The World of the Kumbh Mela: Inside the Largest Single Gathering of Humanity

The pilgrimage, which dates back millennia, occurs in 12-year cycles—in 2001, the Indian government estimated a staggering 70 million congregated by the Ganges’ banks to ritually bathe in its sacred waters.

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty Images

Hindu devotees bathe in the waters of Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna and (mythical) Saraswati, during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India, on Jan. 15, 2013

What’s billed as the largest single gathering of humanity is taking place right now in the northern Indian city of Allahabad. At the confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and (mythical) Saraswati Rivers, as many as 100 million people will participate over the next month in an ancient Hindu festival known as the Kumbh Mela. The pilgrimage, which dates back millennia, occurs in 12-year cycles — in 2001, the Indian government estimated a staggering 70 million congregated by the Ganges’ banks to ritually bathe in its sacred waters.

News-agency photographers, of course, have a field day (or month) during the Kumbh Mela. It’s a time when India’s rising global clout and simmering social tensions take a backseat to images of ascetic sadhus — their faces doused in ash, their feral, matted hair coiled like serpents upon their heads — charging the river in religious ecstasy. Of course, it’s nothing new in India for outsiders to gawk at such “timeless” rites. Here’s a British colonial officer in the mid–19th century, who saw the Mela as proof of the need for Indians to be converted to Christianity:

Even now, multitudes of pilgrims crowd to the confluence of these sacred rivers, and every year there are some who voluntarily rush to death; and when the swollen corpse rises again to the surface; it becomes the prey of the vultures which hover round the scene of the sacrifice. Who that beholds these horrid spectacles, can forbear to desire the conversion of a people so unhappily blind to present happiness and eternal glory.

(PHOTOS: Tens of Millions Gather at India’s Maha Kumbh Mela)

Imperial hubris aside, at first glance it is difficult to understand what would tempt anybody to join such an immense throng. On certain auspicious days, as many as 10 million to 30 million people may flock to the waters of the Sangam, the meeting point of the Yamuna, the Ganges and the Saraswati. The Atlantic’s Quartz website places that sort of an event in global perspective:

Imagine the entire population of Shanghai—about 23 million—camping on a 4×8 kilometer field. Add to that mass of humanity every last man, woman and child in New York City and you’re getting closer to the Kumbh’s expected attendance. But still not quite there. The area of the mela is also on the rise: from 1,495.31 hectare and 11 sectors in 2001 to 1936.56 hectare and 14 sectors in 2013. That’s about 4,784 acres of land – about the size of Madrid’s famous Casa de Campo park.

And imagine the pollution, the press of bodies, the baseness of camping conditions, the difficulty to simply move from one site to another. Imagine too the noise generated by so many human beings just massed together in one place. By some estimates, it reaches a constant drone of over 80 decibels, prolonged exposure to which is considered hazardous to one’s hearing. My grandmother, a braver soul than me (and a native Allahabadi), went to the Kumbh Mela in 2001 and came away awed by its ceaseless din.

(PHOTOS: Holy Water: Controversy on the Ganges)

But she also came away impressed. The Kumbh Melas in Allahabad have become incredible feats of mass-scale planning, and the event in 2001 was noted for its lack of incident and the smoothness of its proceedings. Some 30,000 police officers are deployed to patrol the camp grounds; dozens of pontoon bridges spring up across the mighty rivers; the transient city that emerges is replete with cell-phone towers, makeshift hospitals, fountains and wells that pump clean drinking water, sewage facilities, a security apparatus threaded together by CCTV cameras and myriad markets and food kiosks. The scale of the operation is so unprecedented that a cross-disciplinary team of Harvard scholars, under the aegis of the university’s South Asia Institute, is attending the Mela this year in a bid to analyze the economy and logistics of what they’ve dubbed a “pop-up megacity.”

According to a separate team of academics, what was once “horrid spectacle” for outsiders is now not only instructive but also actually good for you. Based on six years of studying smaller Melas on the Ganges, a group of Indian and Western researchers have published a paper in PLOS One journal arguing that the experience of participating in such mass, collective rites has long-term benefits for the individual. Compared with a sample group not attending the festival, those who did, the study found, reported improvements both in their health and broader state of well-being. The cause for that, researchers say, is not the result of being immersed in the Ganges’ muddied waters, but the act of discovering oneself amid an endless sea of others bent on the same spiritual quest. Stephen Reicher, a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, who worked on the study, writes in the Guardian:

Our analysis… shows it is the sense of intimate social relations – that we are not alone, that we can call on others, that these others form a “social safety net” for us – that creates improvements in well being once [devotees] leave the Ganges and go back to their everyday lives.

If that’s the case, then maybe the Hindu ancients — and the tens of millions journeying to the confluence of the rivers now — are onto something.

MORE: How India’s Success Is Killing Its Holy River

30 comments
RameshRaghuvanshi
RameshRaghuvanshi

Why tens of millions of Hindu devotees Flock to the Kumbh Mela.?Simple answer to this question is teaching of Hindu philosophy.which based on hope.Hindu philosophy firmly believed the  mundane life in illusion ultimate aim of man is liberation from the bondages of life and death.To achieve this aim Hindu philosophy  developed some rituals.One of the rituals is  on auspicious month  you to bath in scared river.Ganga river is most scared river in India,so tens millions people gathered  in Kumbh Mela.Why Hindu developed this  philosophy?Indian weather is  most horrible unsustainable  to man.Too much hot and cold and unpredictable monsoon  made life of  man very very difficult and uncertain,to  relief this unbearable situation Hindu developed this philosophy.From last many centuries this philosophy deeply inserted in heart of  psyche of Hindu..That why science and technology never born in India. India remain terrific poor.How to overcome this philosophy is challenge to   intelligent people of India..Western  civilization based on fear that why WESTERN COUNTRIES DEVELOPED SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY .and made life properious

bharatahamara
bharatahamara like.author.displayName 1 Like

@RameshRaghuvanshi: u dont know the science in vedas and upanishads. google" quantam physics and vedas"..
It will tell u world is really an illusion. Indian concept of god in vedas comes closest to scince. India was occupied for 1100 years by outsiders so India could not progress. before occupation, Aryabhata was working in 4th century right? Do u know that the symoble of medicine, is "ida, pingala" (kundalini). do u know that doctors still use the instruments mentioned by Sushruta (Indian) . Schools are doing bad job of teaching Indian heritage to Indians, that does not mean u dont learn outside, start by visiting iishDOTorg .

ScottWan
ScottWan

RAPE NEWS UPDATE FROM THE RAPE CAPITAL OF WORLD

PTI
Etah, January 16, 2013

A woman was allegedly gang raped by four persons when she was alone at home in Kesarpur village in the district, police said on Wednesday. Dharambir and three others raped the woman at her home on Monday evening, police said. The victim was also assaulted by the four accused when she was going to the police station to lodge a complaint, they said. Medical examination of the victim has confirmed rape, police said. FIR has been lodged against four accused persons but no arrest made so far, they said

SuchetaSinghal
SuchetaSinghal

@ScottWan 
The father of Catholic pedophiles the Pope, decides to resign. Have you wondered why Scott?

SuchetaSinghal
SuchetaSinghal

@ScottWan 
Do you or actually can you see the Islamization of India behind these rapes ?? perhaps not. 
Sharia is soon coming to your town .. and then you WILL. 

zedd
zedd

@SuchetaSinghal @ScottWan Sucheta why do you blame Islam for the sins of hindus? All the rapes in India are commited by Hindus. why do you forget this?

SuchetaSinghal
SuchetaSinghal

@zedd @SuchetaSinghal @ScottWan 

Yup Zedd..
ALL the rapes .. just as are ALL the rapes in England, 
.. just as ALL the rapes in  Germany.. oh wait .. just like ALL the rapes in Europe .. and now even in America are committed by the Hindus.
Right ? 

The west has not seen Islam yet .. it has little clue to what is in store for it.

Ask the Hindu.. for he has survived (well barely)
not one (by the 'great' Mogul) but two rapes (another by the 'fittest' west)
of its civilization by the 'people of the book'. 


Will the Hindu continue to survive against ALL odds ...
or will Islam/Christianism once again take over? 

I know you won't ask the Hindu.
But let's say if you did for the sake of truth .. you might really find something out..
the facts. That can indeed happen if you were really interested in the truth that is. 

So Hindu's is the only story to be retold and known by humanity in this century. 
Remember Avaatar ? 

Joey1111
Joey1111 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@ScottWan have you made it your sole purpose in life to post this type of news across any/every site that you stalk. I truly feel sorry for you.  

knightfromthenight
knightfromthenight like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

Your perversion knows no limits! While on it, also publish the news on paedophilia by the sex starved Church Fathers!

eetom
eetom

The location is also the venue for the biggest gathering of bacteria.  From that biological soup new forms of virulent pathogens will evolve.


Read more: http://world.time.com/2013/01/15/the-kumbh-mela-inside-the-worlds-single-largest-gathering-of-humanity/#ixzz2I7opCnu4

Yentapishala
Yentapishala like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@eetom Kumbh Mela is going on for 10000 years, a largest gathering of faith anywhere in world, a short cut to Nirvana. By the way all biological pollutant are biodegradable unlike pollutants in industrialized countries, like nuclear waste which is dumped in water ( half life of 250000 years), PCBs, Mercury, DDT, chemical byproducts which are much more dangerous and lethal. @eetom

Joey1111
Joey1111 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@eetom I applaud your 'scientific' perspective. In case you didn't get it, that was sarcasm. 

kkollenkode
kkollenkode like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@eetom Please grow up beyond bacteria if you want to experience true spiritual bliss. Tell me what you eat here is all good! They're infact laced with steriods causing cancer. 

kumarswamy
kumarswamy like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@eetom This also helps to develop one's immune system. What do you think you are pure Samaritan ?

mrbomb13
mrbomb13 like.author.displayName 1 Like

Okay, I understand how the author qualified his advocacy of the event by mentioning the "associated health risks."

Yet, that position actually does not do the issue proper justice:

1) People in India use those rivers to bathe, wash dishes, wash clothes, dump feces, dump garbage, urinate, etc..  Even so, those same rivers are used for drinking and cooking.  The pollution in those rivers is atrocious, and has been associated with causing disease, illness, and death. Events like the Kumbh Mela only worsen the condition of those rivers, and thereby put the Indian populace at further risk.  Sorry, but peoples' health comes first and foremost over any alleged "social psychological benefits."

2) The author quotes the anecdote of a British colonial officer, and then labels it as, "Imperial hubris [as per Britain's former empire]."  Yet, the author then provides no evidence to disprove the officer's testimony.  Since the author has called the offer's testimony into question, the Burden of Proof is on the author to supply all relevant evidence.  Given that the author supplied no evidence, his claim of 'hubris' is unsubstantiated, and in need of further support.

3) By only quoting globalization-driven perspective of The Atlantic, and the Indian-published social psychology paper, the author only shows one side of the issue.  He clearly makes the case for potential social psychological benefits, but he only glazes over the health costs.  In business, we conduct cost-benefits analyzes everyday.  If the costs outweigh the benefits, we decide against the action; if the benefits are greater, the action is taken.  As stated above, the current health costs vastly outweigh any supposed psychological benefit.  

4) In light of that, the article's focus on the 'social psychology-connection' is misleading to readers, because it does not adequately address the health risks.  If readers were aware of them, they might further question why Indians don't find ways to clean their rivers, and prevent the spread of pollution, illness, and disease.  That produces a Win/Win for India and the Kumbh Mela worshippers.

SuchetaSinghal
SuchetaSinghal

@mrbomb13 
The biodegradable heathen 'bacteria' has nurtured the pagan and fertilized his lands
while the chemical and nuclear toxin has made the believer barren and turned its lands into deserts. 

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

First, thanks for your replies.  I am responding to this comment first, and will respond to the others as time permits. So, without further ado:

1) Biodegradable materials (i.e. shampoos, soaps) have lessened land and water pollution around the globe.  As such, they have been a boon to the environment.  As such, I must question why you label such materials as, "heathen?"

2) Chemical and nuclear pollution has certainly polluted, and even obliterated some landscapes; no one is denying that fact.  By the same token, advances in nuclear and chemical technology has also been highly beneficial to global societies.

3) I'm not sure what you mean by how those toxins have, "made the believer barren."

kkollenkode
kkollenkode like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

@mrbomb13 Typical western view. Do you think your land is made of pure gold. Look around, the environment is polluted with carcinogens.  Whites have pleasure of writing and distorting something and take the pleasure of destroying the faith. This is not the first time 'Kumbh mela' is happening. By so called westerns / others view millions should been dead by now. But guess what! go find out for yourself.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@kkollenkode @mrbomb13

First, thank you for your reply.  Just a few comments:

1) How do you know I'm from the West?  I may very well be from the East, or even from the Southern Hemisphere, and my English might be especially good.  

2) I never claimed that, "my land is made of pure gold."  

3) I'll readily admit that the environment (in some cases) is polluted with carcinogens.  However, you'll have to be more location- or geographically-specific before I can comment on your claim.

4) How do you know I'm White?  Furthermore, do you have any qualitative/quantitative evidence to support your claim that, "Whites have pleasure of writing and distorting something and take the pleasure of destroying the faith?"  Furthermore, what evidence do you have that I, "have pleasure of writing and distorting something and take the pleasure of destroying the faith?"

5) I am aware that the Kumbh Mela is a long-standing event in the Indian religious tradition.  However, in earlier times, the comparative stratospheric levels of pollution at the river sites were non-existent.  In modern times, that is no longer true.  Massive gatherings (like the Kumbh) makes the pollution worse, and thereby worsens the economic, scientific, and health costs to Indian society.

6) By far, I sincerely believe that the most thought-provoking part of your reply was the following part, "By so called westerns / others view millions should been dead by now."  At one point in time, that statement may indeed have come to fruition.  In the hey-day of the Industrial Revolution (late 1800s-early 1940s), labor conditions in the West (i.e. USA, Great Britain, Europe) were generally appalling.  Pollution would cover the sky-line in smoke and soot, the water-ways were foul with mercury and lead, and the land was re-organized to make way for machines.  However, the concerns of commerce over-ruled those of the environmentalists.

If that had continued, I believe you would be justified in saying that millions (maybe more) would have died.  However, by the 1970s-1980s, companies began to realize that they could send the work overseas, and charge 1/3 of the cost.  Consequently, many manufacturing-based cities (i.e. Pittsburgh, Detroit, Bethlehem) began to see manufacturing decline.  Furthermore, environmentalist stakeholders ramped up their efforts to combat industry's more adverse affects.  Additionally, the U.S. Congress has passed (burdensome) regulations, that mandate businesses prove that operations will have negligible adverse environmental effects. 

In the year 2013, the confluence of those developments has vastly lessened pollution in the U.S., Great Britain, and Europe.  However, those gains are off-set by Asian nations - especially China - that have not toughened their stance against pollution.  Furthermore, since become independent in the late 1940s, India has done no where near enough to improve its progress in fighting such pollution.  While millions are not dying, the mortality rate from pollution is far, far higher in nations like India than it is in the West.

7) Following your exhortation to, "go find out for yourself," I conducted further research on how pollution in and around India's rivers has effected it in modern times.  I invite you to view the following sites (written by a mix of Western and Indian authors for equal measure):

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16546805

http://www.all-about-india.com/Ganges-River-Pollution.html

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

To respond point-by-point:

1) What evidence can you provide that demonstrates the clear connection between my views and those of "White, wealthy, Western Christians?" 

2) I see plenty wrong with the "Western ethics" you reference (i.e. outsourcing, removal of native peoples, etc.).  However, that was not the topic of the article, or my post. 

3) Depending on how you define "succumbing," Christianity has been declining in the West for the last 40 years.  I certainly don't approve of that decline, but it's the reality of the world in which we live.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

To respond point-by-point:

1) I see plenty wrong with the Kyoto Protocol, which is why I support the decision of the US not to sign it.  The Protocol is an impractical way to address climate issues, as it acts as a severe impediment to economic development, and thereby inhibiting the ability of citizens to achieve the best possible economic benefit.

2) The detrimental environmental effects of the oil spills are plain to see; no one is disputing that fact.

3) The "insatiable hunger for the latest technology" has existed throughout human history.

4) You further vindicate my point by stating that Asian manufacturing methologies are not "biodegradable" (i.e. they contribute to pollution).

5) Fracking in the US is a standardized process, and is subject to strict governmental/environmental regulation. 

6) Fracking goes into the Earth's crust, and never penetrates the core or mantle.  Therefore, your claim that it penetrates "Earth's womb" is false.

7) Your entire last 2 paragraphs are irrelevant, as I never said or implied any of those items.

SuchetaSinghal
SuchetaSinghal

@mrbomb13
' vastly lessened pollution in the U.S., Great Britain, and Europe.  ... those gains are off-set by Asian nations -'

You probably see nothing wrong with the west's innocuous 
* Kyoto protocol - not signed by the US 
   so Green House gases - continue to wrack havoc on humanity?
* the Exxon-Mobile and BP oil-spills - aftermath on the environment?
* insatiable hunger for 'latest technology' - although manufactured in the 'third world' creating
   pollution and the subsequent 'export' of toxic waste thus created  which is partly why
  'those gains are off-set by Asian nations' .. remember all this is not-biodegradable stuff
* insatiable hunger for fuel .. even 'fracking' mother earth's 'womb' !!! 
* GM Foods which are taking humanity to uncharted waters?

Then again this is the white man's Christian burden to civilize the heathen-pagan in humanity.
If you really want to give 'peace a chance' .. let people live, do not take their natural resources: food, fuel and lands away.. then maybe .. perhaps .. Mother Nature will stop its own fight for survival. 


SuchetaSinghal
SuchetaSinghal

@mrbomb13

You may or may not be white, wealthy western Christian .. but your views surely are.

The 'surviving fittest' in you says that :
* to outsource labor as in manufacturing,
* or to capture markets of 'third world economies' through hook or crook is only BUSINESS,
* to annihilate of the natives, their cultures and the usurping of their natural resources all over the world is only GLOBALIZATION.
Do you see anything wrong with the western ethics here?
.. This is 'Survival of the fittest' at play for you.
It shows how Christianism is succumbing the west due to unethical behavior. 

JeffTooley
JeffTooley like.author.displayName 1 Like

@mrbomb13

 @mrbomb13 

You have a beautiful analytical mind but it is also a bit one-tracked, shall we say biased.

1. People do not go to the Kumbh Mela for "social psychological benefits", but because it is part of their religion.

2. Me thinks the author clearly meant "... a people so blind... " which indeed indicates a "need to convert" which might be seen as "imperial hubris" eg "white man's burden" etc.

3. This is not a business article nor a a scientific article. Media is already skewed enough in that direction. Nice to hear a complementary note. Business sometimes errs as well, and quite badly at that. The high gentleman there can be held reponsible for the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

4. Health risks of the Ganghes have already been extensively covered, especially in Western media. All those articles might be considered as equally "misleading to readers" if they do not encompass possible positive (health) aspects.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@JeffTooley @mrbomb13 

First, thank you for your reply.  Just a few comments:

1) I am aware that the Kumbh Mela is undertaken by Indians, because (as you said) it is a part of their religion.  With that being said, I am not criticizing them at all.  Instead, my criticism is directed at the author, who doesn't do the pollution issues anywhere near equal justice (with his alleged social pschological benefits).

2) The phrase, "...a people so blind..." may indeed indicate hubris and/or White Man's Burden, but (again) more evidence would be needed before arriving at a judgment.  Again, it would have been helpful if the author provided further information on that point.

3) I was not saying that Business was infallible, and I fully acknowledge business corruption to be responsible for some economic woes.  However, my point was not to inject Business into the discussion.  The point was more to apply a very general Business concept (cost-benefit analysis) to the issue.  

4) I agree that pollution on the Ganges has been extensively covered by Western media.  The scientific, economic, and health concerns are real, and are a detriment to Indian society (especially the children).  Yet, the author's cited "PLOS One" journal article merely addresses perceived social psychological benefits, which are by no means guaranteed or assured from an experience like the Kumbh Mela.  In the grand scheme of things, a general psychological benefit in no way mitigates the above-listed trifecta of concerns.

As a side-note, none of my points are motivated by socio-cultural/religious bias/prejudice.  The reasons for my concern with the Kumbh Mela are driven by the already-established scientific, economic, and health concerns.  If none of those concerns existed, I would have no problem with the event at all.  In fact, if the author had adequately addressed those concerns, I would have had no reason to comment in the manner I did.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

To respond point-by-point:

1) I was applying the cost-benefit analysis to the country of India, specifically regarding the Kumbh Mela river event.  The 'costs' of the event are detrimental to the native population, especially since Kumbh participants are severely degrading the quality of their rivers.  Even without the event, those rivers are used for dishwashing, bathing, urinating/deficating, drinking, cooking, garbage disposal, etc..  The clear environmental and health costs of those activities cannot be ignored.

Conversely, the 'benefit detailed by the TIME article revolves around social psychology.  Yet, social psychology does not improve the average Indian's standard of living.  Therefore, when compared against the above-listed costs, many would say the costs dramatically outweight that one intangible benefit.

2) The Enron and budget crisis debacles have plenty to do with morality, and could be interpreted as un-Christian as well.  However, that's a side-issue, and not relevant to the article or this discussion.

3) Unlike the Kumbh, Enron/budget crisis debales did/do not worsen the overall health of the population, and the environment.

4) Christians do have a moral duty in life, yet many ignore that duty out of their own Free Will.  Again, it's irrelevant to the article.

SuchetaSinghal
SuchetaSinghal

@mrbomb13
'fully acknowledge business corruption to be responsible for some economic woes.  However, my point was not to inject Business into the discussion.  The point was more to apply a very general Business concept (cost-benefit analysis) to the issue.'

The 'general business concept of cost-benefit' analysis .. to whom? 
Do you account for cost to the environment .. which subsequently is cost to humanity into your 'analysis'? 
Do you think Enrons and the 'budged crisis' of today have anything to do with the morality of Christianism?  I did not think so. 

Only when it comes to the Indian society, its problems are due to Hindu dharm but 
'the west' has 'issues' due to modernity !!!!! .. lol.. So where has Christianism been?
Does not it have any moral duty to fix the society ??