One hour before sunrise, the streetlights in Allahabad struggled to break through the heavy fog. Matilda and Amanda, my two Swedish friends, and I stepped out of the rickshaw and into the cold darkness, rubbing our eyes and taking in our new surroundings. Silent shapes wrapped in thick blankets and woolen beanies — pilgrims — floated past us like ghosts.
We were at Kumbh Mela, a major Hindu festival that lasts 55 days and is attended by roughly 100 million pilgrims, making it the largest gathering of people in the world. A temporary city covering an area larger than Athens was set up to accommodate the crowds.
We were there on the Kumbh’s main sacred bathing day. On this single day, 30 million people descended on the Sangam, the confluence of the holy rivers, the Yamuna and the Ganges. Devotees travel from all over India to reach the Sangam, believing that a dip in the holy waters will wash away a lifetime of sins.
We made our way down the misty road with only wan streetlights to light the way. Families walked together, burdened with what seemed to be all their worldly possessions. The smell of chai wafted over to us from the chai wallahs who called out for customers from the side of the road.
As the first grey hints of dawn slowly lit up our surroundings, we could see roads merging with our own. With every convergence our ranks swelled, till the road was teeming with people.
We fell into step with a group of men. “Good morning, sir and madams,” a big bald man bellowed at us. “Welcome to Kumbh Mela! Where are you from?”
“Sweden,” the girls chorused back.
“Have you come specifically for the Kumbh Mela?”
“No, we just happened to be here,” Amanda told him cheerfully. “But we’re very happy we’re here.”
“Oh, well you are so very lucky to be here on this big occasion,” the big man said with a smile. “We have waited our whole lives to come here. We have traveled all the way from Gujarat, and this is a most special day for us. We are happy to share it with you. You must come with us, we will show you the Kumbh Mela.”
We marched on with our newly appointed chaperones and chatted away as their enthusiasm quickly rubbed off on us.
“What religion are you?” the big man called Baba asked me eagerly. When I paused he said, “Are you Christian?” I nodded and said nothing, not knowing how to explain my atheistic tendencies.
I grew up in a Christian household believing in God. By the time I was a teenager, too many questions couldn’t be answered adequately, and too many doubts lingered. So I drifted away. But no matter how disenchanted I grew with the idea of God, I could never fully stamp out the idea of a divine source. I was knocked into that middle place, unable to worship a God in whose existence I could not wholly disbelieve.
We crested a hill as the sun peeked over the horizon. I looked back and saw nothing but people for over a mile. In the distance, I caught a glimpse of the rivers and the Sangam we were headed for. The view spurred the crowd into big cheers and joyous chants for Mother Ganga.
We walked down the hill and into a tented city. Trains of women snaked passed us, each woman holding onto the sari of the woman in front of her. We walked past holy cows, naked sadhus, and families sitting with all their possessions clumped in a big circle. Women knelt praying, their offerings of marigolds floating in the puddles left over from the previous day’s showers.
Our Gujarati guardians began skipping and running towards the confluence. Then, remembering us, they’d stop and call to us to speed up to join them.
As we neared the river the crowd became even more packed together. The throng slowed and stopped. Our guardians pulled us forward, squeezing between people so tightly I could smell the chai on their morning breath. We frantically moved on with our adrenalin surging. We held onto each other and shouted encouragement to keep going. Then, suddenly, we stepped through a line of people and found ourselves on the banks of the river.
The Gujarati men quickly undressed to their underwear and hurried into the water. Matilda and Amanda stayed and watched our belongings while I followed Baba into the river. The men splashed around, shouting and laughing with each other. We dunked our heads under the water, once for ourselves and once for each of our family members.
While the men took their prayers, I strode further out into the river and looked back. All along the banks, men and women made blessings and prayers. People collected water from the river in old plastic milk bottles. The scent of burning incense wafted over from the shore. Indians were climbing over each other to reach the river; there were people swarming everywhere for as far as I could see. Overloaded boats and wooden canoes drifted by on the river.
Near to me in the water, I saw an old frail woman with a gold nose ring dressed in a pink sari. With her eyes closed she faced the rising sun, cupping her hands aloft as the water spilled out of them. Her face had a look of divine rapture. I found myself looking on in wonder, and with a sense of longing.
I felt distant and alien; I yearned to find something I could believe in. I needed something to fill the hollow spaces at the bottom of each of my breaths.
I dipped my head under the water and hoped that Mother Ganges would wash away not only my sins but also my incessant questions. I wanted relief from my persistent doubts and my resilient despair. I wanted to clear my mind and be carried away, to float down the river, still and thoughtless as a leaf.