Politics flow at the meeting of three rivers
Some 70 million Hindu pilgrims attend the two-month-long Kumbh Mela festival.
In the frigid fog of daybreak, millions of pilgrims make their way to the juncture of three rivers, the Ganges, the Jamuna, and the mythical underground Saraswati, all in hopes of washing away their sins.Skip to next paragraph
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For centuries, this two-month-long Hindu festival called the Kumbh Mela has attracted Indians of all castes - questioners and faithful alike.
But this year, the Kumbh has taken on a political tone, with politicians and muckrakers wrapping themselves in the saffron cloth of Hinduism to reach devout Hindu voters.
Call it the politics of bathing, but don't call it an entirely welcome trend.
"This is the first time the Kumbh has been used as a vehicle for narrow political purposes," says Amitabh Mattoo, a political scientist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. "But Hinduism is so pluralistic, with so many different schools, so many gods, so many practices and modes of thought, that it would be very difficult for anyone to try to slot it into one box."
Even after the devastating earthquake in Gujarat two weeks ago, which largely halted all other festivities around the country, the Kumbh must go on. And with an estimated 70 million pilgrims - an attendance almost the size of the German population, gathering for the Jan. 9 to Feb. 21 festival, this year's Kumbh makes an irresistible target for political opportunists.
But it also illustrates the difficulty of moving this vast, pluralistic country in one direction.
In fact, some say the Kumbh is a metaphor for Hinduism itself: The meeting place of many divergent streams of thought, with a common faith but conflicting goals.
A mythical appeal
To understand why so many people come here - including Western rock stars and Hollywood celebrities, it helps to get a quick primer on Hindu mythology.
According to ancient texts, the gods and the demons joined forces to churn the sea and bring up the elixir of eternal life. This elixir was gathered in a kumbh, or earthen pot, and drops of the elixir fell to the earth, landing in four places. One of those was the city now called Allahabad.
A Hindu king in the 1500s started taking his bath here every 12 years to commemorate the event.
Out of this regular ritual has grown the Kumbh Mela.
No escape from politics
Today's Kumbh is part tent-revival meeting, part campout, and part polar-bear swim club. But for most of history, it was purely a religious festival, untouched by the storm and fury of Indian politics.
Attempts to politicize it often turned out to be duds. Take the late 19th century freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, for instance, who once tried to use the Kumbh to mobilize Hindus against British rule. Meanwhile, his contemporary, Mohandas Gandhi, had much better success, reaching across religious and ethnic lines with his broader appeal to Indian nationalism.
Even so, there is much at stake in Indian politics this year. The current government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and its coalition partners, has a razor-thin majority in parliament.
Upcoming state elections in the highly populated Uttar Pradesh - which includes Allahabad - could weaken the BJP further, especially if voters use it to voice their displeasure with the local economy. For this reason alone, it's easy to see the political appeal of these millions of devout voters.
Recently, Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born head of India's Congress Party, took a waist-high dip and paid her respects to a few Hindu saints.