India to host the largest religious event in the world

A Sadhu, or a Hindu holy man, performs morning prayers on the banks of the river Ganges ahead of the Kumbh Mela. Credit: Ahmad Masood/Reuters

January 14th sees the start of the Maha Kumbh Mela - a mass Hindu pilgrimage - the biggest religious event in the world. Nothing else compares to the scale of this ancient Hindu Festival. The Mela happens every 12 years and in 2001 more than 40 million people attended on the main bathing day, breaking the world record for the largest human gathering in one place. Try to imagine the entire population of England outside London descending on the capital for a day; effectively that's what it means for the city of Allahabad.

After visiting the Kumbh Mela in 1895 Mark Twain wrote: "It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvellous to our kind of people, the cold whites."

What is the Kumbh Mela?

The Maha Kumbh Mela occurs every 12 years and is considered to be the most auspicious mela. It always happens in Allahabad a city in northern India at the confluence of the rivers Yamuna, Ganges and the ancient Saraswati. According to legend, the Lord Vishnu was carrying a Kumbh (pot) of Amrita (nectar), when a scuffle broke out between the gods, and four drops were spilled. They fell to earth at the four river locations Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain and signifies a place of spiritual enlightenment. The event is commemorated every three years by the Kumbh Mela but this particular Mela is held once every twelve years and is regarded the greatest and holiest of all.

Sadhus - or holymen - attending the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad. Credit: ITV News/Matt Williams

What happens at the Kumbh Mela?

The main ritual is bathing in the holy river water. Hindus believe that submerging themselves in the sacred waters will absolve them and their ancestors of sin. The vast floodplains and river banks adjacent to the confluence are overrun by pilgrims, with tents organised in almost military fashion by the local authorities and the police. The mela is especially renowned for the presence of an extraordinary array of mystics - enticed from remote hideaways in forests, mountains and caves.

Hindu pilgrims in Allahabad, India where three holy rivers converge. Credit: ITV News/Matt Williams

Once astrologers have determined the propitious bathing time or Kumbhayog, the first to hit the water are legions of Naga Sadhus (naked priests) who cover their bodies with ash, and wear their hair in long dreadlocks. These sadhus see themselves as guardians of the faith and approach the confluence with the pomp and bravado of a charging army.

A vendor sells religious beads near banks of the River Ganges ahead of Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

Pilgrims start lining up to bathe from around 3am and as the sun comes up the different groups of sadhus move in procession towards the river to bathe. After bathing, the pilgrims wear fresh clothes and proceed to worship by the river bank. They then walk around listening to discussions and dance.

A sandcastle depicting the Hindu goddess Shiva. Credit: ITV News/Matt Williams

The main dates

The most auspicious days (Bathing Dates) are as follows:

14 January 2013 (Monday) – Makar Sankranti. A Holy bath during this period carries special significance. Those who take a holy bath in the rivers acquire pious credits.

27 January 2013 (Sunday) – Paush Purnima. The day occurs when the moon is full in the Hindu month of Paush. This is the last full moon of winter. By this time, the sadhu and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrive at the Kumbh Mela.

10 February 2013 (Sunday) – Mauni Amavasya Snan (Main Bathing Day). For the holy men and women, this is the main bathing day. New members to various holy monastic orders receive their first initiation on this day.

15 February 2013 (Friday) – Basant Panchami Snan. This is the fifth day of the luminous half of the lunar month and is the beginning of spring in North India.

17 February 2013 (Sunday) – Rath Saptami Snan. Rath Saptami festival is observed on the seventh day of Shukla Paksha in the Magh Month (January – February) in the traditional Hindu calendar.

21 February 2013 (Thursday) – Bhisma Ekadashi Snan. On this day, Bhishma Pithamaha, the oldest, wisest, most powerful and most righteous person belonging to the Kuru dynasty (approximately over 5000 years ago), narrated the greatness of Lord Krishna.

Hindus apply oil on bodies after taking holy dip in the River Ganges ahead of the festival. Credit: Reuters/Ahmad Masood

Kumbh Mela facts

  • Kumbh Mela in Allalhabad happens once every 12 years

  • Over 100 million people expected over 55 days

  • The Kumbh Mela site is spread over 58 sq km

  • 12,000 police drafted in to look after the event

  • 35,000 toilets built for the event

  • 93 miles of temporary road built

  • 7,000 buses and 750 trains laid on to ferry people to the site