In 2013, I was travelling from Jhansi to Varanasi. I’d heard the Kumbh Mela was on in Allahabad and I couldn’t pass by without seeing what was forecast to be the largest gathering in human history, 120 million visitors over the month. But I was also scared of what it might be like. Reliable information was hard to find online and the news featured alarming stories of deadly stampedes at the station. I decided to stop in Allahabad during the daytime, taking a few hours to walk to the Tirtha and back.
On the train, a sadhu spoke to me in Hindi. I had no idea what he wanted and nobody around offered to translate. I handed him a banknote and he drew a cracked, dry thumb across my forehead, leaving a mark of ash.
My camera had broken in Orchha, so I had no way of recording the walk to the river. I was swept along with the crowds, all heading the same direction. My rucksack strap snapped as I hitched it on after using a public toilet. I was picked up by a young brahmin, who decided he should guide me. He led me to the shore where he paid someone to place an ornate mark on his forehead. He then poured Ganges water over my head and told me that all my sins in this lifetime had been forgiven. I didn’t dare ask if it included the ones I had yet to commit.
I saw only a fraction of the festival, a small area of the tents. Being a tourist, much of the event was lost on me. I’m not a spiritual person but I know I could be. I returned with the memory of the riverbank near the tirtha, where the Ganges meets both the Yamuna and the mystical Sarasvati river.
Allahabad’s next Kumbh Mela in is in 2025.If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list