A section of Allahabad turns into Tent City to accommodate between 15 to 20 million pilgrims at any point of time. The temporary street lights, smoke from mango wood used for heat, winter fog and the light of dawn create this magical glow over the city that is enveloped by 24 hours of hymns and holy chants. In a few months, all of this will be under water as the dams of the Ganges and Yamuna are released and monsoon season sets over.
Naga Sadhus are a huge draw at the Kumbh. They are typically reclusive and shy from the public, living in celibacy and only associated with their respective akharas. The three royal baths held at the Kumbh (every 12 years) and Ardh Kumbh (every 6 years) brings them out in full force as they head to the holy waters with purpose and fury.
The Kumbh festival, over the course of eight weeks, spans six auspicious bathing dates, and on three of those days, akharas carry out royal bathing processions by tradition. There are fourteen akharas that are formally invited to attend the Kumbh (though others show up informally), and while they are united by the common mantra of Sanatan Dharma, frictions run deep between and even within them. The boldest expression of akhara animosity manifests itself in the right to bath the holy waters first — an indication of honor, power, and influence. While there are fourteen akharas (historically thirteen with the new addition of the transgender Kinnaur), only six royal processions are allowed. Consequently, smaller akharas march behind or with larger ones in historically determined pairs. Here, the Anand akhara joins the larger and more influential Niranjan akhara as they are about ready to embark on their royal procession.
Naga Sadhus start their pre-bath rituals some 3 hours before they head out on their bathing procession. It’s biting cold along the Ganges during the Kumbh, so heat from embers is welcome as is a continuous doze of marijuana.
During the marching of the various akharas to the Sangam before the royal baths (shahi snans), each akhara plays the one-upmanship game in terms of pomp and show. Over the decades, a symbiotic relationship has evolved between akharas and the media. Akhara hierarchies have been established centuries ago, often in battle, yet in recent decades it is the media that has dictated a pseudo-rank based on how sensational, naked, vibrant, and loud an akhara is. And akharas have reciprocated with frontmen, pole bearers, flag bearers, drummers on horses, ash-smeared naked swordsmen and the likes. The bigger akharas like Mahanirvani and Juna have entourages of media-friendly sadhus fully prepared to "wow" photographers and journalists, some of the smaller ones not so much. Here, a pole bearer of a relatively modest Sikh Panchayati Akhara sips on hot tea while checking out the scene at the grander Niranjani akhara as they gear up for their Sangam procession.
Faith moves mountains and trust removes all barriers. Some 150 million pilgrims are making their Kumbh odyssey this year with this belief. One dip in the holy waters of the Sangam will free them of sin, suffering, and sadness. This man was physically challenged, had little means, and was on his own, yet walked out of the Ganges with a smile that could lift people around him — content, radiant, and blessed.
Elderly widows in India remain vulnerable even in the 21st century due to the lack of education, employment, and empowerment. Official estimates suggest that there are around forty thousand abandoned widows concentrated in the holy cities of Varanasi and Vrindavan alone. These numbers are believed to grow at every Kumbh when many elderly are intentionally abandoned by their families amidst massive crowds. Some of these women are fortunate to find a home in government-run shelters and privately-funded widow ashrams. Many NGOs today work to create small-time employment opportunities for such women and the Kumbh is a large enough marketplace that helps the cause. Here, an elderly widow at the Allahabad train station was with her group and several baskets of incense sticks and fragrances, a high-frequency commodity at the Kumbh. Her warm demeanor and mild smile were heartening to see, emblematic of her possibly being employed and amongst supportive company.
Kalpavasis are long-term pilgrims who lead a very basic and austere life, often on one meal a day. Feeding a Kalpavasi is often considered an act of piety, and is a common site on the Kumbh mela grounds. Kalpavasis usually spend months on the pilgrim trail including the entire duration of the Kumbh festival, traveling long distances on foot for weeks and days.
Despite all of India's recent economic boom, several regional economies (particularly in the northern and central interiors) are jobs- and cash-strapped. As such, an event like the Kumbh is a colossal boost to the local economy. In the 2013 mela, an investment of $200 million yielded returns of over $2 billion. This year, the Government has pumped in $600 million with a projected impact of $16 billion. These sort of numbers, directly and indirectly, benefit the entire ecosystem around the Kumbh. Here, a woman at a family-run shop that sells locks, keys, and security chains is all smiles as the demand for her products is obvious. She is sorting out vegetables for lunch as she explains that business during the Kumbh sustains the family for months, possibly years. It's religious significance aside, the Kumbh is a vital engine that sustains households in India's heartland.
At least a few million pilgrims come to the Kumbh despite dire financial circumstances. Whether it's traveling for weeks, living in extreme conditions or surviving on one meal a day (sometimes not even), many make this difficult journey out of pure devotion and a desire to bathe in the holy waters. Yet, for the entire duration of the Kumbh, every pilgrim is guaranteed at least two meals a day offered by akharas, volunteers or a host of other public service groups. For many, the Kumbh is the only time when they don't have to worry about getting fed.