What they don’t tell you about Varanasi, probably India’s holiest city, is that in addition to being filled with sacred temples, mischievous monkeys and bearded ascetics, it’s also full of waste of all kinds: mountains of fetid cow and other, much worse kinds of dung, muddy tributaries of dubious origin, mounds of fast-decaying flowers, shards of shattered clay cups. As I left the utter squalor of Varanasi, a permanent and ancient city of four million, for a temporary religious celebration of even more people nearby, I could only imagine the enormous crowds, inescapable filth and utter chaos that it would produce.
It was January, and I was headed 80 miles west to the Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, a Hindu religious festival in which tens of millions of pilgrims come together at the convergence of two real rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, and one mythical stream, the Saraswati. They stay for all or part of a celebration—this year’s would last 55 days—that is the largest single-purpose human gathering on earth.
In the mythology of the Kumbh Mela, gods and demons fought for 12 days over a pitcher (kumbh) of nectar of immortality from the primordial ocean, and the nectar spilled onto the earth at four different places, including Allahabad. The gathering (mela) takes place every three years at one of the four locales in a 12-year cycle—a day of the gods’ time corresponds to a year of human time—with the largest (maha) celebration in Allahabad. The first written record of its occurrence dates to the seventh century A.D.
Excerpt from an article written by Tom Downey at the Smithsonian. Continue THERE