If you thought the Notting Hill Carnival was crowded, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Over the next month, an estimated 60 million pilgrims are expected to congregate in Ujjian to celebrate the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest human gathering.
Held every twelve years in each of four sacred cities – Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjian and Nasik – this extraordinary festival is a riot of ritual and colour, attracting staggering crowds of Hindu devotees from across India and across the world. According to legend, the god Vishnu spilled drops of amrita (the nectar of immortality) at each of these four locations while racing across the heavens with a sacred kumbha (pot) during a battle between gods and demons.
The primary objective for most devotees is a ritual bath in one of India’s five sacred rivers: the Ganges, which emerges from the Himalayan mountains at Haridwar; the vanished Sarasvati, which meets the sacred Ganges and Yamuna rivers at Allahabad; the Godavari at Nashik; and the Shipra in Ujjian. Bathing at one of these auspicious locations during the mela is said to cleanse a person of all their sins.
For spectators, the most fascinating sight is the arrival of the naga sadhus, mendicant holy men who follow a lifestyle of extreme austerity, cloaking their naked bodies in ashes and performing extreme acts of self-mortification and endurance. The different akharas (schools) of the sect enter the water in a strictly defined order, beating drums and wielding swords, spears and tridents, in a ritual dating back to at least the 16th century.
The sadhus started bathing at Ujjian on 22 April, and millions will follow in their bare footsteps over the coming weeks before the festival winds to a close on 21 May. The Ujjian fair has already attracted some controversy, with clashes between sadhus and police and legal wrangles over the awarding of the massive contract for cleaning up during and after the festival. For most, however, the mela is a time of joyous celebration, and a fascinating time to visit Madhya Pradesh’s often overlooked City of Temples.