From January 14th to February 23rd, 2013, an estimated 100 million Hindus are expected converge to the northern Indian city Of Allahabad to attend the Maha Kumbh Mela. The festival that is often referred to as the largest gathering of mankind, also doubles up as a pilgrimage undertaken to absolve all wordly sins.
The location of the religious event that takes place every three years, alternates between four cities - Nasik, Ujjain, Haridwar and Allahabad, all of which lie around the area where India's two existing holy rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna and a third mythical river Saraswati, converge. However, as indicated by the 'Maha' (big) in its name, it is the one that takes place in Allahabad every 12 years, that is considered the holiest of all and therefore, the most popular.
Thanks to India's increasing population, easier accessibility to the area and burgeoning interest from foreigners, the numbers increase dramatically every time this festival is held. In 2001, official records indicate that the Maha Kumbh Mela was attended by 70 million people. This time around they are gearing up for almost a third more than that. Among the attendees are India's sadhus or holy men some of who spend their lives in the forests or Himalayan caves meditating and only join the civilized world for this five week period, every twelve years. While here, they engage in heated debates with other holy men and dispense religious advice to their doting devotees.
Though the pilgrimage involves many different rituals, the most important one is taking a 'Royal Bath' in the freezing holy river waters at previously stipulated auspicious times. According to staunch believers, this simple act, will help absolve them of any sin they may have committed in this and their previous lives.
As with all Indian festivals, this 2,000-year old tradition also has an interesting myth attached to it. After losing all their supernatural strength, the ancient Indian gods made pact with the demons to churn the mythical primordial ocean that was made of milk and extract the amrit or the nectar of immortality, that they agreed to share equally. But of course, once they found it, each wanted the entire pot (kumbh) of nectar for himself. This resulted in a fight that lasted for 12 years - During this time a celestial holy bird called Garuda stole the kumbh (pot) of nectar and flew off with it - Along the way, a few drops of the immortality potion fell upon the four places that the festival (Mela) is now held- Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain! The first city apparently got the most amount, which is why, it is considered the holiest!
While the festival itself is impressive what is even more so, is how what once used to be a chaotic event resulting in many injuries and even deaths, has turned into an incredibly smooth gathering - Not an easy feat considering that all these people have to provided for during the entire time! In fact, experts across the world were so impressed that many academics from around the world attended in 2011, to simply observe how efficiently this pop-up mega tent city that will disappear for another 12 years as soon as the last pilgrim leaves, was run - Simply amazing!
Resources: world.time.com, huffingtonpost.com,goindia.about.com