A guide to visiting India’s largest religious gathering: Maha Kumbh Mela

Joining 110 million people at the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India.

Imagine millions of people gathering the same place. Loud speakers playing Hare Krishna mantras and naked men walking around with tridents in the streets. That’s how the Maha Kumbh Mela was like.

I can honestly say that attending this festival is one of the most exhilarating, humbling and challenging experiences I’ve had. Even though I am not a hindu, and I did not come to bathe in the River Ganges like other pilgrims, I still felt the energy, warmth and faith there. If you ever want to experience something completely out of the ordinary –this is the place to go.

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Maha Kumbh Mela festival, India

What is Kumbh Mela?

is the world’s largest religious festival, and it is held every third year in one of four different cities by rotation. This year was the Maha Kumbh Mela, which is only held every twelfth year, and it is estimated that 110 million people attended.

The event lasts for49-days.

Most visitors are pilgrims from India who come to bathe in Ganges. They do so because they believe that they will achieve purification of sin and bad karma if they take a dip on specific auspicious days during the six-week long festival.

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Staying in an ashram

One of the things I was looking most forward to was staying at an ashram. This had been on my wish list for so many years. Not only because of my professional interest, but I wanted to challenge my vanity and go way out of my comfort zone.

We stayed at the Yathath Yog Ashram, which is based in Rajpur. It is run by Bruno, a Belgian, and Radhe Baba, the guru. At the moment, 5-10 people lives in the ashram, but during the Kumbh Mela, there are around 25 living here.

Read next: Why you should visit an ashram

The ashram is an open community, and people came to visit every day. There was always enough food to share with strangers, and always an extra blanket for anyone who didn’t have a place to stay. Bruno and Baba were very interested in talking to us, and there was never a bad time to get input on Kumbh Mela, any of life’s big questions or even to get a massage.

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Blessings from a holy naked man

Overwhelmed as I was at first, I was soon fascinated by the thousands of sadhus walking around on the dusty dirt roads of the Kumbh. Sadhus are India’s holy men, and they belong to different sects; some of them wear orange robes, others are naked and smeared in white ash.

Even though some of their looks or trident accessories seemed unfriendly, most sadhus were surprisingly chatty, and I had the pleasure of visiting a naga sadhu, which is a holy and very naked man.

You can read all about my visit here, but we had a great basic sign-language conversation over a cup of chai, and he gave me his blessing before we left.

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This is the naga sadhu I visited. He was from Nepal
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Kumbh Mela
This is a Vishnu sadhu. You can recognize a sadhu’s sect by the sign on his forehead
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Most sadhus smoke chillum (marijuana), which is considered a ritual in their worship of Shiva

Overcrowding issues

India is a pretty crowded country, and strange as it may sound, it didn’t seem like 110 million people were at the festival. There were many, yes. But it’s only during the processions and larger gatherings that crowds can be a problem and in some cases fatal. 36 people died in a stampede at the train station, and having been there I can see why something like this can happen.

Read next: Pilgrims at the Ganges River

When I exited the train in Allahabad, I had three Indian women pulling my shirt trying to get in first, while ten others pushed and dropped elbows in each other’s faces. Luckily for me, a helpful local who stood right next to me, slapped two of the women, kicked the third and yelled at them in hindi (to back off, I assume).

It was rather brutal, but I guess that’s just the way they usually enter a train, and with so many people I have no problem imagining how people could get trampled to death. This is not the place to turn the other cheek when someone takes a swing at you.

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Maha Kumbh Mela festival, India

Rituals at the River Ganges

The Kumbh Mela covers a large area, but there are always people and religious rituals to be found at the Sangam. This is the most holy place as it’s the confluence of the three rivers: Ganges, Yamuna, and the mythic Saraswati River.

This is where pilgrims come to wash away their sins and it is also the site where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were immersed.

One of the many sangam rituals involves getting a dot in your forehead so that you’ll really blend in. Pernille bought a coconut, which was to be thrown in the river as a symbol of casting away bad karma. I got a paper boat with candles and flower petals, also a sign of being purified of sin.

Read next: Things to do in Varanasi

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The weird things you see at the Kumbh

Indeed, Kumbh Mela is a place for religion, but it’s also the place to see strange things!

I met a cow with five legs, a hyper mobile local and a pot smoking police officer all in one day – and I haven’t even gotten around to telling you about the naked men and how I got blessed by one. Kumbh Mela may be many things, but one thing is for sure: it’s certainly not boring.

Read next: Meeting a naked naga sadhu

Maha Kumbh Mela festival, India
A cow with 5 legs
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A hyper mobile local

Have you been to any big festivals? Let’s talk in the comments

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Imagine millions of people gathering the same place. Loud speakers playing Hare Krishna mantras and naked men walking around with tridents in the streets. That’s how the Maha Kumbh Mela was like. Read more about how it was like joining 110 million people at the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India - the world's largest religious festival.

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  1. Hi Miriam, Kunbha mela itself has beauty. I think it’s largest people gathering in the world even crowd of gathering people is also visible from space. I search for kumbh mela, Accidently i find this post. It seems to be you enjoy kumbh mela so much. Thanks for sharing your post and postitive experience. You capture every single movement of kumbh mela from arrive to go. all pictures are too good as specially “you are floating flowers in river” and “saint’s tea time”. Good luck

    1. Hi Katie, thanks for stopping by and commenting! I’ve also heard that Kumbh Mela is visible from space and that’s just insane, isn’t it? I have personally never been to a place with so many people gathered before, but I can honestly say that it is one of the most fascinating and amazing experiences I’ve had. If you haven’t been to a Kumbh Mela, I highly recommend it.

  2. Nice blog,Miriam! You must have been really blessed to be able to witness Maha Kumbh. India is a chaos and at the very same time it’s a marvel country. I suppose India is the only country in the world that can offer something to everyone on this planet.
    I had a a quick glance at your bucket list. Doing the Kilimanjaro climb, master a fighting skill and writing for a big brand is next on my list. Might do it soon.
    Ps- Add devil’s pool to your list. Good luck!

    1. Thank you Shobhit! Maha Kumbh Mela was without doubt one of the most impressive, intense and fascinating experiences I’ve had, and I’m really happy I went!

      I’ll look into Devil’s Pool – thanks for the recommendations. And good luck with your own bucket list! 🙂

  3. The Kumbh, is held every six years on the banks of Sangam. Second only to the Kumbh in sanctity, the Kumbh also attracts devotes in millions, from all over the world. Magh Mela is an annual event held at the Sangam…

  4. Kumbh Mela is the biggest fair to be held in India. This is a collective Hindu pilgrimage, here a large number of Hindus gather and bath in a holy river. History of Kumbh Mela is at least 850 years old. It is believed that Adi Shankaracharya had started it, but according to some stories, the beginning of Kumbha was only due to the beginning of the ocean of manthan. The elixir of Manthan was dropped at the places of Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain, and Nashik, That is why the Kumbh Mela has taken place at every four years in these four places. After 12 years, this fair reaches its first place. It is the largest event for the Hindu community every fourth year. Only the foreigners of India but also the foreign tourists who come here will also attend this fair at this fair. Saints and saints who wear saffron cloth, all are seen in Kumbh Mela. This fair is celebrated at four different places – on the banks of Godavari river in Nasik, on the banks of river Ganges in Haridwar, along with the banks of the Shipra River in Ujjain, and Ganga river in Allahabad, Yamuna river and Saraswati river, where all three congregations Are there.

  5. One of the finest blog Miriam!!! very much impressed with your adventurous travel thanks for coming India, will read all your journeys hereafter

  6. OMG Miriam, I am an Indian and I have visited Prayagraj like half of my childhood (all my grandparents lived there) and I cannot image staying at Kumbh. That needs a lot of guts! Awesome!

  7. First and foremost, the blog contains almost all relevant information about Kumbh Mela – importance, activities, attractions, facilities etc. But, the photographs are so unique and real. The pictures are so lively that only compilation of them is a guide and depiction of attraction of the Kumbh Mela. Kudos.

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