All day, millions of pilgrims have queued for hours to perform ablutions. “I do not know if my prayers were accepted but I am satisfied after going into the water,” said Narendranath Chakraborty, a 72-year-old man from Calcutta, 700 kilometers east of Allahabad.
A helicopter threw a shower of rose petals on the crowd of hermits with dreadlocks smoking marijuana, priests in saffron robes offering prayers and pilgrims from all over India.
The Kumbh Mela (“jug fair” in Hindi) takes place about every three years, alternately in four cities – Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain – and returns to each of these places every twelve years. But Allahabad and Haridwar, between two “big” Kumbh Mela welcomed at home, also hold intermediate Kumbh Mela (“ardh”) halfway.
This “ardh Kumbh Mela” from 2019 comes six years after the “maha Kumbh Mela” 2013 in Allahabad, the largest of its kind. More than 120 million people had visited, including 30 million on one day.
“People, mostly cities, are becoming more and more religious because the Western way of life that they followed has not brought them anywhere,” said Ganeshanand Bharamachari, 78, a Kumbh Mela regular.
To accommodate this human tide, at the highest certain days considered auspicious with collective ablutions during “royal baths”, large camps were erected at the edge of the water. Restaurants, roads and markets enliven this city of 45 square kilometres. Police drones are buzzing over this ephemeral city, as big as Lyon.
The government of Uttar Pradesh, controlled by the Hindu nationalists of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and led by a radical priest, largely promoted the event, as India prepares to vote in the April-May legislative elections.
The authorities have deployed nearly 30,000 law enforcement officers to ensure security and in particular to avoid crowd movements that would prove deadly with such a human density.
The Kumbh Mela, which this edition runs until March 4, has been classified as Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2017.