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Wednesday, 10 January, 2001, 15:17 GMT
Kumbh Mela: A spiritual spectacle
Kumbh Mela camp
Thousands of tents built to house the visitors
By Jill McGivering in Allahabad

The Kumbh Mela is the biggest event in the Hindu calendar and is marked by celebrations on this scale only once every 12 years.

Grand processions with marching bands, camels and elephants - these are the displays the different religious orders have been putting on here in the last few days as they gather together for this holy festival.

We're poor people - this is our way to salvation

Hindu pilgrim
It is a spectacular affair, displaying at some times a spirit almost of carnival, and at others, of peace and spirituality.

On the banks of the Ganges, pilgrims from all over India are coming to bathe.

This spot, at Allahabad, is particularly holy - and this is a particularly auspicious time. Many of the people here say bathing here brings absolution and a great blessing.

"We've come to bathe in the river and commune with God," one man told me.

Praying on the banks of the Ganges
For many it's a time for personal prayer
"We're poor people - this is our way to salvation."

"I've come to get the blessings of the Ganges and to pray," added another.

"This is a very auspicious time."

Devotional music is played across the vast area of the site most hours of the day.

Timing significant

The Kumbh only happens on this scale once every 12 years - and the organisers have been planning for months.

Some people say the 12 year cycle signifies the movement of the planets.

But local historian Vinoy Chandra Pandey says the practice dates back almost 1,000 years, and has very pragmatic origins.

There's going to be a lot of people who've probably had no connection with India but are coming to see an amazing show

Bhaskar Bhattacharyya
"If you have special occasions once in a while, a larger number of pilgrims could come here. Swamis and gurus could come here.

"It's said that sometime in the 10th or 11th century, some sayers got together and said: let's meet every 12 years. It's not possible for us to meet everybody every year at all these different places," Mr Pandey said.

The administrators have had to make plans for an influx of tens of millions of people.

They have had to build new roads, bridges and electric substations and of course many thousands of tents.

Commercial appeal

Bhaskar Bhattacharyya, adviser to British tour company Cox and King's, shows me round the luxury camping site they have set up.

A carnival-like atmosphere
"There are two kinds of tents - the deluxe ones are specially made and designed by us. They're probably the grandest tents which have ever been made in India for people to stay in," he said.

It's a new direction for the Kumbh, which is still more spiritual than commercial in atmosphere.

But those days, he says, might not last for long because foreign interest is growing rapidly.

"I think a lot of people have come across it quite accidentally in travel magazines, surfing the web, bits and pieces here and there.

"There's going to be a lot of people who've probably had no connection with India but are coming to see an amazing show. And it is an amazing spectacle," he added.

The Kumbh is still more about temples than tourists - but its size and reputation increases with every event.

To outsiders, it is an exotic spectacle - but for many Hindus it is an important reminder of the profound role the spiritual still plays here despite the many changes of modern times.

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See also:

09 Jan 01 | South Asia
Millions join holy dip
09 Jan 01 | South Asia
Hindu festival goes high-tech
08 Jan 01 | South Asia
In Pictures: Maha Kumbh Mela
27 Jun 00 | South Asia
The Ganges: Troubled waters
08 Jan 01 | South Asia
Pilgrimage to Maha Kumbh Mela
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