Greatest Show on Earth – Kumbh Mela

If you hadn’t already heard, I was at the Kumbh Mela for 3 days.

What is the Kumbh Mela? It’s arguably the biggest religious event in the Hindu calendar occurring every 12 years and it’s a ridiculously oversized event. This year 30 million people converged on the town of Allahabad.

I was planning to cut lose and photograph stuff but since the camera was damaged (don’t worry, I have earmarked a nice little camera to pick up when I am back home in May.) but more than an equaliser the mela is an entirely different world of faith, poverty and humanity.

IMHO it is poorly managed. It’s mass of humanity is astonishing. 30 Million People is a enough to populate most countries let alone a small town. The facilities are lousy. The streets are filthy.

I have said this to people everywhere but here especially I mean it the most. In India you will see the absolute best of humanity and the absolute worst of humanity. I shared food with someone who saw that I had worked 8 hours straight, they found out I just finished my exams the day before and treated me to a little bit of their dinner and some sweets they had. I saw rich people help poor people when they wouldn’t normally have in any other part of India. I saw the weird side of Hinduism in the Naga Sadhus (not to be confused with the Naga Khmer).

I also saw the bad side of it. Open toilet facilities that were little more than holes in the ground (let’s just say I didn’t really eat for 3 days lest I required to take a poop as the toilet facilities terrified me). Many of these were not even covered so they spread flies and disease and were often in full view of public access (even the women’s facilities).

And it was weird, I never got asked for money. Just for food and water. At the Kumbh money has no meaning since water and food are more valuable. A couple held onto my legs as I walked recognising the white coat and stethoscope I carried to work. I didn’t understand what they wanted then but someone later told me that their child had gotten lost and they hoped I could have found it. It sounds silly to assume that a doctor (in their minds) somehow had the power to find their child where others had not in the seething mass that was the Mela.

You can share what water and what food you had but you would get mobbed. There are too many to share with and you do what you can. I heard the people who had helped feed the pilgrims often fed them by the thousand. I didn’t keep count on the number of patients I saw but on day 1 I slept like a brick when I finished my shift. This was the India that people never see because it was so poor.

There is nothing like this in any other faith, Hinduism’s unique position as the last “old” religion left means it is unique and different to the ones we are familiar with. Check out these photos. They are absolutely stunning. (I know many of you don’t click links but Do It… Consider this Doctor’s Orders)

So I did something weird, on my last day there I woke up early and told myself that I would get to sleep on my flight and made my way down to the river where I was to take a bath myself. I certainly looked the part of a pilgrim with my hair shaved that morning in just a pair of trunks. It was cold and it certainly wasn’t pleasant or clean. The water is murky and polluted. Many pilgrims were drinking this stuff and I knew by the sheer number of cases of diarrhoea and dysentery that it was a “poor idea”. To think that this would wash your sins away is laughable but I still did it because I could.

I left feeling ambivalent.

And then I saw the news. In order to control a crowd of poor pilgrims who broke through barriers that had overcrowded them, Police responded with a batons (in India they are called lathis) which caused a stampede killing 32.

Those who lost loved ones poured the water they had collected from the sacred river at this most sacred of events onto the bodies of those they lost because they believed that it would bring them back to life…


  1. says

    I had heard of deaths in the stampede, but I’m was trying to estimate: how many cases of disease will happen because of the dirty water and the dirty latrines? And how many people will die from that? Granted, those numbers pale in comparison to the disease burden from millions of people having to use the Ganges for drinking and washing every day…

  2. sheila says

    And how many people will starve because they spent their money going to Kumbh Mela? Or will be weaker from hunger and succumb to the next infection?

  3. Sastra says

    I recently read Rome: The biography of a city and was struck with how chaotic and disorganized the medieval pilgrimages to Rome were. Pilgrims routinely starved and froze to death in a city which didn’t have enough food to feed them and no place to house them (and of course no modern plumbing) — and yet popes would still call for more and more pilgrimages to expiate for “sins.” This went on for hundreds of years. Pilgrimages were risky business — not just the journey, but the destination apparently even more so.

    I’d not heard before of the Kumbh Mela but it sounds similar to some of the descriptions in that book. I liked your

    There is nothing like this in any other faith, Hinduism’s unique position as the last “old” religion left means it is unique and different to the ones we are familiar with.

    Rome of the Middle ages is gone. But I wonder if Islam doesn’t have similar problems with its many festivals in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. I think at any rate that I’ve read about people being trampled there.

  4. says

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  5. says

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