Millions of Hindu devotees and tourists are thronging the historic north Indian city of Prayagraj (previously known as Allahabad) for the Ardh Kumbh, one of the world’s largest religious festivals, celebrated at the confluence of three “holy” rivers, the Ganges, the Yamuna, and a mythical river, the Saraswati.
During the festival, which runs through March, pilgrims from across the country bathe in the river with the belief that it cleanses them of their sins and ends the cycle of reincarnations. Among them, ash-smeared Naga sadhus or Hindu ascetics, naked except for rosary beads and garlands, become a focus of media and tourist attention. Special arrangements are made for their stay, and for the rituals they perform.
However, most of the pilgrims, who do not receive such welcome, come prepared with rations, fuel, and blankets, carrying them on their head as they join the religious mega-event. Pilgrims will take a dip in the river, bow before holy men seeking their blessings, and go back with a pitcher or plastic can full of the river’s sacred water.
Apart from the devotees, laborers from across the country also arrive in the city — seeking not liberation from the cycle of birth and death, a chance to earn their livelihood. They are hired to make arrangements for the festival, like pitching tents at the river for the pilgrims and painting the boats.
The Kumbh rotates among four pilgrimage sites every three years on a date prescribed by astrology. This year’s festival, Ardh Kumbh, is special, as the country is gearing up for its general election later this spring. To woo the majority Hindu population, the central government and the government of Uttar Pradesh, the state where Prayagraj is located, both led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have spent large sums of money on the festival.
The area of the Kumbh Mela was doubled to 3,200 hectares, with 40.48 billion rupees (around $578 million) allocated to create facilities for pilgrims and give a face-lift to the entire city. New flyovers have been built, sculptures have been made at the traffic circles, and newly made street art is also glittering in the city.
As the previous Kumbh, held in Prayagraj in 2013, was included in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “largest-ever gathering of human beings for a single purpose,” the BJP-led state government is projecting this year’s festival as the best-ever organized Mela, aiming to get it included in the book once again, for its cleanliness.