Story in Pictures: Inside India’s Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious festival
Every six years in North India at the confluence of three rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, a massive theatre of religion and spirituality unfolds in the presence of millions of Hindu devotees. This congregation, often dubbed as the world’s largest and longest religious festival – almost 150 million people gathered in 2019 alone – is called Ardh (half) Kumbh Mela. The gathering is dwarfed only by a synchronised routine of sacred rituals and practices – the reverberating beats of cymbals during ‘aarti’, hordes of believers taking a dip in Ganga, the holiest river in Hindu mythology, the presence of ganja smoking, ash-smeared ‘babas’ (Yogis), and the constant hum of mantras being read.
The festival stems from an ancient legend about a fight between the Gods and Asuras (demons) over a Kumbha (pot) of nectar that carried the elixir of immortality. It is believed that during the tussle, four drops of nectar fell on four places, Haridwar, Nashik, Ujjain and Prayagraj, which became the only four Indian cities to host Kumbh Mela.
This year, the 48-day festival began on January 15 in Prayagraj (formerly Allahabad) with the onset of Makar Sankranthi, another holy Hindu Festival and culminated on March 4 with Mahashivratri, a day of veneration of Lord Shiva. On Mahashivratri, devotees take a dip in Ganga in an attempt to seek forgiveness from Gods and to wash away their sins, and in 2019 almost 14 million people participated in this ritual.
Prashant Mohan, Heritage and Architecture Photographer and the founder of Running Studios, Kerala, South India, visited the Mela for the first time this year and was utterly astounded by the scale, appeal and colours of the festival. “It was like stepping into a different world altogether. The images and experiences one has – smoke from hundreds of lamps, the scent of incense sticks, the spirit and devotion of those attending, the dreadlock spotting Naga Babas – are indescribable. These experiences are almost oxymoronic, both overwhelming and comforting at the same time! I was fortunate enough to share space with millions of others who gathered at the Kumbh in a fascinating celebration of their faith. The Mela is a feeling that cannot be described, only felt,” says the photographer.
Mohan’s camera captured many a beautiful sight that gives us a glimpse of the Mela and the city that hosted it.