Gurus, Hindu saints, sadhus, Nagas, fanatical followers, religious leaders and ordinary pilgrims, all gather here. Some travel for days, some walk for weeks and some stay for a few months. They sing, dance, pray. They listen to the teachings of their gurus and meditate. Estimates about the number of Kumbh Mela participants differ widely. The Maha (Great) Kumbh Mela is held every 144 years at Prayag. The 2013 festival – when I visited the pilgrimage for the first time – was one of these: the celebration was supposed to have over 100 million pilgrims.

Estimates for 2019 predicted that even the 2013 record would be beaten. According to an Indian newspaper headline: "Kumbh Mela 2019: Whopping 150 million expected to attend, greater than population of 100 countries combined". However, we never learnt the actual figures. How can one count or even estimate crowds in tens of millions?

As we know, astrology is one of the most important "sciences" in India. Therefore, the organisers consulted astrologers to make sure the day the 2019 global participants spent at Prayagraj would be the most auspicious possible. That’s why the day of the invitation changed several times.

To decide who would be chosen, the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, based on their embassies’ and consulates’ proposals, examined hundreds, perhaps thousands, of possible candidates to choose one from each country to be a global ambassador. On the recommendations of former Ambassador to Hungary Rahul Chhabra and present Ambassador Kumar Tuhin, my participation was suggested, and Delhi accepted. I thus became the ambassador on behalf of Hungary at the 2019 Kumbh Mela.


The planners took great care of us. We were booked in a hotel near the airport. On the day of our visit to Prayag, we were lent one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s planes. We had enough time to boost our energies after our long flights, could choose the kind of food we wanted, and had some time to meet each other.

It was fascinating to find out how the different participants won this honour; what they have done in their various professions for India. Even if we did not have enough time to learn each other’s names, a kind of friendship developed, at least until the moment came to see who was going to stand next to Modi for press photos.

The Kumbh Mela comprises many rituals, including bathing ones. This is by far the most significant ceremony performed there. Millions of pilgrims do so in accordance with their belief that submerging themselves in the holy waters of the Ganga purges them of all their sins and ultimately attains Moksha, the transcendent state and release from Hinduism’s cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. Along with bathing, the pilgrims worship on the banks of the holy river and participate in discourses with various Hindu sadhus and saints.

As one website says about the holy men: "You can meet them at every street corner." What makes the festival so unique and so spectacular is the participation of these gurus.

Although taking a dip in the sacred waters on all days of the Kumbh – beginning on the first day when the sun enters Capricorn – is considered holy, still, some specific auspicious bathing dates exist. Magnificent processions of saints and their disciples occur at these times, and members of religious orders take part.

It is the festival’s highlight, the most important part of the celebration. Only afterward do people descend into the holy bath, for they believe they will accrue the added advantage of the essence of holy deeds and thoughts of the saints who had just preceded them through the sacred waters.

Back to the saints "at every street corner". Well, that could not happen to us. Perhaps because of Modi’s visit or because of our global participation, the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in 2019 became barren: barren not only of waste produced by the millions, but of people. Tens of thousands of police, military and security personnel lined the roads and closed off the areas he visited.


A day earlier, we were taken to this part as a dress rehearsal for Modi’s visit and were shown images of the different ages of Indian culture. It was a visit to a museum closed off from reality. Since we were at the Kumbh, yet completely segregated from it, I had to remember some of the facts a professor told me: "Every river is related to knowledge. This is a place of Indian spirituality. The Ganga represents 1200 Indian languages, 120 different faiths. When people are sitting on the embankments with their eyes closed, they are meditating. They live life; we, with our eyes open, talk about life."

"If you want to understand the Kumbh Mela, you must be present, must be there. People say that the Nagas are naked. No, they are covered by ashes. No animal wears clothes. The Nagas indicate that we were ashes and we will become ashes again. They express that when the Kumbh – the pitcher, a symbol of the human body – breaks, somebody dies, we Hindus break the pitcher and the inside units can unite with the outside ones. Since the Kumbh Mela started, an estimated 175 million came to renew themselves culturally and socially before this meeting. A congregation of people, cultures and religions is this festival."

What was perhaps most memorable for we global participants was that alongside the closed-off road, tens of thousands of uniformed schoolchildren were waving the Indian flag and the national banners of the participating nations, shouting as we were passing: "Jai Hind! Long live India!" As a nice gesture, the organisers put together a gift package for the global ambassadors comprising booklets about the Kumbh Mela. And they put in a coconut, as well.

At the airport, before departure, custom agents pulled my cases apart; they asserted it is not allowed to take coconut out of the country. "But this one I got from the Prime Minister of India. It is a special gift." I could see that the officials who took away the offending coconut had doubt in their eyes, indicating that they have heard many unbelievable stories but this tale was a new one.

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