In the thick of the World's largest gathering

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June 18th 2019
Published: June 18th 2019
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Sacred site festivals in India, called melas, are a vital part of the pilgrimage tradition of Hinduism. This one is the biggest, and probably oldest, in the world.

According to ancient Hindu myth, many moons ago the gods and demons had a tremendous fight about (amongst other things) the ownership of a pitcher, or 'kumbh', containing the nectar of immortality. Clever Vishnu managed to grab it, but in his haste to run away he managed to spill four drops of the holy nectar on India's surface: at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain.

Nowadays, the victory of the gods is celebrated in monumental style at each of these four places, once in every 12 years (since one day in god life equals 12 years for you or I). Pilgrims make their journey to dip in the holy waters of the Ganges/Yamuna confluence, cleansing themselves of their sins. The Allahabad celebration ('mela' meaning fair) is by far the biggest and best, and is also probably the biggest religious gathering ever to take place on the face of the earth. It's always difficult to substantiate the guesstimates made as to the numbers of pilgrims who make it to the water - the 1989 fair claimed a 20 million head count.

The build-up to the event is an event in itself: hoards of businessmen usually take the month-long festivities as a great excuse to make their millions, or at least to swap the ubiquitous business cards around. Over the course of the weeks running up to kick-off, a temporary township emerges on the empty ground on the Allahabad side of the Ganges. If you can't make one of the major bathing days, it is certainly worth dipping into this pre-festival fever.


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