Imagine a crowd so massive, it is visible from space. A crowd, likely 100 million strong intent on just one thing: bathing in a sacred river to wash away sins and gain a chance at a new beginning. Once every 12 years, Hindus from around the world converge at Sangam in Allahabad, India, at the convergence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers. It is known as the Maha Kumbh Mela, and it is not only the world’s largest religious festival, it is also believed to be the largest gathering of humans in one place, at one time on Earth.
Host of National Geographic Channel’s series ‘Don’t Tell My Mother’ and award-winning investigative journalist, Diego Buñuel will take us to the heart of the festival and reveal this extraordinary event as it is happening. “India is steeped in ancient traditions, Hinduism is an ancient religion, it is 5,000 years old, but [India is] also at the forefront of technological innovation. I’m curious to see how the super modern and the ancient collide at the Maha Kumbh Mela,” said Bunuel of his upcoming attendance at the spiritual gathering, “70 to 100 million people in one place? That’s mind-blowing! That definitely puts things into perspective.”
Aside from its sheer number of attendees, the sadhus of the Maha Kumbh Mela are perhaps the most visually stunning participants. But these sadhus do not just sit around and meditate and do yoga all day. These men are renowned for their acts of extreme worship. Some claim to have not sat down for decades. Others live with one arm perpetually raised above their head. They insert giant needles into their bodies or bury themselves for days in the sand to demonstrate their devotion to a life of sacrifice and self-discipline. And despite their effusive style and elaborate rituals, the sadhus are also known for their rivalries. There are hierarchies among their different groups called akhadas and fierce competition to determine who gets to bathe in the river at the most auspicious times.
The Maha Kumbh Mela is not just for ascetics. Hindus from across India and around the world make the pilgrimage to the banks of the Ganges at Allahabad to bathe in the river and drink its waters. The belief is that a special planetary alignment of the earth, the sun and Jupiter produces an especially favourable time for cleansing ones sins so that one is free from the cycle of death and rebirth. More importantly, all social differences are set aside during the festival. Caste, creed, region and other unspoken barriers are dismantled and touching acts of generosity and human kindness are often widespread.