The biggest show on earth

Over one hundred million people gather on the banks of the Ganges River to celebrate the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival

Hindu festival 521 (photo credit: elie posner / the israel museum)
Hindu festival 521
(photo credit: elie posner / the israel museum)
India’s Kumbh Mela is the largest human gathering on earth, big enough to be visible from a space satellite. It’s a Cecil B. Demille production, but with a cast of millions. Entire villages jam roads and crowd trains on a quest to bathe and offer prayers in the confluence of the holy Ganges and Yamuna rivers.
I was there with a group of 18 Israelis on February 10, which according to Hindu astrologers is the day of the most auspicious planetary alignment. Hindus believe that energy flowing to earth that day turbocharges the spiritual properties of the water so that bathing in the river cleanses sin and enables one to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.
Officials say that some 30 million people had gathered on both banks of the rivers that day in a makeshift megacity. To wrap your mind around that number, picture three New York cities, or a combination of London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Istanbul.
The Kumbh lasts six weeks from mid- January to March and officials expect that close to 100 million Hindus will make the pilgrimage. This compares with “only” 3.4 million Muslim pilgrims, who traveled to Mecca in 2012 for the hajj.
The Kumbh Mela is held on a rotating basis every three years in one of four places where Hindu scriptures say the god Vishnu spilt a drop of the elixir of eternal life at the time of creation. But every 12 years, as was this year, it is especially holy and draws the largest crowds. Kumbh means “pitcher,” a reference to the orb from which the elixir was dropped, and mela means “fair.”
On my way to Allahabad in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the closest city to the site, I saw thousands trudging along the roads carrying bundles atop their heads. They slept in fields and bathed and washed their clothes in rivers along the way.
It must have been like that in ancient times in Israel, when Jews would go up to Jerusalem to pray and offer sacrifices in the Temple on the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot.
According to rabbinic lore, even when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims crowded into the Temple courtyard, no one lacked for space or complained about overcrowding.
Today, the magnets for Jewish pilgrimage are graves of renowned rabbis in Israel and Eastern Europe, an idea that is antithetical to Hindu culture where the bodies of the dead are burned, their ashes thrown into rivers.
Once we neared the site of the Kumbh Mela, we walked the final kilometer to a tent compound occupied mostly by tourists and wealthy Indians. We hired boats to take us closer to the other side, the location of the main bathing areas.
There are no words to describe the sight of the multitudes, the profound vastness of the crowds sprawled densely as far as the eye could see. There are no words because there is nothing like it on earth. At night the lights and smoke of myriad campfires shimmered in the river. Millions slept outside on the sandy banks on straw they had carried with them.
One could hear the soaring hum of their collective conversations coupled with the chanting of sacred Vedic hymns and mantras.
The millions of spiritually charged devotees awoke at dawn to bathe in the cold waters, the women wading in with colorful saris clinging to their bodies amid garlands of floating orange marigolds offered as gifts to the gods.
Dreadlocked holy monks, Sadhus, whose naked bodies are smeared with gray ash, set up camps on the other side of the river. Many live in caves or under trees, and are drawn from their isolation by the Kumbh Mela. They hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated with neon lights right out of Las Vegas. They smoke cannabis and read ancient texts. Pilgrims flock to offer alms, receive blessings and watch them perform yogic feats and tricks, such as supporting heavy weights with their genitals.
One monk has held one hand in the air for 10 years due to a vow that he had undertaken.
Another had reportedly been standing on one leg for several years. (Did someone perhaps ask him to expound on the entire Bhagavad Gita while standing on one leg?) Colorful billboards and posters invite followers to the camps of certain gurus. One, Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji, even has a Facebook page.
Wanting to reach the main bathing site on the other side, I was swept up in a river of humanity that carried me along as if I were a fallen leaf. Heavily policed road blocks maintained a one-way traffic system on the pontoon bridges that had been constructed especially for the Kumbh Mela and police directed the deluge of humanity away from the bridge and into a narrow street.
Completely pressed in, I could only shuffle my feet forward, try to breathe and pray not to get trampled. I was as trapped as if in an elevator during a blackout.
Later, I learned that 36 people were crushed to death that day at the Allahabad train station as they tried to travel back to their homes. At a previous Kumbh Mela, in 1954, about 1,000 people died in a stampede.
In that press of millions, I experienced in the most visceral way the fervent devotion Hindus have for their faith. I watched with awe mixed with envy thinking of the sharp contrast between their thriving spiritual life compared to our empty synagogues, growing rates of intermarriage, secularism and assimilation.
The Hindus and Jews are among the few ancient civilizations with a continuous history, ancient texts and revealed religions. Both follow lunar calendars, traditions of purity in food habits, ritual water purifications, auspicious days for marriage and other similarities.
In Hebrew, the difference between yehudi (Jew) and hodi (Indian) is the letter yud, the smallest letter in the alphabet and the first letter in the name of God. Hinduism and Judaism gave birth to faiths that are followed by three-quarters of the world’s population.
Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic religions that have sprung up from Judaism, comprise some 56 percent of the world’s population. Hinduism and its offshoots, Sikhism and Jainism, comprise some 21 percent.
God had made a promise to Abraham in Genesis 22:17 that he would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand along the seashore.
Looking at the millions of Hindus I couldn’t help think that they must have cut a better deal with their numerous gods back in the mists of time. This is what happens when you put all your eggs in one basket. There was more than double the number of Hindus in the Kumbh Mela on that one day than there are Jews in the entire world.
What happened? Persecutions and pogroms is what happened, other than in India where Jews lived for centuries in a tolerant society.
Or, as the then Chief Rabbi of Israel, Yona Metzger, said in what was billed as the world’s first Jewish-Hindu interfaith leadership summit held in New Delhi in February 2007, “Jews have lived in India for over 2,000 years and have never been discriminated against.
This is something unparalleled in human history.”
One could ague that although numerically the Jews are just a solitary grain of sand, their vastly disproportionate intellectual contributions take up a generous swath of beachfront. We may not be as numerous as the Indians but we make enough noise to sound like we are.