Kumbh Mela – The World’s Largest Religious Event

Kumbh Mela – The World’s Largest Religious Event
Sadhu on a crowded road - India


I finally made it to the Kumbh Mela where I…

…observed thousands of Hindu pilgrims bathing in the Sangam, the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati Rivers…

Hindu pilgrims bathing in the river - India

…and talked with Sadhus, the Hindu ascetics who have has renounced the worldly life.

Close up shot of three Sadhus - India

I even had chai (tea) with Rasta-looking Naga Sadhus, who were smoking some mind-expanding substance.

Smoking Naga Sadhus - India

However, my most amusing moments were watching the dancing Sadhus.

Dancing Sadhu on orange traditional clothing - India

I was fortunate to spend two weeks here, where every day was an adventure.

My Story

This trip to the Indian subcontinent was arranged around attending the Kumbh Mela the first two weeks of February 2019. Before I arrived, I spent a few days in Mumbai. After I left the Kumbh Mela, I met Khadija, Peter and Caitlin to tour Sri Lanka, then the Maldives.

What surprised me was how few tourists there were. Of course, they were submerged in the masses, but I went hours without seeing obvious Westerners or non-Indians.


In Hinduism, gods and demons waged a war over a kumbh (pitcher) of amrita, the nectar of immortality. Vishnu in disguise whisked the amrita from the demons, but a few drops fell onto four sacred sites. When the planets align, the rivers on these sites are believed to turn into amrita. This is when the Kumbh Mela (Festival or Fair) occurs. People come to bathe in the rivers of amrita to rejuvenate the mind, body, and soul and pray for a better life and world.

Old woman with young boy bathing in the river - India

The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious event and probably the largest gathering of people in the world. The total estimate of people to attend for 2019 was 220 million people. There are other festivals which have a large attendance, such as Hajj in Mecca. However, the Kumbh Mela is at least 48 days compared to 5 days for the Hajj, so the former has over nine times the time for attendees to come. The 2019 one was 55 days, from January 15 to March 4.

The pilgrimage is celebrated four times over twelve years. There are four separate locations that are rotated through every cycle, each at a sacred river. The locations are Allahabad (recently renamed Prayagraj), Ujjain, Nashik, and Haridwar.

Map showing locations of the Kumbh Mela - India

The location and timing between events vary each cycle, based on the astrological settings of the sun, moon, and Jupiter. Sometimes there is only one year between festivals for this reason. The next Kumbh Mela is in 2021 in Haridwar.

The biggest attendance comes on the sixth year (Ardh Kumbh Mela) and twelfth year (Purna (sometimes Maha) Kumbh Mela). At the end of a 144-year cycle, the Maha Kumbh Mela is particularly important and last occurred in 2013. Unless there are inconceivable advancements in medicine, I will not be here for the next one in 2157. My visit in 2019 was to the Ardh Kumbh Mela, which had the following logo.

Ardh Kumbh Mela logo - India

Each time, a massive temporary city is built on land with pontoon bridges crossing the rivers.

Motorcycle rider on a Pontoon bridge - India

The Indian government spends considerable resources to build the city. In 2019, the city stretched over 24 kilometers (15 miles). Here is a video from a helicopter that was given to me, showing the spread-out temporary city.

As local hotels cannot provide enough lodging and many pilgrims could not afford them anyway, thousands of tents are provided.

Pilgrim tents during Kumbh Mela - India

No matter the time, cost and effort, many Hindus, even the young…

Father and child pilgrims during Kumbh Mela - India


Four elderly ladies in attending Kumbh Mela - India

and infirm come to participate.

Elderly Kumbh Mela Hindu pilgrim - India



At its core, the Kumbh Mela is a ritual for Hindus to submerge themselves in holy water to cleanse their souls.

Group of men bathing in the river - India

Sangam is the confluence of holy rivers. In Allahabad, it is called the Triveni Sangam, where the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati meet.

Map showing the Triveni Sangam - India

The water of the Ganges is relatively clear, while that of the Yamuna is more greenish.

Some engaged in the ritual in a solemn and contemplative manner…

Hindu pilgrims praying while bathing in the river - India

…while others looked like they were in a pool party.

Two laughing young women bathing in the river - India

Next to the water, the bathers prepare for the dip and dry themselves afterwards. In some parts, the waters are next to a beach, usually supplemented with straw…

Three young women during the Kumbh Mela - India

In other places, there are ghats (steps).

Hindu pilgrims gathered on ghats - India

While Hindu women are generally modest in dressing, there is usually some exposure for them when bathing.

Elderly pilgrim couple bathing in the river - India

I found it fascinating seeing the henna designs and jewelry on women.

Henna-painted feet with jewelry - India

Here is a 360-degree view.

I was very tempted to jump in the water. However, I had a bad experience in an Ethiopia rural lake, so I didn’t.  In retrospect, it probably would have been fine, and I should have done it.


When I travelled around India in the past, I would see Sadhus here and there, in buses or requesting money in Varanasi. I thought there would be many here, but I was not prepared for thousands of them.

Long line of Sadhus during the Kumbh Mela - India

Sadhus are Hindu ascetics who have vowed to leave behind all material and earthly attachments. They often live in small huts, caves, or in the jungle. Sometimes, they can be found in ashrams in cities, but are often moving from one place to another. They are generally given free passage on public transportation throughout both India and Nepal as they often live in extreme poverty as part of their vows.

As far as I could tell, they spent most of their day going for breakfast, lunch and dinner and waiting in line to be served. They carry a stainless-steel container, called a Tiffen, with three-tiered containers to store food.

Row of Sadhus with their Tiffens - India

Sometimes they would engage in Hindu prayers.

Most Sadhus are men, but there are women too.

Group of Sadhu women on orange traditional clothing - India

While living in poverty, every once in a while, one employed some modern technology (maybe he wasn’t a Sadhu, but I could not always tell)…

Sadhu with headphones - India

…or at least had sunglasses and vision glasses.

Sadhu with sunglasses - India

I never tired of looking at their faces, usually weathered and often with overflowing beards.

Bearded elderly hindu pilgrim - India

Many had painted faces for the Kumbh Mela.

Sadhu headwrap and painted forehead - India

Some were bundled up, as it was cold in the morning next to the river.Bundled up Sadhu pilgrim with dreadlocks - India

A few exposed their bodies.

Sadhu sitting on the ground - India

Most wore saffron robes and headwraps, but not all.

Sadhu on saffron robes and headwrap - India

Most Sadhus I met spoke little or no English. Most who had some fluency was hard for me to understand.

At least I was able to take selfies with some.

Ed with a pepper-haired Sadhu - India

After a while, many of the Sadhu’s faces reminded me of images out of the Old Testament.

Close-up shot of a sadhu - India

And let’s not forget the dancing Sadhus.


Rasta Sadhus

“Rasta Sadhu” is my terminology. It refers to Sadhus who smoke marijuana and hallucinatory substances. Some have dreadlocks. I saw a number of them at the Kumbh Mela.

Smoking Sadhu with a blanket - India

In 1833, Britain outlawed slavery in Jamaica which created a shortage of laborers to work in the rubber and sugar plantations. To help meet this deficit, the British brought about 35,000 Indian indentured servants to Jamaica between 1845 and 1917.

These Indian laborers brought with them religious traditions which included the ceremonial smoking of marijuana. The Hindi word for the bud of the marijuana flower is ganja, which became a general name for marijuana.

Many civilizations have had dreadlocks in their history. The Vedas, Hinduism’s oldest scriptures, depict Shiva with dreadlocks. Some Indian holy men and women regard dreadlocks as sacred and a denial of vanity and still wear them.

Sadhu with dreadlocks, sunglasses, and huge necklace - India

The Rastafarian religion was created in the 1930s, selecting beliefs found in the Old Testament, African tribal culture, and the Hindu religion. It is possible, maybe likely, the Hindu tradition of dreadlocks was the main source of inspiration for Rastafarians adopting them.

Naga Sadhus

There are different akharas (monastic sects) of Sadhus, all which associate with a guru for many years before becoming independent. The most well-known sect is the Naga Sadhus, who minimize belongings and attachments, never wear clothes, cover their bodies in ash and often sport matted dreadlocks. I saw them performing feats such as putting their leg behind their head or standing on one leg while drumming.

Naga Sadhu On One Leg - India

When I walked by, they asked for donations, especially if I took a photo. While non-materialists, they must need to generate some income to live.

For some reason unknown to me, one had a beaded crown on his head while sitting in front of a fire pit.

Sadhu with heavily-beaded accessories - India

I took many other pictures, but they are too explicit for a general audience.

Mauni Amavasya

While the Kumbh Mela is alive every day with pilgrims and vendors, there are three special days when members of akharas go in waves into the Sangam before daylight. Apparently, there is quite a bit of negotiation involved in when each group proceeds. I was there for Mauni Amavasya on February 4 but for logistical reasons could not make it before the crack of dawn.

During the daylight, the heads of akharas parade through the crowds on decorated floats, followed by their adherents.

Decorated float during a Kumbh Mela parade - India

They ride atop tractors, trucks and even elephants,

Pilgrim riding a float during a Kumbh Mela parade - India

The most noteworthy aspect of this day was how crowded it was.

Crowd of pilgrims during the Kumbh Mela - India

I attempted to cross a pontoon bridge where the parade was going. However, I jumped out before being trapped on it, perhaps for several hours.


There are temporary pavilions along the main streets with colorful gateways and bright decorations such as huge flower arrangements and neon lights.

Crowd in front of a brightly colored gateway - India

In the pavilions, I attended lectures by yogis, theater productions and musical performances. Of course, most of them were trying to recruit new followers. The pavilions were also lively and colorful on certain nights.

Crowd with a colorful pavilion in the background - India

Some of the pavilions provided free meals to anyone, part of the Hindu charitable tradition.

Lines of people eating on the floor together - India

I had lunch of wonderful vegetarian food at one pavilion. However, despite years of yoga, it was not easy to sit cross-legged for the entire meal. Also, I’ve never liked eating without utensils.

Others were conducting a homa, a ritual where a religious offering is made into fire.

In this case, it was done in between the mantra on the loudspeakers.

Chai Stands, Vendors and Performers

Along the streets were hundreds of merchants, selling religious objects and jewelry…

Women At Costume Jewelry Stand - India

…personal services…

Man ironing clothes during Kumbh Mela - India

…bulk food…

Smiling food vendor woman - India

…and chai with sweets and snacks. Every day I went to my favorite stand, run by a local family, and had several Dixie-sized clay cups of chai.

Chai stand vendor while cooking - India

Every hour or two I took a break from walking and stopped at a chai stand and chatted with other customers. Here I spoke with these two gentlemen in their seventies (they showed me their ID card) who have been to the Kumbh Mela several times.

Chai stand customers - India

The gathering is more than just a pilgrimage, though, and includes some similarities to a county fair, including acrobatic performers…

…and children dressed as Hindu deities.

Face-painted girl dressed as a deity - India


Security and Sanitation

The authorities had tight control of the festival with a huge contingent of armed soldiers and police.

Group of Kumbh Mela authorities on the street - India

I saw individuals get agitated once because of intense overcrowding on Mauni Amavasya. The soldiers and officers stood up to the angry folks and diffused the confrontation.

Crowd with agitated man facing an officer - India

I spoke with one policeman at my favorite chai stand.

Policeman in front of a Chai stand - India

He told me he spent 22 years in the army and has a monthly pension of 25,000 rupees (US$360). He further said that he is married and has one child, a 16-year old son.

The temporary city employed another army, the one emptying the public toilet and cleaning the grounds

Woman sweeping the ground - India

liked their Kumbh Mela hats and bought one.



Allahabad has been the name of the city for 435 years but was recently changed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to Prayagraj, an ancient name. Depending on whom I spoke to, it was done to better represent the city’s role in the Kumbh Mela or it was a politically driven action to appeal to the city’s Hindu majority.

The city is worth checking out if only to have a break from the Kumbh Mela. The main tourist attraction is the Anand Bhavan, the Nehru family house which is now a museum.

View of the Anand Bhavan Museum - India

The displays in the house concentrate on the life of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first president after independence. In the back, there is another building providing extensive and interesting detail on former President Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter.

While I was there, the concrete columns of an expressway through town were painted with traditional Indian images.

Painted Viaduct Column - India

I heard they were temporary, but it would be great if they were not.


Photographic Experience and Final Images

I shot most of my photos from dawn to 10am and from 3pm to sunset, when the sunlight was warm and diffused.

Sadhu walking on the street with other pilgrims - India

Most people I photographed did not mind and many liked it. It was difficult deciding which images to use in this post, as I had so many I liked. Here are a few more that were special to me.

India is infamous for its aggressive and deformed beggars. Interestingly, I saw relatively few of any kind here. The ones I did see were mostly children.

Young street beggars - India

I even saw once where a Sadhu gave food he just received to the poor children.

As everyone knows, India is awash in color, as was amply shown here every day.

Group women sitting on steps - India

I met Rakesh several times. He was a medical doctor from Kanpur working at the festival. We continue to stay in contact.

Ed with Rakesh during the Kumbh Mela - India

I also took selfies (in India, this word means photos of people and not just of oneself) with people I will never see again, such as these women, but they are engraved in my memory…

Ed alongside a group of Indian women - India

…and this man with a white beard, a phone in his hand, a turban and an outdoor jacket, who came to meet me.

Ed with an Indian man wearing a Turban - India

I am eternally grateful for this experience. I hope other travelers can have as interesting and enriching visit anywhere as I had here.

Picture of Ed Hotchkiss
Ed Hotchkiss

My goal is to travel to all the United Nations list of 193 countries of the world. For the rest of my life, I want to see and experience as much of the world as possible, while documenting it in photographs and observations.

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