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The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

India is once again holding the world’s largest religious festival. But not everyone is here to worship.

By Prabhat Singh for
The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Taking a dip at Sangam (the confluence of the rivers) and taking a little water back home is all the majority of pilgrims wish for.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

A group of Naga Sadhus in a procession. The naked sadhus with tridents in their hands are considered protectors of the Sanatan Dharma, or mainstream Hinduism. They enter the orders at an early age, renounce worldly possessions, and follow celibacy to become Naga Sadhus.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Payal Guru, the head of the Nashik monastery of transgender people, displaying her trident before participating in a religious procession. It’s the first time trans people have been allowed to bathe at Sangam.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Jalam Singh from the western state of Rajasthan has been coming to the festival since 1997. He, along with many others, is invited for his expertise in levelling the ground. “Be it construction of roads or canals, we know everything what locals don’t. We can push soil up to the height of 10 meters and our tractors are very helpful,” Jalam said. Sometimes he works for 16 hours a day and his wages are 250 rupees (approx. $3.5) an hour, including all expenses.

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The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Shyamlal is a basket weaver from north India, and is working here as a street sweeper. Twelve other members of his family are also sweepers. “We are weavers, but plastic has replaced our products so even back home we work as laborers. The contractor has promised to give us 298 rupees (approx. $4) a day. We hope to save some money to survive for a few months after the Kumbh is over,” Shyamlal said.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Mahendra Paswan moved from the neighboring state of Bihar to join the company that makes tents for the pilgrims. Mahendra and other young boys of his native village work around the clock to finish the décor inside the tents. Paswan said, “I have no education, so what else can I do? I’ve learnt my work and couldn’t think of any other vocation.”

Credit: Prabhat Singh
The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Ramesh Maity, from eastern Indian state of West Bengal, used to visit Kumbh with his uncle to help him in the decoration work. Now he, with a team of 80 people, does it on his own. “There are monasteries which prefer only Bengali artists for floral decoration and this gives me the edge. To differentiate my work, I order special flowers from Kolkata, Bangalore, and Kanpur. When the Kumbh is over, I’ll work at weddings,” Maity said.

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The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

One can feel here that it’s the election year. Besides billboards announcing various government welfare schemes, Prime Minister Modi’s posters are displayed in every nook and corner.

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The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Guddu, a tea vendor, roams with a kettle tied on a stove. He has traveled 400 km from his native village to sell tea at the festival. A group from his village visits fairs across the country throughout the year. Elderly people stay back at makeshift shanties under the bridge and prepare tea; youngsters carry it. “Even back home, I run a tea stall but this is an opportunity to make some extra bucks. Though it’s not easy to walk continuously throughout the day, this is how poor people survive,” said Guddu.

Credit: Prabhat Singh
The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Suresh Chandra Nishad has been sailing since 1966, but has no memory of being asked to keep life jackets for everyone on the boat. It’s not that he is not concerned about the safety of the passenger. “I can’t afford to buy 12 jackets on such a short notice. It is us who save people in case of any mishap,” he said.

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The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

The job for Afzal is to paint the registration number and the name of the Kumbh Mela Authority on every boat so that licensed boats are identifiable. He will be paid by the company whose name and logo will appear on the advertisements. “This is kind of a bulk job, otherwise I would have been waiting for customers at my shop,” Afzal said.

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The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

A daily wage worker, Deepak Thapa hails from Nepal, and works with a brass band group. As he doesn’t specialize in playing any particular instrument, he does whatever he is assigned to, like carrying the sign of the band.

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The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

For more than four decades, Rammurti Tewari, a priest, has been witnessing events at the Kumbh. “The crowd visiting the confluence of the three rivers has grown multifold now, but more people come for amusement. Earlier, people’s faith was strong,” he lamented.

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The Many Faces of India’s Kumbh Mela

Subhash Chandra, a mahout, participated in such a large festival for the first time. He spent four hours washing and decorating his elephant before joining the fleet. “The elephant I ride was being used for wedding or festival processions, so it wouldn’t get irritated by the brass band sound or slogan shouting,” said Subhash. Elephants, camels and horses are the pomp of any procession in the Kumbh.

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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.

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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.