Once every 12 years it’s time for the great procession of the Maha Kumbh Mela, and around a 100 million pilgrims will travel to the small northern city of Allahabad from all over India for the Maha Kumbh Mela, or Grand Pitcher Festival, at the point where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers cross paths with a mythical river.
Over the next two months more than 100 million people will go through the makeshift city that is larger than Athens on a wide sandy river bank. The ancient festival grows in size each time it is held partly due to India’s expanding population, and the thriving spiritual life the new-found affluence of a growing middle class.
The “Royal Bath” ritual is timed to match an auspicious planetary alignment, when believers say spiritual energy flows to earth. “I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold. He said he gave up a career as a senior civil servant 40 years ago to become a holy man, travelled on foot and for decades ate only nuts and fruit.
The festival has its roots in a Hindu tradition that says the god Vishnu wrested from demons a golden pot containing the nectar of immortality. In a 12-day fight for possession, four drops fell to earth, in the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujain and Nasik. Every three years a Kumbh Mela is held at one of these spots, with the festival at Allahabad the holiest of them all.
More than 2,000 years old, the festival is a meeting point for the Hindu sadhus, some who live in forests or Himalayan caves, and who belong to dozens of inter-related congregations. The sects have their own administration and elect leaders, but are also known for violent clashes with each other.
At the riverbank, men with dreadlocked beards to their feet vied for media attention with yogis supporting heavy weights with their genitals, while others holding golden umbrellas, flags and swords rubbed sand on their bodies after the dip.
Some naked, some wrapped in saffron or leopard-print cloth and smoking cannabis pipes, the holy men hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with colored neon lights, where they are visited by pilgrims who proffer alms and get blessings.
“I feel pleasure,” grinned Digambar Navraman Giri,” who said he had not sat down for a year, even sleeping on foot. “This is why I became a sadhu,” he said, steam rising from his body in the cold air and wearing nothing but two rings on his fingers.
Baba Ram Puri was given to his guru by his parents when he was barely one year old. At 31, he is now a young spiritual leader himself and says Indians with disposable income want to support traditional holy men.
“They earn a lot of money but they don’t get peace, so they turn to spirituality,” he said, sitting on cushions by a smoking fire. “That’s why we continue to grow in strength.”
The festival attracts global followers too, with a number of foreigners ordained in the hierarchy of sadhus, including Baba Mangalannand, who is also a popular trance music DJ under the name Goa Gil. He first came to the festival in 1971.
To cope with the flow of people, authorities in the state of Uttar Pradesh have installed 35,000 toilets, laid 550 km (340 miles) of water pipes and 155 km (95 miles) of temporary roads at the riverbank site.
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