Soukilal Naik waded into the water, tossed a coconut in front of him and pressed his palms together. Once, twice, he submerged himself in the river, his arms outstretched, his mouth rapidly forming the words of a prayer.
It was around 4am and in the darkness the water was freezing. But everywhere around the farmer from the Indian state of Orissa, people were doing the same – plunging and praying, splashing and smiling. Up to 30 million people joined Mr Naik in immersing themselves in the River Ganges and washing away their sins.
The Kumbh Mela, or Pitcher Festival, held every three years at one of four towns, is said to be the largest gathering of humanity.
Over the course of 55 days, more than 110 million people are expected to visit the festival, held to mark an incident in Hindu mythology when deities battled demons and won the right for nectar that granted them immortality.
Hindus believe that if they bathe on the most auspicious day, which fell on Sunday, a lifetime of sin – or indeed the sins accumulated over the course of many lives – can be washed away. And of all the locations for the festival, this spot in Allahabad, where the sacred Ganges and almost-equally sacred Yamuna rivers merge with the mystical Saraswati, is said to have no equal.
This shot at redemption explains why so many people from across the breadth of India are willing to embark on an often exhausting journey, sleep by the roadside until their chance to bathe, and then turn home again the very same day. Many of those who visit, perhaps most, are from India’s small towns and villages.
Mr Naik’s journey had taken him 20 jolting hours. The previous day, a group from the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, explained that their journey by bus had taken three days. From this group, a father, his wife and their young daughter bathed together, grinning throughout.
“The whole family has come. It is a part of Hindu life,” said the young man, Gorav Chandran.
And yet the mela carries with it real dangers. Today, officials in Allahabad were facing criticism over arrangements made for travellers after a stampede at the railway station left 36 dead and many injured. In 2003, around 45 people were crushed to death when the festival was held in Nasik.
India’s railway minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal, announced an inquiry but said: “There were just too many people on the platforms.”
There are other less perilous risks associated with the festival. Several Bollywood films have been devoted to the problem of people getting lost amid the crowds. Centres are established to try and reunite people and all day loud-speakers crackle with details of children and adults who have shown-up lost. Some larger groups of people tied themselves to one another with pieces of string or else the end of a sari.
Siddeshwar Prasad had been doubly unfortunate. He arrived from Bihar as part of a group of eight. On Saturday two friends had become separated and on Sunday morning, after their visit to the Ganges, he had lost another three. He was now sitting in the shade of under a tree. “Even if we don’t find them we are going to return today,” he said.
If the central purpose of the festival is religious, then the mela is also part country fair and part massive bazaar. Hawkers selling everyone from clothes to religious icons line the sides of the dusty roads that spread over 4,500 acres, while the evenings pound with the sound of religious chanting. One vendor, Mehboob, offered a black, gelatinous herbal substance – a purported natural sexual stimulant – that he said would have immediate benefits. He was asking R100 (84p) for 50g.
Among the various Hindu holy men lured by the festival, it is the naked, ash-smeared ‘Naga’ sadhus who earn the most attention from both genuine devotees and curious gawkers. Many of them appeared to spend much of their time sitting around fires and smoking unidentified substances from small clay chillum pipes, collecting donations and generally soaking in the rock star treatment. One of them, Shri Panchdas Naam, from Mathura, declined to be interviewed unless The Independent agreed to “compensate him” for lost time. Much friendlier was Someshwar Giri, a guru from Himachal Pradesh, who toured the festival with his right hand held aloft, some of his fingers apparently fused together. One of his followers claimed the holy men had borne his hand in this position for the last five years. Asked how Mr Giri managed to sleep, the devotee said: “He has not slept for the last five years.”
One guru confronted one of the great ironies of the festival, indeed one of the ironies of Hindu India, namely that while the Ganges and Yamuna are utterly revered they are among the world’s most heavily polluted rivers.
With a line of a followers queuing to prostrate themselves at his feet, Swami Avimukteshwaranand broke off from juggling calls he was receiving on three phones to demand the authorities take action to protect a river into which is dumped 750 million gallons of sewage every day.
“There is nothing else in the world that could draw such a large crowd,” he added. Yet few appeared to spend too much time worrying that the river might not be all that clean. Many believe the water can clean itself.
Mr Naik, who hoped bathing in the Ganges would help him ensure he could get enough labourers to harvest his rice crop, did not pause as he made his way through the crowds to the river’s edge.
“I feel great,” he said, a few minutes later, as he clambered from the marigold-strewn water. “I hope this will bring prosperity and good health.”
Then he started to dry himself off.