Photos: 24 hours at the largest religious festival in human history

Hindu pilgrims bathe in the confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati rivers on Feb. 10, 2013 in Allahabad, India. (Photo by Ian Terry)It took me all of three seconds to realize this wasn’t going to be a “Folklife” experience. Or a Bumbershoot one for that matter.

No, this was the most revered day at the 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. This Hindu gathering that only takes place at this level of spiritual significance once every 144 years (other forms of Kumbh Mela happen every 2, 6 and 12 years). This year it was estimated to draw around 100 million visitors over the full two months of the festival.

Over 30 million religious pilgrims were in attendance on Feb. 10 to bathe in the Sangam site where the rivers Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati intersect in a holy trifecta. That’s over four times the total population of Washington State gathered in an area around half the size of West Seattle.

As the sun rose, hordes of men, women and children made their way to the river banks in an inconceivable display of mass human migration. Once in the water, some kneeled down to fully submerge while others stood in silent prayer.

Farther inland, parades of holy men, sadhus and mystics flowed through the crowds with a stream of devotees in tow. Beneath it all, laying in the mud, beggars clawed at passersby—coaxing coins and crumpled paper notes from the hands of some. In Sector 4, an area along the Ganges River, a man smiled as he carried a platter of sesame candies, handing them out at random to the hungry masses.

Days later, when my “Kumbh cough” was just beginning to subside, I realized why I’d had such difficulty pinpointing my own experience at the festival. In fact, it was the word “festival” that had been tripping me up all along. The Kumbh had proven to be much more than just a festival.

It was humanity itself on full display.

Crowds along the riverbanks of the Ganges River in Sector 4 of the Kumbh Mela festival. The gathering lasted 55 days and occupied an area of approximately 7.7 sq. miles. (Photo by Ian Terry)

A couple stands in a rare clearing of people at the 2013 Kumbh Mela festival. (Photo by Ian Terry)

Men wade in the Ganges River next to one of 18 pontoon bridges that were constructed  for the festival. (Photo by Ian Terry)

A religious devotee dances amid other followers. Thousands of holy men, sadhus and spiritual guides congregate at each holding of the Kumbh Mela festival which takes place in different locations across India every 2, 4, 6, 12 and 144 years. (Photo by Ian Terry)

A vendor tries to quickly sell candy before being asked to leave by local police near the banks of the Ganges River. (Photo by Ian Terry)

Religious devotees seek refuge from the massive crowds atop a caravan of cars. (Photo by Ian Terry)

Bathers wade underneath the Allahabad-Varanasi Roadway overpass at the 2013 Kumbh Mela festival. (Photo by Ian Terry)

 

Ian Terry

Ian Terry

Contributor
Ian Terry is a freelance visual journalist and writer. His interests lie in anything and everything having to do with documentary photography, bicycles and Frank Zappa. His work can be seen at www.ianaterry.com.