‘The crowd is a story, the event is a story, but you really only need one person for a story. Just think, how many stories do we walk past each day?’
We slowly shuffle across a wooden pontoon bridge, securely balanced on plastic drums floating in the river. An uncountable throng of people walk in relaxed unison ahead, while behind us the gates are closed to manage the crowds. We’re fully aware we have taken a wrong turn, yet, with no sense of direction left, we silently admit defeat to ourselves, if not openly to each other.
Buried deep amongst an ever-growing collection of some thirty million pilgrims, the colours and calls around me were enchanting. Stylish saris swayed in the air, drying from a dip in the sacred waters, while the suns glare was as bright as the orange robes adorning many of the devotees. Brothers and sisters were chanting alongside their mothers and fathers, and all the hues and happenings had started to blur into one. The Praygraj Kumbh Mela was in full swing, and with nearly a month of the event left it was unapologetically unrelenting.
We reach the other side of the rivers, plural, as it is here that two bodies of water join. The distinct colours of The Ganga and Yamuna unite at this point, also meeting the mythical Saraswati river, unseen by the eye, but known by those of faith. This point is the Sangam, and we had inadvertently arrived at the right place, had it only been a day later.
Across the bridge, all bodily senses resume at full. My ears were being pulled in multiple directions, while my eyes wanted to follow a different path. My feet, however, were arguing, already weak in the hazy mid-day sun.
I thought I had felt sensory overload before, but the worlds largest faith-based gathering was now garnering pole position for that award. For the first time in a long time, I was at a loss. Not just physically lost, but unsure how to experience an event so different from anything I had ventured to before.
Ladies dry their sari’s after a dip in the Ganga
There are countless impressive facts about the Kumbh Mela that I’ve written about, but here I want to share the story of my momentary madness attending the festival. For this isn’t an event that you attend to tick off activities, it’s an event you come to experience, to find your own story and spirituality, and hopefully, you’ll accomplish that better than I did.
Because, to be honest, writing this now I’m still not really sure what I did experience. Partly due to bad planning, and sheer scale, but also because this isn’t a festival set up for visitors, it’s a religious right of passage for Hindus. It was fascinating to attend, it was beautiful to be a part of, but there were many times I was lost in the moment, and not in the caught up romantically way, but in language barriers and confusion. Don’t expect a detailed map and guide to this event in English; it’s up to you to navigate and write your own.
The Kumbh Mela indeed is something special, but as a non-practising foreigner, you have to approach it with an open mind, and you’ll likely come away with as many questions as when you arrived.
When it comes to spirituality and finding those connections, India is certainly the place to be. Yoga and Ashrams are common place throughout the country, and learning from an Indian yoga master is, I’d imagine, a far more spiritual experience than a western teacher in a London class room!
At events like this, you start to appreciate that Yoga is so much more than poses, it’s a sense of mind, and had we not been in such a rush on this trip, I’d have been inclined to spend some time time to travel to a Kavaalya international yoga training centre in India, a recommendation of a friend. While I certainly don’t think I could commit to a few weeks, this ashram offers a great balance between relaxation, and intense yoga training. It really offers the best of India while staying with an international group.
But alas, the opportunity wasn’t meant to be, so we carried on hunting for our spiritual connection amongst millions of others at the Kumbh Mela.
Allahabad, the ordinarily small and unassuming city of this grand event, was once the capital of Uttar Pradesh. The capital title was lost to Lucknow, and last year, in late 2018, it also lost its name. While the Kumbh Mela has been taking place at this sacred meeting point of the three rivers for longer than is known, this is the first year it has done so under its new city title: Prayagaj Kumbh Mela.
Names of place are used intermittently here, Kashi and Benares are often still said when talking about the nearby holy city that is Varanasi, while Allahabad is still commonly referenced when discussing Prayagraj. Nothing is forever, not even a name it seems, and the Kumbh Mela is the perfect reminder of this, especially for those who come to take the holy dip, where a bathe at this point is said to wash away all sins. I was advised by a local to use my time here to stop, to connect and to appreciate, though I perhaps only succeeded at the latter of the three.
Street art compliments colourful temples in Prayagraj
Inspiration, Information and transformation are how I had heard the Kumbh Mela described, and as we wandered through the makeshift tents and camps varying from glamorous Yoga retreats with lavish en-suite rooms, to simple blankets where Naga Sadhus rested, I felt an intense amount of inspiration to travel again.
I’ve played my travels quite safe in the last few months, making the most of hopping around Europe with my pre-Brexit UK passport and work rights. But here, in amongst such a unique setting, I was inspired to travel as I used to, chasing experiences rather than photo opportunities, yet no matter how hard I tried, I don’t think I ever broke through the imaginary barrier I was experiencing at the Kumbh Mela.
Our journey continued, to the left we passed Naga Sadhus, some of the holiest of Hindus giving blessings, and to the right stalls were serving up chai and pakora. The ash covered bodies of the Sadhus, who have given up their material possession, drew me in, partly due to their spiritual appearance and revered status, and partly due to the rituals being carried out with a bell hung from a penis. I thought photos had prepared me for this day, but as I crouched down to be blessed, I realised just how much I still had to learn about Hinduism.
That afternoon I witnessed hundreds of people lining up at feeding tables, where subsidised or free meals were dished out to pilgrims, a backbone of the events inclusiveness. In the background, yet deserving of celebration, countless people ensured the make-shift event space remained spotless. Whether they were fishing out offerings from the river or dusting up debris on the grounds, it’s no small feat to pull off such a large scale event and retain control and cleanliness.
Million comes to bathe in the rivers at the Kumbh Mela
Personal moments of respite and intimacy came when sitting down on small benches, where conversation and Chai aplenty was delivered by smiling owners working over small stoves, or when dipping into the small communities set up around tents. Friendly locals would ask for selfies, and I gained fragments of insights into the festival and people who made it, shakily still unsure of how to behave as a visitor.
My journey was just a mere glimpse though, a tiny speck of the event, and after walking 16 kilometres, I still hadn’t even witnessed half of what was occurring along these river banks.
‘Where are we?’ I question a policeman who motions to a dot on the map, far removed from where I was expecting. Bridge nineteen our leader had repeated many times that morning, but the adventurer in me had ignored him, and now the soles of our feet would pay the price as we gulped, glancing back at bridge two behind us.
I’d say I’m an experienced traveller, but amongst so many people, where there are more temporary toilets (125,00 are constructed for the event) than residents in my new home town, I learnt that sometimes staying on the more beaten path is the best thing to do. The ongoing call of announcements across loudspeakers from the Kumbh lost and found centre, trying to reunite families and friends, reinforced this fact.
Attending the Kumbh Mela had been on my bucket list since 2013 when I accidentally found myself amongst the Haridwar Kumbh for a few hours. My memories of that were far more overwhelming, perhaps because I was travelling alone.
This time the simplicity of people connecting and bathing made me focus on the serene rather than the scale, yet this conflicted with the complicated journeys many had taken to be here.
It is hard for me to summarise how I felt as a faith-outsider attending the festival. I didn’t feel like a voyeur stealing naughty peeks into someone else’s world, mainly due to how friendly and welcoming everyone was, but I’ll admit my feelings of being out of place. My short time at the Kumbh wasn’t long enough to experience it in full, nor to embed myself in the moment, yet at the same time when I left, I felt ready to go.
Selfies everywhere at the Kumbh Mela
I’d learn a week later that during my attendance it was reported as the largest human gathering ever, with close to fifty million people flocking to Praygraj on the most auspicious day for bathing. These numbers don’t compute to me. The sheer scale and fact I’ve been to the largest meeting of people ever outstands me, but there, in the moment, as the three of us stared blankly at a bridge and a policeman, framed against a giant Pepsi sign, it ironically didn’t seem as intense as I had envisioned.
Sometimes you have to shrug things off, accept what will be, and go with the flow. In the same way that these revered rivers continued to flow despite the volume of visitors lining their banks; we too had to accept whatever the day would be.
We ventured on, met with smiling yet inquisitive faces, arms stretched out for more selfies, finally stopping to cool down with freshly squeezed sugar cane juices from a vintage grinder. To truly appreciate the moment you have to break the Kumbh Mela down to your immediate vicinity and forget about the rest. In isolation, pockets of the event were subdued and straightforward, yet in its entirety, it can seem intense and unfathomable.
For all the noise about numbers, the Kumbh Mela really wasn’t as overwhelming as I had envisioned. Would I want to attend such an event solo? Likely not. Did I feel as out of my depth as I thought I would? No. Was I blown away at the logistics and management of the Kumbh Mela? Yes.
The path we opted for followed what would usually would be a road, and for the first time in India, I was grateful when the honking of rickshaws and cars returned as we neared its end.
Hailing an auto, we passed Ferris wheels and music blaring from a temporary modern theme park, competing with the chanting that echoed out of the wide colourful windows of the temple across the street.
Abruptly, our rip-off Rickshaw ride came to an end at a roadblock. Much of the designated Kumbh area is vehicle free, so we resigned ourselves to the long walk back. Bridge nineteen I thought, as we glanced it taunting us in the distance a few hours later.
‘You can only see India when you let India inside of you. Don’t keep it at arm’s length’Sadhvi Bhagawatiji advised before dusk, as we waited for the evening Ganga Aarti, a spiritual event of chanting and community led by Swami Chidanand.
Her words resonated with my usual travel style, yet somehow, I hadn’t experienced the Kumbh Mela as I had envisioned. Perhaps it was me, feeling like a foreign intruder and too unsure to fully interact, or maybe it was ultimately that the event wasn’t for tourists, it was for people’s spiritual connections.
I was aware of the stories around me, nearly fifty million different stories in fact. Each coming from different homes, and on different journeys; there were never-ending novels of stories here. Some visitors had walked for days; others had abandoned their cars at the final hurdle when roads had shut. But nearly all were brought here because of one thing: their faith. I wanted to know more, I wanted to know the personal stories, but it didn’t seem the place to stop and ask.
As I stood on the dusty banks of the Ganga, now reunited with my group, I felt present, but still not fully there. I wasn’t sure if this journey to the Kumbh Mela was meant for looking at everything around me, or for looking inside myself. There are some moments I wish my job isn’t to photograph or film, but to merely be present; this was one of those.
The flames were lit for the Aarti, and everyone who was sat around joined in chanting, I, however, slunk to the back of the crowd. This was a dream photo moment, it was unlike anything else I’d experienced, yet by now I was confident this wasn’t for me, and it meant so much more to the people in front. It was right to let them enjoy this moment, after their incredible and long journeys to be here. Travelling is as much about knowing when to let someone else take in the experience, as it is knowing when to experience it yourself.
At dinner that night I reflected a lot: on travelling, on faith and on spirituality. The Kumbh Mela has triggered something in me, but I just couldn’t work out what.
Smiles at the Ganga evening aarti
The next morning before dawn was the Mauni Amavasya, a maha snan day. The planetary positions are what defines the most favourable days for bathing, and thus this was the most attended day of the Kumbh Mela and the event I was most looking forward to. It is on these special days that the Naga Sadhus lead the procession to the Sangam and initiate the bathing, from the moment the moon hits its key position, through until after sunrise.
At first, the plan was to leave the night before and take the crowded journey across the river by foot, finally reuniting me with that elusive number nineteen bridge. A last-minute change led to our guide confirming boats for the early hours instead, which was sadly the start of the end.
To say the rest of my time at the Kumbh Mela didn’t go to plan would be an understatement. The boats couldn’t get to where they needed, the logistics fell apart, and as people bathed on either side of the river, we bobbed around a plastic pontoon, removed from the very reason we were here on this day. We were locked in limbo land, too far from either river bank to be fully involved.
The Sangam was in the distance, enjoying its prime moment of glory, and I burst into hysterical and delirious laughter from a lack of sleep. A day earlier we had accidentally arrived at the Sangam cursing, yet now, at the moment we had come for, it was just slightly out of reach.
In hindsight, I can remind myself of what I thought at the evening aarti. This isn’t an event for me or my camera, and perhaps it was a divine intervention that stopped our vast group of camera-wielding journalists from blocking peoples views of such a once in a lifetime moment.
Flowers and bathing at the Kumbh Mela
Travel is unexpected, and no matter how much planning you make things can go wrong. This was one of those mornings, and it sadly brings my Kumbh Mela story to an abrupt, and uneventful end.
Am I glad I went? Yes. Would I go again? Unsure. Did I experience the event in the way I had wished? Certainly not.
But if you find yourself in India during the Kumbh Mela, it’s genuinely worth attending even if just for a day, this is an event you’ll never forget, and the experience and takeaway will be different for each person.
Sunrise and boats on the Ganga
Don’t go marvelling at the millions of people as I did though, go looking for that one story, that one human connection, and do better than me, go more in-depth than I did, and throw out any preconceptions or expectations.
Arrive at the Kumbh Mela with an open mind and let it play out. There are fifty million reasons your journey will be unique, but you only need to find one.
I’m sad I didn’t get enough time to learn more of the stories of why people were here, the stories of their journeys and faith or what this meant for them. The only story I left the Kumbh Mela with was mine, an incomplete, pages missing kind of chapter. The Kumbh Mela had left a mark on me, but I’m not so sure what that mark was.
Perhaps, one day I’ll return to Prayagraj and write this stories ending.
Need to know: The Prayagraj Kumbh Mela
A few tips and insights to make planning your visit to The Prayagraj Kumbh Mela a little easier.
How to get to Prayagraj Kumbh Mela: The Bamrauli airport connects with a few domestic destinations in India. The train station, Allahabad (the old cities name) is also well served from main stations including express trains. Otherwise, many buses ply the routes to Prayagraj. Just be aware the traffic is insane, especially on the peak days, to plan and allow for this. Forward planning is KEY to having a good Kumbh experience.
How to get around the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela: Much of your time at the Kumbh will be spent exploring on foot, as it really is the only option. Rickshaws, e-rickshaws and bikes are available, but be aware they have restrictions on where they can drive during the festival.
Where to stay in Prayagraj during the Kumbh Mela: Tent cities are erected across the city in various comfort classes. I stayed in one of the more luxurious tent cities, but this was on the other side of the river to the main points, although there are Kumbh festivities everywhere. You can actually find these tent cities and book them on sites such as booking.com etc.
The luxury tent city bed Janet and I unexpectedly shared!
Where to go after the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela: Head off and explore more of the Uttar Pradesh region, such as Lucknow and Varanasi. For those seeking the iconic, the Taj Mahal is in Agra, also in the region, and is a great place to begin the famous India Golden Triangle tour of Agra, Jaipur and Delhi.
Bathing: After a lot of consideration I decided not to take a dip. Partly because it was not my place, but also because of the water quality. The Yamuna river, in particular, is noted for its pollution and effects on those not used to it, so do your homework and be informed if you decide to bathe or not.
Accessibility at the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela: The area is very busy, and bridges, roads and dust paths can be uneven although there aren’t many stairs and some of the temporary toilets are designated for disability access.