By: Savita Iyer
Groups of Sadhus, Hindu holy men, their foreheads smeared with sacred ash, their necks encircled with marigold garlands as bright orange as the robes they wear, sit atop decorated chariots. Other ascetics, clad only in potato sacks or leopard-skin loincloths, straddle flower-festooned horses. Yet more are naked but for the ash covering their chests, dreadlocks adorned with half-moon ornaments, hands clutching tridents.
Photographer Jean-Marc Giboux says it’s easy to get caught up in the riot of color and movement of India’s Kumbh Mela, considered the largest pilgrimage in the world. But after covering the event five times, Giboux says it’s the intensity of group spiritual devotion that has him entranced.
“I have peeled off at every Kumbh Mela another tiny layer,” he says, “and felt in a different way the reverberation of the terrific energy that is at its core.”
The sense of spiritual upliftment that comes from being a part of a Kumbh Mela is unique, says Susan Shumsky, a spiritual guide and teacher and author of Divine Revelation, who since 2001 has been taking groups of pilgrims from the United States to India for the gathering.
“There’s such a great vibe there, with millions of people all focused in the same spiritual direction,” Shumsky says. “The mélange of all the people gathered there is amazing—you see their faces shining with spiritual luster because they are all there for a single spiritual purpose.”
The Kumbh Mela—which is mentioned as a practice both in the Vedas and in the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—has its origins in a mythical battle between Hindu gods and demons over a pot (the Kumbh) filled with the nectar of immortality. The pot is said to have broken in the fight, and drops of the sacred nectar scattered at four riverside cities—Nashik, Ujjain, Haridwar, and Allahabad.
Since then, whenever the planets align in the same position as in the original battle, pilgrims make their way toward each of these cities to celebrate the Kumbh Mela by bathing, on astrologically determined days, in the exact spot where the holy nectar is believed to have fallen. Bathing in a sacred body of water is, at any point in a Hindu’s life, an occasion to wash away past sins and purify the soul, but during the Kumbh Mela, that ritual is believed to have an even deeper and greater power.
“Most of the Indians who come to the Kumbh Mela are from extremely poor villages where life is very, very tough, and the sacrifice that they make to attend the Kumbh Mela is palpable,” Giboux says. “You have entire villages that come on trucks, just to be there, and people who come on foot. When they arrive, they are exhausted, they are dirty, but to see them walk to the river and then witness their liberation and see the smiles on their faces is extremely moving.”
The presence of sadhus and sages, who otherwise lead hermetic, reclusive lives in mountain abodes far from the public eye, is also an important part of the Kumbh Mela. During the celebration, spiritual leaders set up camps on the riverbank, where they receive pilgrims and preach to their followers.
For the millions of people who make their way to the Kumbh Mela, there’s a conviction that runs deeper than faith, and each one’s individual conviction combined results in an energy or force that “belongs to one and all, or to no one at all,” says Beena Sharma, co-founder of Jyotish Shiromani International Organization of Astrology and Vedic Sciences.
A gathering of this magnitude that brings together people from all walks of life, of all colors, castes, countries, and creeds, forms a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts, Sharma says, an entity that’s bigger than all of them yet includes each one as an individual.
Through the years, more and more people have been coming to Kumbh Mela—according to Indian government estimates, 100 million people attended the 2013 Purna Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, a particularly auspicious event that occurs every 12 years, a significant increase over the 70 million who attended the 2010 Kumbh Mela in Haridwar.
That scale of group devotion may thrill pilgrims caught up in the ecstatic energy, but it also creates a logistical nightmare. Both the national and the local government have made major investments in infrastructure, security, and sanitation to prepare for the celebration. And many spiritual leaders decry the commercialization of the event, noting the proliferation of tour companies promoting Kumbh Mela as a visitor attraction, and criticizing the local government for reportedly trying to sell broadcast and advertising rights in connection with the pilgrimage.
But for devotees of the celebration, the meaning of the Kumbh Mela will always come down to the people. “Walking around in that energy,” says Shumsky, “You feel that you’re in a timeless zone and spaceless place.”