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.
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.
More significantly, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the powerful Hindu nationalist group that backs the current BJP government, has used the Kumbh as a platform for drumming up support for its planned Hindu temple on the site of a mosque demolished in 1992, an act that sparked deadly riots.
By far, the most politically active at the Kumbh fairgrounds are the members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a group as influential in Indian politics as the Christian Coalition is in America.
Not far from the main bathing area, under the vast yellow and saffron tent of the VHP, a group of Hindu saints, sadhus, and pilgrims discuss current events. The session wouldn't be out of place in a Delhi salon, but it is unprecedented at the Kumbh Mela.
The group makes a bevy of demands, including cleaning up the Ganges, halting the slaughter of cows, opposing Christian and Muslim conversions, and building the Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. Ram is one of the most important gods in Hindu mythology.
One aspect of Indian politics sets it apart from, say, the US House of Representatives: the presence of religion in politics. Instead of calling for a vote of yea or nay, the Hindu parliamentarians pass each proposal with a call of "Jai Shri Ram," or "Victory to Lord Ram."
Outside the tent here in Allahabad, pilgrims voice their support for this brand of Hindu politics, particularly on the Ram temple issue.
"Every Hindu is quite ready for the temple to be built," says M. Yadav of the northern city of Azamgarh. "No power can break it, no power can stop it."
R. N. Saraswatiji of New Delhi agrees, but thinks the temple should be built immediately, without waiting for a pending court case to resolve the dispute between Muslims and Hindus.
"The results should come sooner," Mr. Saraswatiji says, to the approval of a gathered throng of listeners.
But away from this saffron-colored tent, most Hindus seem less willing to be distracted from their main goal: a cleansing dip in the muddy Ganges, and the promise of a fresh start.
Some take boats out to a sand bar at the confluence of the two rivers to avoid the crowds. There, women in saris, and men in their skivvies jump in the water and immerse themselves repeatedly while chanting a prayer.
Other folks stick to the riverbank, bathing and launching little boats of rice or flowers or small candles into the river, letting the currents take their prayers to the gods.
Physicist R. C. Tripathi of Allahabad says he has attended every Kumbh Mela since 1966.
"I'm trying to get eternal bliss of the old days," he says. "But I don't come on the main bathing days," he adds with a laugh, "because I'm not sure I'm going to survive."
Further down the bank, as one mother takes her shivering infant out of the cold water and another drags a terrified toddler in, a pilgrim from the Kashmiri city of Jammu named Bhardwaj says everyone needs a spiritual cleansing now and then.
"If you purchase a beautiful vehicle, you do all the washing and oil change and you give it gasoline, but even then it has to be sent for an overhaul," Bhardwaj says. "In this workaday world, a little overhauling is necessary."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society