It was 5.30 am. I was standing in the middle of the largest gathering of humanity ever witnessed on the planet. Around me in a surreal half-light cast by rows of overhead halogen lights, millions upon millions of pilgrims were filing past in a remarkably quiet and orderly fashion – a vast multitude that made the crowds of Times Square seem positively puny.
It was Friday February 14th, one of the most auspicious days of the Maha Kumbh Mela, the largest Kumbh Mela pilgrimage to be held in 144 years.
I had already visited the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and (mythical) Saraswati rivers and watched Hindu pilgrims washing away their sins. I’d seen fathers with children clutched in their arms bobbing up and down in the holy waters; emaciated old men stripped down to their underwear with rib cages prodding through taut skin like partially excavated dinosaur bones; women fully clothed in their saris, dripping wet in the cold night air yet grinning in exultation.
The police had since cleared many of them away in preparation for the arrival of thousands of sadhus. The most celebrated of these ascetics go naked and smear their skin with Vibhuti, or sacred ash. Revered for their supposed spiritual powers, they’re a photographer’s dream. When they charged into the water looking like the cast of 10,000 BC, there were almost as many professional zoom lenses on display as exposed members.
But watching the pilgrims coming and going with bundles of possession propped on their heads and shoulders, all of them engaged in a single, common purpose was profoundly moving. The sight of one family in particular is seared into my memory. Drawn from four generations and numbering a dozen strong, they shuffled along with a rope lassoed around all of them to ensure no one got lost. Their expressions bespoke of utter bewilderment, as if they themselves couldn’t quite believe what they were witnessing. And then they were gone, swallowed up by the hordes heading down to the water and salvation.
I lingered a little longer and a number of pilgrims took snaps of me on their mobile phones. I had unwittingly become a part of spectacle and wondered how I’d be described to people back home people back home. ‘Look at this white guy I came across!’ From then one, taking my own photographs felt less intrusive.
I drank a cup of milky chai sold by a tout carrying a steel pot with a contraption strapped beneath containing hot coals and then made my way back across one of the pontoon bridges leading to the vast tent city which houses millions of pilgrims every night. I passed rows of marquees where, later in the day, gurus and godmen would sit preaching before their adherents – and perhaps perform the odd miracle.
I stopped to photograph some elderly pilgrims warming their hands before a pile of burning logs. A holy man sporting dreadlocks appeared walking a Labrador pup. A tout offered me a shopping bag full of hashish. Over the loud speakers, an announcer reeled off a long list of names of pilgrims who’d gone missing. Then a young man walked straight up to me and asked, ‘Please which country?’
‘England,’ I replied. ‘Britain – United Kingdom.’
He gave a nod. ‘Have you anything like this in your country mister?’
I glanced around me. A dozen villagers were being off loaded from the back of a jeep. In this distance, a procession of floats rolled past with sadhus and godmen sitting atop of thrones while tossing marigold flowers into the adoring crowd. Pilgrims prostrated themselves on the ground in their wake, kissing the sandy soil. A myriad loudspeakers blared a cacophony of mantras and sermons.
‘No,’ I replied with a smile. ‘I don’t think anything quite compares to this.’