The Kumbh Mela 2013, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, India

NEW: River of Faith, a new documentary film about the Kumbh Mela 2013 by Namit Arora (56 minutes).

"In the midst of the Waters, the Lord is moving, surveying men's truth and men's lies. How sweet are the waters, crystal clear and cleansing. Now may these great, divine Waters enliven me". —Rig Veda VII.49.3

The Kumbh Mela is an ancient pilgrimage festival that happens once every three years, rotating across four locations in India. The largest of these riverside fairs happens every 12 years in Allahabad at the confluence of two rivers, Ganga and Yamuna. On its opening day in Jan 2013, I was among its estimated ten million visitors. During the 6-8 weeks it lasts, tens of millions come to bathe in these rivers as a meritorious act to cleanse body and soul making it the largest gathering of humanity on the planet. On the festival's most auspicious day in 2013, an estimated thirty million pilgrims came. The Kumbh Mela is also a meeting place for ascetics, sadhus, sants, gurus, yogis, sunyasis, bairagis, virakts, fakes, misfits, and crooks of various sects of Hinduism, who camp out in tents on the riverbank, lecture and debate, drink milky-syrupy chai, smoke ganja and hashish, and are visited by pilgrims seeking spiritual renewal. The sprawling floodplain resounds with devotional movie songs and bhajans, some strikingly melodious and familiar to me from childhood.

The Mahabharata mentions Prayag as a site of pilgrimage, but the first historical record occurs in the account of seventh century CE Chinese traveler Xuanzang, who wrote about Prayag and its ageless, month-long festival at the confluence of two rivers. As the eleventh century traveler Al-Beruni noted, "pilgrimages are not obligatory to the Hindus but facultative and meritorious." Indeed the idea of pilgrimage is commonplace in human cultures. Rivers, lakes, streams, springs, wells and other bodies of water too have been revered around the world. The writer Hilaire Belloc saw pilgrimage as "a nobler kind of travel ... an expedition to some venerated place to which a vivid memory of sacred things experienced, or a long and wonderful history of human experience in divine matters, or a personal attraction affecting the soul impels one. ... a pilgrimage may be made to the tomb of Descartes, in Paris, or it may be a little walk uphill to a neighbouring and beloved grave, or a modern travel, even in luxury, on the impulse to see something that greatly calls one."

This documentary film looks at the Kumbh Mela from many angles, focusing on one of its key pillars: the militant-monastic orders called akharas, whose members, including the naked ash-smeared Naga ascetics, see themselves as part of an ancient lineage of defenders and propagators of Sanatana Dharma. There are seven major and many minor akharas, some over a thousand years old, predating Islam in South Asia. Highly political and hierarchical organizations, the akharas compete for numbers and prestige, and have often in the past fought deadly battles with each other over matters of money and power the akharas are hardly the happy family that their media-savvy spokesmen claim they are. Some are more liberal than others. Many akharas, I learned, choose their leaders through internal elections every third year at the Kumbh Mela, though I'm not sure when this custom began. Who are their members, how do they live, what do they believe? Such questions may have only partial answers but above all in my short documentary, I've tried to demystify the event, its history, and its participants.

[—Namit Arora, From the introduction to River of Faith, a documentary film on the Kumbh Mela, Feb 2013]

Naga sadhus

Ash smeared ascetics

With cell phone

Opening day of the mela

Sadhu (1, 2)

Blessing a pilgrim

Akhara processions

Female sadhus

Me interviewing sadhus

Inside a tent

Damru playing ascetic

Holding court

Smoking a chillum (1, 2)

In festive mood after a dip

Friendly elephant (more)

Truckin' Naga

Rows of tents

Warming by the fire


Using a cell phone camera

Toughened to withstand the cold

Dangling tiger claw

Blessing a pilgrim

Around a fire

Elaborate headgear
of Rudraksha beads

Young naga sadhu (more)

Drinking sweet milky tea

Warming by a fire

Inside a tent (more)

A Bengali sadhu

Yet another chillum (more)

Most have busted throats

Inhaling long and deep


Akhara hierarchy


Naga sadhu (more)

Years of hair growth (more)

Policemen with ascetic

Looking stoned

Alakhiya order of sadhus

One of the smaller akharas

Shiva devotees (more)

Defenders of the faith

Relaxing sadhus (more)

Symbolic defenders of the faith

Baba blessing pilgrims

Meditating sadhu

Niranjani Akhara at night

Bloodshot eyes

Saffron abounds

Dinner camp for pilgrims

Preparing a joint

Washing hands and feet

Blessing a pilgrim

Typical Akhara entrance
(1, 2)

Pilgrims streaming in

Early morning

Roads around the mela site

Some of the 10 million
pilgrims on the opening day

Sunset from across the river

Pontoon bridges

Lingam worship

Bridge across the river Ganga

Procession of leading Akharas, following their ritual morning dip on one of the auspicious days

Smoggy morning, 14th Jan

Akhara processions (1, 2, 3)

Upholders of Sanatan Dharma

Holy people (1, 2, 3)

Makar Sankranti festival

Bearers of shaastras (texts)
& shastras (arms)

Warrior monks of the
"eternal faith"

All are renunciants

Sanyasis marching

Motley crew

Nagas are celibate for life

Includes foreigners

Pilgrims bathing on the banks of the Ganga

Hundreds of thousands

Crowds stretch across miles

Cleansing body and soul ...

... in polluted water

Chilly water (1, 2)

Offering prayers

Open air locker room

By the river of faith

Foggy morning

Biggest gathering of humans ...

... on the planet for millenniums

Sangam in the distance

Beauty parlor

In prayer

After a dip

Sangam in the distance

Women's changing rooms

Painted sadhu with trident

Pilgrim women

Beaming visitor

A sect of Shiva devotees (more)

Sadhu with lingams (more)

Open air puja

Two boys (1, 2)

Early morning boat trip to Sangam, the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna rivers

Boats at New Yamuna Bridge

Smoggy morning

Three km from Sangam

Akbar's Fort


Bathing pilgrims

On Day 2 of Kumbh Mela

Bathing for a spiritual renewal


Meeting of two rivers

Bathing at the confluence

Boats at Sangam

Seen around the Kumbh Mela site

Shiva selling detergent soap

Magic oil cure for headaches

Shooting balloons

Old style sugarcane press

Of gods and men

Little Hanuman

Sleeping under a tree

Security (1, 2)

Aam Aadmi Party (more)

"Hinduism is in danger"

Three youngsters

Waiting at Old Delhi station



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