Kumbh Mela 2013: Bathing in the Ganges

If you climb up to high ground above the river plain, you begin to get a sense of the scale of the Kumbh Mela, especially at night. It stretches off in all directions. The sky above it is as light as the sky over a large metropolis, only there are no highrises here—nothing much higher than a lamp-post. The noise from hundreds of loudspeakers is incessant and very loud—like a human rainforest, technologically enhanced. And over everything is a veil of smoke from fires burning wood and ghee, the clarified butter that Indians use in cooking.


The most densely inhabited area of the Kumbh Mela tent city covers 20 square kilometers, and the numbers haven't peaked yet. Photo by Laura Spinney.


The Kumbh Mela's PA system broadcasts the discourses of holy men, religious music and practical announcements, generating constant, loud noise. Photo by Laura Spinney.


The spiritual heart of the Kumbh Mela is the sangam—the place where the Ganges and the Yamuna rivers meet, and the most auspicious site for bathing. This is where five million people are expected to take a dip on Sunday, January 27, to mark the full moon, and where twice that number will head on the most important bathing day on February 10. This year, four extra ghats—entry points to the water—have been built to ease the pressure on the sangam and ensure that all those who want to can bathe safely, without fear of being trampled or drowned.


Kumbh Mela pilgrims are seemingly oblivious to any contamination that might be in the sacred Ganges. Photo by Laura Spinney.


A bather prepares a container for drinking water at the Kumbh Mela. Photo by Laura Spinney.


Once they’re in the water, though, devotees face a whole other set of risks. India is in a perpetual state of anxiety about the pollution of Hindus’ holiest river, and this Kumbh Mela is particularly environmentally aware. To date, the contamination of the river by raw sewage, industrial effluent and ritually burnt corpses has yet to be reined in, but the authorities have made some concessions to the world’s biggest crowd. For one, they have opened the Tehari Dam, way upstream of Allahabad, to release more water into the river and dilute the toxins. For another, they have forbidden the 1000-odd tanneries in Kanpur, an industrial hub also upstream of the sangam, from releasing arsenic- and chromium-containing waste into the river for the duration of the festival.

The water is being tested daily, and according to Devesh Chaturvedi, District Commissioner for Allahabad, is currently batheable. To his surprise, the pollution indicators spiked after the first major bathing day, on January 14, but remained within the acceptable range and receded again within four days.

The water certainly isn’t drinkable, though—something which doesn’t faze most pilgrims, who carry bottles of it home with them. They put their faith in Mother Ganga, and even the doctors seem sanguine. The central hospital has so far recorded one case of typhoid, and a constant but low-level flow of gastro-intestinal complaints—nothing it wasn’t expecting or can’t handle. For now, it’s business as usual at the Kumbh.


Two Kumbh Mela pilgrims carrying a bottle of Ganges water for drinking. Photo by Laura Spinney.



Meet the Author
Laura Spinney is a science journalist based in Lausanne, Switzerland who writes for The Economist, Nature and National Geographic, among others. She is also the author of two novels in English, as well as a human portrait of a European city, Rue Centrale, which is out this month in French (publisher: Editions L'Age d'Homme). Visit Laura Spinney's website for more information and contact details.