Laura Spinney

The latest figures on water quality in the Ganges, straight from the Central Pollution Control Board—a government organisation charged with monitoring it daily during the Kumbh Mela—suggest that contrary to earlier reports, it’s neither drinkable nor batheable. Given that 80-odd million people are expected to bathe in the river during the festival, I asked head of medical...

There are elephants at the Kumbh Mela, but no snake charmers, and yet both used to be staples of festivals and fairs in India. So where are the snake charmers? Sulking in Kapari and Lohagra, two villages about an hour’s drive from Allahabad, is the answer. If they try to come close to the Kumbh...

Allahabad is a city of 1.2 million people, and despite the proximity of its bigger, noisier neighbour, the Kumbh Mela, life goes on there—including death. The funeral ghats on the Ganges were moved away from the sangam—the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers—for the duration of the festival, but they are still within the...

It’s 4am on January 27, an auspicious date for bathing called Paush Purnima. The full moon hangs big and sharp above the shroud of smoke that covers the Kumbh. It’s still dark, and people are moving quietly and calmly from all directions towards the sangam, the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The temporary...

There is a stubborn rumour here at the Kumbh Mela that some people come to abandon elderly female relatives and children in the crowd. There are two lost and found camps on site, one of which is run by 86-year-old Raja Ram Tiwari, who took the initiative after seeing an old woman weeping uncontrollably at...

Naga Baba Jai Giri Ji has long, long hair. He hasn’t cut it for 15 years, and when he dances in the processions that the holy men lead to the sangam on bathing days, he loops it over his arms so that it doesn’t trip him up. Lakshman Giri is also famous for his headgear,...

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...