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I Went To The Once-In-12-Years Kumbh Mela - The World's Largest Gathering - And It Was Beyond Surreal

They say one cannot stop an idea whose time has come. I think it goes the same way for travel. With a long weekend off for Maha Shivratri coinciding with the last day of the Maha Kumbh and the last book in the Shiva Trilogy just having been read, my trip to the Kumbh Mela couldn’t be better timed, in all its religious and symbolic significance.

What is Kumbh Mela?

To give a little background for the uninitiated, the Kumbh Mela is a holy pilgrimage taken by thousands of pious Hindus (and now even others purely for the travel experience) every four years to take a dip in the Ganga river, ritualistically, to purge themselves of their life’s sins. There are 4 cities where the Kumbh takes place on a rotation basis every 4 years -- Allahabad or Prayagraj, Ujjain, Puri and Haridwar. (So basically each city hosts a Kumbh Mela every 12 years) The Maha Kumbh of this year was a once-in-a-144 years phenomenon due to its astrological alignment. Stats have it the Mahakumbh is the single largest human gathering at one place in the world with over 80 million visitors this year! A group of Harvard students actually camped at the Kumbh to do a case study on the event. (Harvard Kumbh Case Study here.)

Well, to wash away our sins or not, the prospect of being a witness to a once-in-a-lifetime event happening in your own country, was too much to miss, so Kate, a Jewish-American and my then flatmate and I decided to go and join our friend in Allahabad and ‘do the kumbh’ as Kate put it.

Now the Kumbh Mela isn't a one-day or one-venue event. It's scattered across many weeks, months even, and even though the main events or the sacred river baths happen in one city, other holy cities by the Ganga also get spillover crowds from the Kumbh. So traveling to Allahabad for the Kumbh meant experiencing some of it even in Varanasi which was our first stop enroute Allahabad or what's now called Prayagraj.

A Day In Varanasi

After an interesting train journey of close to thirty hours, Kate and I first stopped by at Varanasi, the holiest Hindu city and the oldest inhabited city in the world, located on the banks of river Ganga, famous for its many ghats, the evening Aarti and its legacy for being a place where Hindus come to die.

Walking around the ghats

Since Varanasi is on a river bank, the ghats or steps leading to the Ganga are the epicentre of all its everyday as well as ritualistic activities.

A walk around the ghat area is a physical, mental and spiritual stimulation overload. You'll witness surreal sighes like the Aghori babas smeared in ashes (from the funeral pyres!) from head to toe huddled around, barbers giving full head shaves to bereaved members of families, arthis or processions of biers carrying the dead, and more. We soaked it all in.

Boat ride on the Ganga

If you're short on time, then a boat ride is a great way to get a view of almost the entire old city of Varanasi and its many ghats in one go. The boats are full of locals and tourists and a ride just before sunset or early in the morning is recommended.

Cremation by the ghats

Devout Hindus go to Varanasi to spend the last days of their life, have a fire cremation by the ghats and ascend onto heaven via ashes of their mortal remains immersed into the Ganga. The Manikarnika Ghat is where you'll see a constant series of funeral pyres burning at all times of the day, making for a fascinating if macabre sight.

Ganga arti in Varanasi

One can't be in Varanasi and not witness the spectacular Arti by the ghats.

Come evening and it seems the entire town has descended on the ghats to attend the special Arti and people grab seats on the steps, inside the anchored boats and on balconies and rooftops of the houses. The arti is conducted by a series of 12 priests standing on special raised platforms and ornamental domes to make sure they're visible to everyone. The public joins in the singing and general festivities as fireworks go off on the other side of the river.

Onwards to Allahabad, the main site of the Kumbh Mela

We left Varanasi the same night and reached Allahabad after a short bus journey of a few hours. After doing some local sightseeing in Allahabad during the day, we went to the Kumbh Mela site in the evening.

This is when the intensity of Kumbh hits you. Families upon families and groups upon groups were huddled in tents, makeshift hammocks and or just out in the open all around the sandy river banks. Since accommodation during the Kumbh is booked out months in advance and the "luxury tents" cost a bomb, those from a humble background have no option but to camp out in the open like this. The air was thick with sand, dust and haze to the point it affected visibility into distance.

We were not immune to the appeal of this surreal experience and keeping our cameras and phones aside, in we jumped! (Or more like trotted about gingerly on the shallowest parts of the river. Some local kids, spotting foreigners with me, joined in the festivities.)

Soon we were a big group splashing and shivering in the Ganga at 3 am while million others slept around us.

After having had a very satisfying sleep the previous night, we came back to the main site of the Kumbh mela in the morning and took a stroll around the "Mela" part of the Kumbh. This area is like a giant flea market as stalls and many other curious amusements including a mini circus and the famous "Maut Ka Kua" are there for the full family entertainment of the throngs of people attending the Kumbh.

Later we managed to get on a crowded boat and again took a dip in the river, this time during the day which was a lot more forgiving than at night. The banks of the river, called Sangam in Allahabad, was for the lack of a better word - littered with people that looked like confetti from a distance. The heat overhead or the freezing waters of the river didn't seem to matter. Once you're on the boat, you're taken to a dedicated area for the ritualistic baths and the priest does a small Pooja on your behalf. (Avoid falling for the the "special Pooja" an extra charge here.)

Still, today was Mahashivratri and I for one, couldn’t think of a better way to spend my time that day.

I’ve never been much of a religious person but I’ve always respected different religions, their beliefs and rituals. After attending the Mahakumbh, all I can say is if it takes a religion to inspire millions of people from across the country, across age groups, braving the weather and the exhaustion that a trip like this would entail, to converge at one place, bathe in a common water, letting an event of a scale as colossal as the Kumbh, go on almost flawlessly for over 3 months, faith can’t be bad.

Later the same night as we made our way back to Hyderabad after an exhausting, fulfilling and wondrous 3 days in UP. And finally the American in Kate took over again and she said enough and ordered herself a pizza as our train back was delayed by over 6 hours.


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 I (Monica) am a lifelong traveler, (40 countries), sustainability and veganism advocate, and a marketer by profession. I'm old school in that I still like to blog and document rather than shoot and post.

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