Kumbh Mela

On the 10th February 2013, 30 million Hindu devotees gathered at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. They came to celebrate the Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage of faith that takes place in Allahabad once every 12 years. It is believed to be the largest temporary gathering of human beings on the planet.

Over the 2 months the festival ran it is estimated that between 80 and 100 million pilgrims passed through the vast makeshift camp. The pilgrims come for one purpose, to bathe at the point where the rivers meet, Sangam. This, they believe, will wash away their sins. Some have waited their whole lives for this moment, many travelling for thousands of miles.

The festival is renowned as a gathering place for India’s devout Holy Men or Sadhu’s but for me the colour and character of the greatest show on earth came not from them but the overwhelming joy of the everyday pilgrims reaching their goal.

These photos are a very small cross section of those people and their journey. 

18 temporary bridges were built to allow the pilgrims to cross the rivers safely. Sometimes they were so overcrowded they had to be closed.  On several occasions we had to walk for hours to find a bridge that would let us cross.

One of the most amazing sights was to find this temporary community, making home under the vast bridge that spans the site. 

A proud mother we met living under the bridge with her family.

Everyone was so happy to be at the festival that it made taking photos very easy. Often I would even be asked to take a families picture to capture the moment for them, even if they couldn't keep a copy themselves. 

One of the unexpected highlights of the trip were the boat journeys. From where we were camped it was easier to row across the river to the main bathing area than to walk up river to the nearest bridge. In order to get to the ghats for dawn we would set off on the boats in darkness, As we crossed the river towards the twinkle of the festival the sun would begin to rise and make for the most magical, peaceful moments. 

The festival attracts crowds from all over India and beyond but the majority of the pilgrims are elderly and often from poor, rural backgrounds. We saw many whole villages travelling together carrying nothing more than mats to sleep on and wood to cook on. They slept out on the open ground with just their saris or a blanket for cover.

People getting lost is such a problem at the Kumbh Mela that there is a whole organisation set up to help reconnect people with their families. In a single day at the festival, 15,000 people were registered lost or missing. With the crowd being made up of many poor and elderly , mobile phones were not common, making the job very difficult. 

Dotted throughout the festival were 4000 loud speakers constantly blairing out what we thought was some sort of chanting. The noise never stops, continuing 24 hours a day. It was not until near the end of our time at the festival that we were told it was not chanting but the names of lost people being read out in an effort to reconnect them with their group. 

We saw whole families who had tied themselves together with scarves to stop them from getting split up while walking through the crowds. 

One of the surprising things we found at the festival was the lack of places to buy food. We had never considered that it might be a problem but when we arrived we realised that most of the people at the festival brought their food with them and cooked over open fires.

On several occasions we saw huge groups suddenly congregate, seemingly without any organisation or direction, into huge lines, then out of nowhere huge vats of food would arrive and everyone would get fed. These flash mob dinners would form and disperse within 20 minutes, often feeding several hundred people. The picture above is of one of these gatherings. 

Crowds bathing on the 10th Feb. 

Looking back, it was one of the best things I have ever witnessed and I will be sure to make another pilgrimage in 2022.