Over the next 55 days, tens of millions of Hindus are expected to splash through the waters where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet as part of the Kumbh Mela festival, regarded by many as “the biggest human gathering in the world.”
The pilgrims believe that the water will purify their souls of sin and it is a practice that is thought to have been recorded for the first time by a Chinese traveller in the early seventh century AD. The Purna (full) Kumbh Mela takes place in four locations, Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik every 12 years. An Ardh (half) Kumbh is held in Haridwar and Allahabad six years after (and six years before) every Purna Kumbh. The exact timing, duration and location of each festival is calculated according to an astrological chart.
This year’s festival, however, is especially significant as it is a once-in-a-lifetime Maha (Great) Kumbh, which is held after 12 Purna Kumbhs, so every 144 years, and only in Allahabad.
The Origins of Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh Mela comes from one of the most revered chapters of the ancient Hindu Purana texts, in which demigods fight with demons for possession of a Kumbha (urn) full of Amrita, a special nectar that would replenish the strength of the demigods. The fight lasted 12 days and 12 nights, the equivalent to 12 human years. The story goes that during the fight, drops of nectar fell from the Kumbha at the four locations where the festival is held.
The world's biggest gathering
Over the course of the festival there are certain specific days, selected according to astrological factors, that are considered particularly holy. The most prestigious of these is the Mauni Amavasya Snan, the main bathing day which sees the greatest number of participants wading through the rivers; at the last Purna Kumbh Mela in 2001, it’s estimated that around 40 million people took to the water on that day alone. This year the main bathing day will take place on February 10.
Indian government figures suggest that around 70 million people took part in the 2001 festival as a whole. With this edition being a Maha Kumbh, there may be many more than that this time around. On January 14 alone this year, more than ten million pilgrims were expected to bathe by the end of the day.
And where there are modern-day pilgrims, there tends to be plenty of money to be made. Staging the festival (30,000 police officers have been deployed) is thought to have cost the Indian state the equivalent of 150 million euros but the 55-day event is forecast to generate between 1.6 billion and two billion euros-worth of income, with contributions coming from more than a million tourists arriving from outside India.