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 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.
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.