Some travel events happen so rarely that you need to act when the time is at hand. The Passion Play at Oberammergau, Germany happens once in ten years, the aurora borealis (Northern Lights), every eleven, and the Kumbh Mela, every twelve.
2013 is the year of the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, India. It is a Hindu festival so unique, so spiritual, so cosmic, visitors may feel transported to another planet.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims convene at the confluence of three Rivers: the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati, where, legend has it, the nectar of immortality was spilled from a Kumbh (pot) during a battle between gods and demons. To take a dip at this holy site, to brave the cold currents rushing down from the Himalaya, means a chance at purification, wealth, or fertility. Mela organizers schedule specific bathing days so that the hordes of men, women and children all submerse together.
The event is made more auspicious by the appearance of thousands of sadhus, or Hindu holy men. At first glance, their gritty appearance may hide the fact that they are highly respected for their piety. As ascetics, they have separated themselves from society and renounced worldly life. They spend their days in prayer and meditation, reminding Hindus of divinity.
Thousands of people line the streets of Allahabad to watch with admiration as the sadhus and gurus quietly parade by on foot, truck, tractor, elephant or horse. Some are clothed in saffron-colored robes; others wear only dusty dreadlocks, but are covered from head to toe in ash. Many are adorned in flowers, gardenias perhaps, or have colored their faces in saffron and vermillion ash. Now and then a sadhu will stop to demonstrate a particular talent, such as martial arts, yoga, or dance.
Many sadhus and pilgrims stay in an encampment, where you can see the sadhus trying to separate themselves from physical bonds. For some that means smoking lots of cannabis.
If you’ve never been to the third world, a trip to India might be intimidating. And even if you’re a veteran traveler, a trip to the largest festival on earth should at least send you to a travel agent for a package tour.
Yet if you’re game (or courageous), Kumbh Mela is one of those quintessential events that you will never see anywhere else. It’s an opportunity to feel and observe the life of extreme sacrifice and spiritual dedication, as well as the worship of the Ganges. It is so unusual, so mystical that you may not even believe you are really there.
To get a sense of the spirituality, I would start by watching the beautiful “cultures in music” video by Baraka. Near the beginning is a holy man. An hour or so in, people are bathing in the Ganges at Veranasi, another holy city. A shorter (two-minute) video only about the mela is The Spirit of Moksha.