THE KUMBH MELA HAS OFTEN BEEN DESCRIBED, in both the Indian and the foreign press, as not just the largest Hindu gathering but as the largest human gathering of any kind on earth. The mela is held every 12 years. The last Kumbh at Prayagraj—then still known as Allahabad—was held in 2013, while the next one is due in 2025. Halfway through the 12-year interval, an Ardh, or half, Kumbh is organised, as it was in Prayagraj from 15 January to 4 March this year. The pilgrims gather to bathe at the sangam—the holy confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna, along with the mythical Saraswati—in order to cleanse themselves of their sins.
With an estimated 150 million people in attendance, and over Rs 4,000 crore spent on the infrastructure needed to accommodate the crowd, the Ardh-Kumbh this year was bigger than any previous Kumbh or Ardh-Kumbh.
The mela was different from its predecessors in another way—it saw an unabashed politicisation of the festival by Hindu-nationalist organisations. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh declared that the Ardh-Kumbh would now be called Kumbh to give it a grander feel.