The Kumbh Mela in India is THE largest religious gathering in the world. Estimates seem to range from 30 to 120 million depending on which Mela we’re talking about, and which day. For this post, let’s just say there were a LOT of people in Alalahabad for the three days I attended the Kumbh Mela in 2019.
I’d never even heard of the Kumbh Mela before the invite email popped into my inbox on Christmas Eve. Didn’t even know that as part of the Hindu religion, all Hindus were expected to attend at some point in their lives. But then, I don’t really know much about Hinduism, as I came to realise.
I studied Judaism and Islam at school, for my A Level in Religious Studies. And then went to all the Christian ceremonies and celebrations as my Church of England primary school required. My knowledge of those religions is limited, but Hinduism, nada.
And so, I said yes to a week in Varanasi, the Kumbh Mela, and Lucknow, to learn more. To go on an adventure I never would by myself.
Journey to the Kumbh Mela
After an enlightening and fascinating 36 hours in Varanasi, our group (all 44(!) journalists and bloggers from Europe, Oz, USA and India) travelled by coach to the Kumbh Mela grounds.
It was a long journey. We detoured, we redirected, we got stuck in traffic – with so many people heading to one place on every form of transport you can imagine, there were bound to be delays.
I sat in every position possible on my window seat and just watched the pilgrimage unfold.
People on foot carrying bags of food, blankets and shelter on their heads. Motorbikes with people packed on, casually sitting 5 to a seat. Coaches piled high on top with bags, duvets and suitcases. Entrepreneurs set up food and drink stalls on the side of the road. Beeping, police men trying to direct, cyclists weaving in and out – and us, in total gridlock.
It was incredible to see – and to imagine – the personal sacrifices worshippers had made to be at the Kumbh Mela. People come from miles and miles away, and no doubt, as a country with so many people living well under the poverty line the journey definitely hadn’t been comfortable, or easy.
I tried to remember this as I grew more and more uncomfortable during the ‘three hour drive’ which had turned into nine. At least I was on an air conditioned bus that stopped every few hours for traditional Indian street snacks, and the toilet.
Arriving at the Kumbh Mela
Finally we arrived.
Seeing the festival spread both sides of the bridge underneath the setting sun, and the haze of pollution, was just incredible. It’s hard to imagine 30 million people in your head, to even visualise what that would look like, but this was a great vantage point to help the mind put the picture together.
And we were straight into the festival. We were welcomed in to watch one of the spiritual leaders give their sermon. To see them speak to their followers and to spread their words of peace, love and understanding.
I’d never really seen anything like this, or at least, not stuck around to watch it. I used to find religion kinda fascinating, hence the A Level, but over the last ten years I’ve become more and more distant. I felt the words go in, reassuring my mind, calming it, and then I looked around to see the congregation transfixed by the words coming from the stage.
I’ll admit, I was swept up in it, it all made sense. Essentially, be nice. But then as soon as they started chanting the Hare Krishna, I recoiled again.
For me, visiting the Kumbh Mela was a fascinating insight into one of the biggest religions in the world at one of the biggest religious gatherings. It wasn’t really an attempt to become more spiritual, or to understand, or to join. My agreement to come was my curiosity at anything or anyone different to me.
After watching them perform they invited us back to their area of the festival, where we had a Q&A session;. First question someone asked, with a smirk:
‘What’s the meaning of life?’
The spiritual leader took it well. I thought he was mocking her. She’s was a Bollywood star-cum-spiritual leader and the tone and pace of her voice were everything you’d want from someone imparting their life advice.
Unfortunately I seem to have lost the piece of paper I’d written the answer on. But again, essentially, be nice, live well and pray to higher beings.
More questions, more guidance, more emphasis on nurturing the young, and more spiritual learnings from her followed. I liked what she was saying. More in a humanist, common sense kinda way, than me wanting to join the movement though.
They invited us to eat with them and in this temporary structure in what was just Indian countryside until a few weeks ago, I was expecting whatever the crisps and pop equivalent was in India. Instead they showed us to a heated back room with tables, chairs and a fully fitted kitchen.
We feasted on pakora, bhajis and a whole host of fried veggies, with dips.
Our whole group was absolutely shattered, and so, we left soon after.
Finding our tent
We pulled up to the tent village, about 4km from the centre of the Kumbh Mela grounds at 9pm. Our group had been up since about 5am so we were tired, grouchy and just wanted to know where we’d be sleeping tonight. Or that could’ve just been me.
Our luxury tented accommodation was at the Indastrupen Tent City. As I would come to realise the next day, practically a palace compared to the way some people experienced the Kumbh Mela.
Our group were sharing tents. Or as it turned out, sharing beds. Me and Martina, who I’d met three days before, were now in a double together. She managed to get a spare duvet from somewhere so at least we had some privacy. We had a lockable wardrobe, and a decent bathroom. It was the best accommodation I’ve ever had a festival.
Being late I’d vowed not to eat but the FOMO got to me and after organising my stuff I pootled off to the buffet dinner tent to peruse.
Come midnight I was falling asleep where I stood.
Back to the tent. Eye mask on. I was asleep before Martina even came to bed.
Until I was woken an hour later by a porter wanting to put another sheet on the bed. Seriously. I had to get up and out while he remade it. Classic India.
Crossing the Kumbh Mela bridge
Up early (well, late for this trip, 7am) and off in one of the complementary rickshaws from the tent city. They dropped us off at bridge number 19, the best one for crossing the Ganges, thanks to the other end being directly in the centre of the action of the Kumbh Mela.
Past Kumbh Melas have seen deaths thanks to the extreme crowds, and so safety measures have been put in place all over the grounds to stop overcrowding. These include the thousands more police men and carefully placed CCTV cameras around the site.
As we tried to get into the Kumbh Mela via the bridge, we were caught up in such a crowd that they shut it. Apparently totally normal for the festival.
It was actually a great time to stop and take note of what we were seeing. The view from up high (I climbed a bank) reminded me of getting in to Glastonbury. Weary faces carrying too much, just doing as the stewards told them but looking desperate to get to the action.
Finally getting to cross the bridge was probably the most spiritual experience off the festival. The people I was crossing with were silent, and so was I. We were well away from the crackly speakers turned up too loud, everyone just focused on carrying their possessions over, with the Ganges all around us – thankful to finally be crossing.
Heads down, together, and after our relative pilgrimages, we were almost there.
Experiencing the Kumbh Mela on our own
On the other side, being with 44 other journalists got annoying. We’d also managed to arrive at the same time as a National Geographic’s Journeys tour. Unfortunately this meant that the 10 of them, all Westerners, and the 10 of our group with white faces, were all taking pictures of the same thing.
It made me cringe.
My attitudes to responsible photography were enforced a lot on this trip. And anyone, white or not, shoving their camera in someone’s face while they’re trying to carry possessions, pray, or get changed is just not acceptable.
My two friends Dan and Janet, and I, separated from the group and decided to experience the Kumbh Mela in our own way. By getting in amongst it.
First stop: the tea stand.
We drank tea and ate biscuits, to let everyone else get ahead. We watched the crowds and planned our next move while experiencing the Kumbh Mela all around us. Just sitting, soaking it all in, looking, observing.
And then, recharged we got stuck in.
What to do at the Kumbh Mela
We went to see the Sadhus. Holy men who often lived in the Himalayas, rejecting the frivolities of many people’s daily lives to live for God instead. They’re naked, covered in ash, and are considered ethereal.
Their nudity made them hard to miss, and kinda fascinating too. Without speaking the language I had no idea why one of them decided to wrap his penis around a walking stick and then do squats, or why another one had a bell attached to the end of his manhood.
Who am I to question the skills of these holy men anyway?
I watched as people were blessed by them and decided to go up myself. The one with the walking stick painted ash on my forehead, blessed me, and gave me some sort of sugary rice combo he encouraged me to eat. I gave him money, of course. He had piles of it.
We drank orange from a juice vendor, although I got scared by the unwashed glass and gave it back to him half full.
He wasn’t happy.
We soon got up the confidence to actually go into the constructed areas to talk to the sadhus, to seek out the religious people, and I had a buddhist thread wrapped round my wrist.
We walked down to the Ganges, were unsure whether the people there were actually doing some sort of religious ritual or just having their daily wash, and so walked away again.
Women were sat out drying their saris, children begging for rice, people watching a film, and we got accosted time and time again for a photo.
We were told later that people come to the Kumbh Mela from all over. As in, the smallest villages, and most remote areas. Some people may never have seen a white person before, and so, we obliged their requests for a ‘selfie’. Although, a few hours later and without exaggeration, 100s of photos, it got really, really annoying.
Escaping the Kumbh Mela
We’d just been wandering around, going where the most action looked like it was happening, and so, when we decided we should get back for our 3pm deadline we’d been given, we realised we were lost.
Thanks to the overcrowding strategies, routes were closed and there was no way to simply get back to bridge 19.
“Let’s just take this bridge and then at least we’ll be on the other side” – said one of my friends.
Those words sealed our doom, to cut a long story short. Three hours and many, many kms of walking, and we did eventually find our way back to bridge 19. We hadn’t drank anything, or eaten, and we’d walked miles. We’d argued with a tuk tuk driver who tried to rip us off, I’d coughed the whole way thanks to the pollution, and it was now boiling hot while we trekked in thick trousers.
But, on the bright side, we’d seen more of the festival than if we hadn’t gone wrong. Sat at Bridge 19 we tried to get a rickshaw back, but ended up in some government officials car.
Thank god. I didn’t care how – I just wanted to get back.
Back at the tented city
Janet and I got a paneer tikka pizza and chips from the tent city food vendor and just sat, shoes off, feet expanded.
I looked awful at the Kumbh Mela. The pollution had played havoc with my skin, spots and grease I’ve never seen before. According to World Health Organisation Allahabad is the third most polluted city in the world and my lungs felt it all. The newly diagnosed asthma was given a boost I didn’t want and I was coughing and spluttering my way around the grounds.
Kumbh Mela Travel Writers Conclave
We’d had to get back early for a ‘Travel Writers Conclave’ the trip organisers had initiated.
This involved us sitting in a tented conference hall while one of the organisers of the conference told us about the difficulty of setting up a festival for so many people. We also heard from the spiritual leaders we’d chatted to the day before, and a few others who wanted to talk about travel writing.
I was just glad to not be standing up, and to enjoy the snack and tea buffet at the back of the room.
That night we were meant to be leaving at 11pm to spend all night at the festival, but due to a bridge being shut off, and a promise of an early morning boat ride instead, we went to bed.
The 4am start
So instead of spending all night walking to the festival, we woke up for a 4am start to get a boat over to the Sangam. The Sangam is where the Ganges and Jumna Rivers meet, and therefore considered one of the holiest places in the Hindu religion.
It was the 4th February. The most auspicious day in the whole of the Kumbh Mela calendar. The holiest day and the one that meant if you bathed in the cold, murky waters of the Ganges today, you’d be even more cleansed and sin free than any other day.
The key position to be at was on the other side of the river, for sunrise, when the Sadhus would come and start the bathing. As the holiest of men they’re encouraged to go first, and the other 30 million people will follow.
That was where we were aiming for.
Unfortunately, our boat stopped in the centre of the Sangam, at the rescue pontoon, unable to go any further thanks to the rules stopping overcrowding. So, instead of watching the sunrise with the sadhus, we stood on an overcrowded rescue pontoon watching anyone who’d made it that far, get in the freezing water.
It wasn’t quite the Kumbh Mela Festival experience I’d expected. But there was still time…
We hadn’t lost hope and as the sun was still rising we got back in a boat to take us over. Only, he didn’t have enough life jackets. And as we’d found out in the talk the day before, they weren’t allowed to go anywhere unless everyone on board had a jacket on.
No sadhus for us
Cue at least one hour of us, a few metres from the pontoon, apparently trying to find a life jacket. With every minute that ticked, the sun rose further, and our hopes of seeing anything exciting from the most important day of the festival dwindled.
All around us millions of people were celebrating the special sunrise on the shores, and we stuck in a boat, in a sea of boats so thick we couldn’t see land, trying to find a life jacket. Three hours since our 4am start and all we’d seen was disappointment.
Another 20 minutes and still no sign of a life jacket.
The only thing that got us out of there was a fellow writer, desperate for the toilet. As in, Delhi belly desperate. As we drifted aimlessly in the middle of the Ganges he demanded to be taken ashore. Everyone was arguing, in Indian, but somehow, he got his way.
“I must get to shore right now!”
And as he jumped off. So did I.
The moment to see the Sadhus in the sunrise light had gone. I had no faith we’d ever get to the other side, and so I got out too. And the others followed.
I’d travelled over 4,500 miles from home: via train, three planes, car, bus, rickshaw and boat, to be there. And I missed it.
The Sangam dip
If we couldn’t see the main event, at least we could see an event. And so we watched as people dipped their heads and bodies into the Ganges. This auspicious day they’d waited so long for, and travelled so far to experience was here.
– I didn’t take this photo
I was gutted not to see the fireworks, the sunrise Sadhus, the night time parties and the parades the Kumbh Mela was so known for.
The end of that marked the end of my Kumbh Mela experience. And despite it basically consisting of being lectured at, getting lost and a failed boat ride, oh and no sleep, it was still fascinating.
Just another example for me that we are all the same the world over, and yet, there’s no one way to do things. We’re all following beliefs to seek validation.
Leaving the Kumbh Mela
I made my way back to the coach to leave, via the huge Kumbh Mela sign looming on the riverbank. A few more selfies with anyone who asked and then it was back to pick up my luggage to leave.
And to leave, one final hurdle. The journey from the Kumbh Mela to Lucknow was meant to be 6 hours, instead, thanks to closed roads, it took 13 and a whole loop around.
Lessons learned from my Kumbh Mela experience
I know that patience is a problem for me, and the Kumbh Mela tested every tiny bit I had. But, as I kept reminding myself, I was staying in that luxury tent, I had an air conditioned bus taking me from A to B, and another one carrying all my stuff.
The personal sacrifices I heard that many Hindus make to take the pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela is genuinely mind blowing. The next one isn’t for another four years, I’d imagine it takes them that long to recover.
The next Kumbh Mela is in Haridwar in 2021. I think next time I’ll enjoy watching the updates from the comfort of my home, although, my experience at the Kumbh Mela 2019 was one of the most fascinating of my life.