India's Hindus Commune With Their 'Great Water'

On Jan. 14, more than 8 million pilgrims poured into the north Indian city of Allahabad to take a dip in the waters of the river Ganga and inscribe their lives into one of the oldest and grandest religious traditions of the Indian subcontinent. This is the Maha Kumbh Mela (literally, "Great Water Pitcher Fair"), which takes place every 12 years at the confluence of the Ganga and Jamuna rivers in Allahabad and attracts Hindus and spiritually curious people from all over the world.

The 2013 Kumbh Mela will last 56 days. With 80 million pilgrims expected, it will be the largest religious gathering in history: a conglomeration so vast and tightly packed that, as was the case at the last great Kumbh Mela in 2001, it will be visible from space. And even that may not be the most extraordinary of the photo-ops that the festival provides.

In his novel "Shame," Salman Rushdie writes, "To unlock a society, look at its untranslatable words." Extending this a few steps, one might say that to understand a society we should also study or live through its untranslatable experiences -- private and communal events that are approached though myth, religion, history and memory. To the more than 800 million Indians who think of themselves either loosely or strongly as Hindu, the word "Ganga" has just such an untranslatable charge, a node of beauty, fertility, sacredness and benediction.

Allahabad (known in antiquity by the name of Prayaag) is home to one of the holiest sites in Hinduism: the sangam, or confluence, of the great north Indian rivers Ganga and Jamuna and the mythical river Saraswati. In the lore of Hinduism, taking a dip in the Ganga's holy waters, particularly at moments of great spiritual significance such as the Kumbh Mela, which takes place in the month of Magh in the Hindu calendar, washes away all one's sins and brings the soul closer to moksha, or spiritual freedom. Many Hindu households across the length and breadth of India (including my mother's household in Mumbai and my grandmother's in Odisha) possess a bottle of "ganga-jal," or water from the Ganga, a few drops from which are used at religious rituals.

Sacred geography and sacred time come together at the Maha Kumbh Mela, which originates in a myth, known to every Hindu household, in which the gods and demons fought over a pitcher containing the ambrosia of immortality, spilling four drops onto the earth to create what became the four most sacred sites of Hinduism. The website of Lakshmi Kutir, one of the many "camps" that are set up to house pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela, explains:

The first written evidence of the Kumbh Melas in India can be found in the accounts of the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang or Xuanzang (602 – 664 CE), who visited India between 629 – 645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhan. However, it is believed that the observance dates back several millennia, to ancient India's Vedic period, when the first river festivals are thought to have been organised. The origin of the Kumbh can be found in one of the popular myths of the creation of the world in Hindu mythology, the Samudra Manthan (churning of the ocean of milk), which finds mention in ancient Hindu scriptures like the Bhagavata Purana, the Vishnu Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana.

Some of the best contemporary accounts in English of the Ganga's place in the Indian imagination and the history of the Kumbh Mela can be found in the works of scholars, travelers and foreign correspondents (Kama Maclean, Stephen AlterJulian Crandall Hollick, Christopher Kremmer) who are not themselves Hindu but have made every effort to immerse themselves in the thought-currents -- and indeed water-currents -- of Hinduism. For instance, a good description of the Kumbh Mela as a thread running through all of recorded Indian history appears in the American scholar Diana Eck's recent book "India: A Sacred Geography." Eck writes:

Bathing [in Prayaga] in Magha is said to free one of rebirth, and so it is said that even the gods yearn to come to Prayaga during Magha.... Every twelve years, the Magha Mela becomes the Kumbha Mela, the world's largest mass pilgrimage. We may imagine that the annual Magha Mela became the great Kumbha Mela by the accumulation of pilgrims' feet over the centuries. During this month millions of pilgrims stream into Prayaga for a bath...chanting "Bolo Ganga mai ki jai!" ("Victory to the Ganga!"). The Kumbha Mela is rightly famous throughout the world for its incredible size, its sprawling encampments of followers of every sect and strand of Hinduism, its processions of sadhus -- naked, ash-covered, eccentric -- who seem to appear from a multitude of monasteries...and caves for the occasion.

Preparing for the travel, accommodation and sanitation needs of such an influx of pilgrims is a huge exercise that has consumed both the government of India and that of Uttar Pradesh, the north Indian state that contains Allahabad and many other holy sites of Hinduism. The economics and logistics are just as fascinating as the rituals, such as its special bathing dates. The confederation of Indian business Assocham has calculated that in 2013, the Kumbh Mela will generate revenue of about $2.4 billion, as well as more than half a million temporary jobs. In a report, "Officials Race Against Time to Meet Deadlines," the Times of India reporter Kapil Dixit described the vast scale of preparations for the pilgrims, including one development never before seen at the Mela:

From setting up a Central hospital to erecting pontoon bridges for transportation or from setting up a temporary bus stand to distributing essential commodities through setting up fair price shops, Mela authorities have come up with all sorts of facilities in terms of medical & health, transportation, sanitation, bathing ghats, security, fire services, ration distribution, lost & found, potable water, pollution control, milk supply and other civic amenities....

This Kumbh, the Mela administration has set up LED screens at strategic locations where the details of missing persons would be displayed and the list of missing and lost persons would be updated on frequent intervals.

Of the many eyewitness experiences of the Kumbh Mela available on the Internet, most relate to the last great Kumbh Mela of 2001, such as the Kumbh Mela Project, which offers "a multi-sensory experience." Religious fairs in India are invitations to both the transcendent and the worldly. A sense of this carnivalesque world is vivdly provided in the photographer Karl Grobl's account of a visit to the 2001 Mela:

Of the 70 million or so attendees at the Kumbh, most are rural villagers and commoners who have traveled for days, weeks or even months by any means possible on a personal search for the divine. Carrying bundles of provisions on their heads, unprepared for the low temperatures, they will sleep on the open ground; eat whatever is available and brave conditions that most westerners would find unimaginable. They have come for the opportunity of a lifetime, the opportunity for a miraculous dip into the cleansingly frigid waters of the Ganges on this sacred occasion....

January 24th -- Mauni Amavasya, the most auspicious bathing day -- an estimated thirty million people would cleanse themselves in the sacred river. That day proved to be the most extraordinary day of the Mela and perhaps one of the most extraordinary days of my life. Rising at 3:00 am Satkamal and I began our journey from Allahabad town towards the fairgrounds. The sea of humanity we encountered was utterly staggering, it seemed that the world's population was singularly headed towards the Sangam.... Like blood cells in a vessel, those of us in the middle of this stream of humanity moved effortlessly, while those along the fence, slowed by even the slightest friction from a fencepost or other obstruction became squashed or spun like debris caught in the eddy of a flowing stream.

Even Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister and the most prominent rationalist and secularist in modern Indian politics, couldn't reject the call of the Ganga at Allahabad, writing in his autobiography:

When I die, I should like my body to be cremated. If I die in a foreign country, my body should be cremated there and my ashes sent to Allahabad. A small handful of these ashes should be thrown into the Ganga and the major portion of them disposed of in the manner indicated below....

My desire to have a handful of my ashes thrown into the Ganga at Allahabad has no religious significance, so far as I am, concerned. I have no religious sentiment in the matter. I have been attached to the Ganga and the Jamuna rivers in Allahabad ever since my childhood and as I have grown older, this attachment has also grown...The Ganga has been to me a symbol and a memory of the past of India, running into the present, and flowing on to the great ocean of the future.

I'm thinking of heading to the Kumbh Mela on one of the great bathing days, Mauni Amavasya, Feb. 15, when 20 million people are expected. Who knows --- maybe I'll see you there.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.