Portrait of the Kumbh Mela

Over the bridges by the tens of thousands, shouting, chanting, singing, thrusting spears and tridents into the air, some painted orange, some wrapped in saffron robes, some naked, some wearing crowns and capes, some bearded, some with swords and long matted hair, some adolescent,
some old enough to have seen British rule, barefoot and hobbling forward, possessed by some mysterious mystical glee, down, into the Ganges they come.

Far off through the polluted distance a 30 meter tall bronze Shiva statue lords above the scene, his colossal hand frozen in blessing. A snake the size of an oil pipeline wraps around his neck. In the Ganges that flows nearby, splashing past like salmon, are those who have thrown themselves into the current, allowing it to sweep them between the millions of pilgrims that line the banks of the river.

The crowds fluctuate and shimmer like jellyfish, churning and changing as people await their turn to climb down the ghats into the water. Among these multitudes a group of policemen parts the crowd like the keel of a canoe, tweeting whistles and swinging clubs in an attempt to instill order. An old man, perhaps eighty, little more than a skeleton, is carried past them and lowered into the river by his sons. He gasps as the icy water swallows his body and then, as if suddenly narcotized, goes mild-eyed and limp as they hoist him up and vanish back into the crowd.

This is Haridwar, India, where the glacial waters of the Ganges first reach the reach the plains. Today is the Shakh Purnima Snan, the final and most auspicious bathing date of the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering on earth.

For the pilgrims, to take a dip in the Ganges today is to wash away a lifetime of sin, breaking the cycle of reincarnation. Authorities estimate that on bathing days like today roughly 100,000 people climb into the water every hour. Since January, tens of millions of pilgrims have come by whatever means possible to experience this, most of them achingly poor and barefoot, fueled by little more than faith.

The air, thick with the dizzying spices of India, stirred in clouds of baked urine and smoke, obscures my vision as pilgrims pour in from the places they passed the night, emerging, as if from a yellow fog, from government squatters’ camps, tents or alleyways. Countless families simply slept on the ground alongside the Ganges.

I watch them come down to bathe, and to wash their clothes. Many offer sacrifices. Nearby a woman releases an aluminum plate-boat, sagging with vegetables, into the current and makes a temple of her hands, praying as it sweeps downstream.

The Kumbh Mela will not return to Haridwar for another 12 years, in 2024, when India’s population will have hit 1.2 billion. Then the faithful will stream in once again by the millions. Just being here, seeing all that humanity, all that faith, brings irresistible spiritual nourishment. And it has done so for millennia.

D Jennings

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