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According to Hindu mythology, the gods and demons once fought a great battle for the kumbh (a pitcher) containing the nectar of immortality. For 12 divine days and 12 divine nights they fought in the sky, and it is said that during the scuffle, four drops of nectar fell in four places: Haridwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Ujjain, and Nasik.

The Kumbh Mela is the Hindu bathing festival that takes place at all four sites over a period of 12 years. The bathing dates are astronomically determined, and at each festival’s climactic moment, sadhus and pilgrims immerse themselves in the river with the hope of attaining miraculous religious rewards.

The Kumbh Mela attracts millions of pilgrims, including masses of holy men—especially Nagas—from militant monastic orders. During each month-long pilgrimage, thousands of tents are erected to house the devotees, turning the riverbank into a city of millions. On the great bathing days, or “Royal Baths,” the sadhus march out of their camps in procession and proceed to the riverbank to immerse themselves in the waters-turned nectar.
The Naga sadhus lead the way, and millions of pilgrims line the route to get a glimpse of the saints.

I began documenting the Kumbh Mela in 1998. While working as a photojournalist, I was given a magazine assignment to cover the processions and the royal bath of the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. The one-week assignment evolved into a month-long stay, as I realized that there was much more to the gathering than the sumptuous religious processions, celebratory elephants, naked sadhus, and millions of pilgrims. I continued thereafter to follow the other pilgrimages, earning the trust of the sadhus along the way and living among them for the duration of each festival while documenting Allahabad in 2001 and 2007, and Ujjain in 2004.

The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious congregation on earth and it is also the largest human gathering on the planet. Because it doesn’t belong to any particular caste or creed, it captures the huge mix of religious and cultural diversity that forms the fabric of Indian society. For me, the Kumbh Mela is India at its most fascinating and mysterious, in its most sophisticated and unique form. These masses of people moved by faith are one of the great spectacles of humanity.

Jean-Marc Giboux is working on a book on the Kumbh Mela and a photo exhibition to be held at the Field Museum in Chicago in the fall of 2008.