For most people, I imagine that the word ‘festival’ would typically bring to mind images of headline acts, disgusting toilets, ridiculous fancy dress, hippies, dancing, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.  Now prefix the word ‘festival’, with the word ‘religious’. How do those images change for you?

Until recently I believed that a religious festival could vary from a gathering of fundamentalist, with the emphasis on ‘mentalist’, Christians converging to discuss the merits of marriage, the evil of gay partnerships, and the inherent wrongness of abortion; to jungle parties where the participants rejoice in the highlight event of a buffalo being beheaded with a chainsaw, then thrown around in a primal version of dodge ball.  In short, I had no real idea of what to expect and my conceptions ran from the cynical, to the wildly imaginative.

It was precisely this sense of the unknown that lead me to the Maha Kumbha Mela held in Prayag, India; the holiest of the four Kumbh venues. This year’s Mela was of particular significance as it was the Maha Kumbha Mela, held only once every 144 years, as well as the Purna Kumbha Mela, held once every twelve years. The event, which spanned over two months between mid January and mid March, was estimated to host sixty, to one hundred million Hindu pilgrims, making it the biggest gathering of human beings on the planet.  The seemingly endless stream of devotees undertook colossal journeys from every corner of India to take a dip in the sacred Trivani Sangam, the amalgamation of the three holy rivers: the Ganges, Yamuna, and the Saraswati. Coinciding with auspicious dates relevant to the alignment of Jupiter and the stars, it is believed that by bathing, pilgrims free themselves from previous sins and end the cycle of reincarnation.


Now, I am no expert on religion at the best of times but neither am I a hater of religion, a stance increasingly popularised by the likes of Dr. Richard Dawkins. You could even argue that atheism and antitheism have become as cultish as any belief system going, but this is most definitely an argument that I am unwilling to delve into right now.  Personally, I passionately dislike the dogmatic belief systems that are so often misinterpreted and used as exploitative systems of control for the weak, within the majority of the religions that dominate the globe. However, as a Westerner, I would say that we seem to be so disconnected from our spirituality that I could probably declare my religion to be ‘Hummus’ and no one would bat an eyelid. It’s an expansive topic.

A good old set of dogmatic “If you don’t do this your life will suck balls and your children will look like goats” style rules would have been rather useful though, as my pre-Mela research into Hinduism left me feeling about as enlightened as a pea in a quantum physics lecture.  The main reason for such confusion is that Hindu philosophy appears to be just that, a philosophy rather than a religious doctrine, thereby making it far more a question of subjective interpretation, as opposed to set-in-stone regulation. Whilst this relaxed take, is undoubtedly more appealing to my confused, hummus worshipping mind; the lack of uniformity, coupled with regional discrepancies developed over time, a plethora of deific incarnations and a sizable linguistic/cultural barrier, meant that the more I tried to learn, the less I actually understood.


Resigned to spending the whole festival in a state of bamboozled uncertainty I set about involving myself in as much as possible, in the vain hope that at some point Ganesha would float down from the heavens, bitch slap some spiritual knowledge into me with all four palms and things would start making sense. Alas, he made no such appearance. My observations combined with encounters with those capable of shedding some light on events, in between that is, taking photos (yeah that’s right, Indians have developed ‘Instagramitis’ too), force feeding me Prasad (I never ever want to see dahl or sugared rice ever again), and passing chillums around (pot is legal in Allahabad!), painted the following picture, which to make things easier for you, I have structured around what you probably think of festivals.

  1. Headline Act: God and the Ganges
  2. Disgusting Toilets: More holes in the sand than toilets but nothing like the Niagra Falls of human faeces that I had envisioned. I reckon Glastonbury has worse.
  3. Fancy Dress: Yes! The themes seemed to be the holy colour orange, nudity, and ash.
  4. Hippies: Yes, in the form of the Rainbow Camp. I NEVER want to hear the song ‘Every Little Cell In My Body Is Happy’ ever again!
  5. Dancing: All the time, often with no clue as to why.
  6. Sex: No, but I did spy some Naga Babas tying some incredibly intricate knots with their penises.
  7. Drugs: Yes. Alot of Charas.
  8. Rock ‘N’ Roll: Not really, unless you count the dead bodies that seemed to crop up from time to time and the rumours, though unconfirmed, of ‘Black Babas’ who were alleged to eat the aforementioned dead bodies during the night… Yeah, take that Marilyn Manson, you got nothing!

More compellingly however, I believe that a comparison cannot be drawn between the Kumbh and any other kind of festival as it is truly one of a kind. The simultaneous spectacles of chaos and incredible beauty will stay embedded in my memory for as long as I live, leaving me lost in contemplation at how sorrowful our spiritual connection with religion has become in the West.

Words & Images: Emily Morus-Jones



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