Welcome To Kumbh Mela, The Largest Human Gathering On Earth

Published August 8, 2016
Updated January 23, 2018

These eye-popping images from Kumbh Mela reveal what it's like when 100 million people come together for this one-of-a-kind event.

Kumbh Mela

Daniel Berehulak/Getty ImagesNaga Sadhus, naked Hindu holy men, walk in procession after having bathed on the banks of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati, during the Maha Kumbh Mela on February 10, 2013 in Allahabad, India.

LEGEND HOLDS THAT KUMBH MELA originated in an ancient battle between gods and demons for the elixir of immortality. And even today, Kumbh Mela absolutely lives up to those larger-than-life origins.

Four Indian cities (Hardiwar, Allahabad, Nashik, Ujjain) take turns hosting this Hindu festival at somewhat irregular intervals, which are determined by the positioning of the Sun, the Moon, and Jupiter. Each location plays host once every 12 years.

The mass gathering allows ordinary Hindus to interact with and receive religious rites from the sadhus (holy men) that attend. Moreover, Kumbh Mela allows both sadhus and civilians to bathe in the festival site’s holy river, thereby cleansing themselves of sin.

As you might guess for a festival borne of divine battle and celebrated according to the alignment of celestial bodies, Kumbh Mela is positively gargantuan. More than 120 million people attended the 2013 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad over its two-month duration with 30 million attending on the festival’s holiest day alone. Those figures still may not give you the full scope of just how big this festival is, so maybe these photos will:

Kumbh Mela Charging Into Water
Kumbh Mela's crucial moment is the bathing in the sacred rivers. Above, sadhus run into the Sangham (the confluence of the the Yamuna and Ganges rivers) during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad on January 14, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of Hindu pilgrims led by naked, ash-covered holy men streamed into the sacred river during the festival.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Kumbh Mela Crowd Fires
The festival's most auspicious bathing day is Makar Sankranti, at which time enormous crowds will gather at the river's edge —above, in January 2013 in Allahabad.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Hair Flipping
Among all the bathers, the most revered are the naga sadhu (naked holy man), who go nude to show their separation from the material world. Above, a naga sadhu dries his hair after taking a holy bath at Sangham in Allahabad.STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

Man Smoking Long Pipe
In addition to leading the bathing charge, sadhus will ritualistically paint their bodies, smoke pipes, and play traditional musical instruments.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Bald Men
Before sadhus take part in any rituals, however, they must first gather together and be initiated in a ceremony known as diksha (above).Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Long Procession
After initiation and before bathing, sadhus walk in a procession toward the holy river.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Dancing Man
At the banks of the holy river, naga sadhus perform the aarti ceremony, a prayer ritual in which a sacrifice is offered to the gods.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Man Holding Sword
Once in the holy river, sadhus will often shout and brandish swords as a way to mark and celebrate the beginning of the mass bathing.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Man Painted Pink
A Bihari Hindu priest, smeared with colored powder, looks on after the completion of a ritual at the Sangham.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Men Running Into Water
Naga sadhus run to bathe in the holy Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Men Smoking
Sadhus smoke at their camp near the ritual site at Sangham.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Man Flipping Hair Water
A naga sadhu bathes in the Ganges river during the auspicious bathing day of Makar Sankranti.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Man With Arms Raised
A sadhu beats on drums as he and others like him march toward the Sangham.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Fire Ritual
Hindu priests perform an aarti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges river.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Silhouettes At Sunset
Hindu devotees bathe on the banks of the Sangham.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Polluted Water
While millions may bathe in the Ganges for Kumbh Mela, its waters can be extremely polluted. Above, men search for coins and gold amid the refuse.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Poles In Water
Devotees pray while bathing in the Sangham.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Man Painted White
A young, newly initiated naga sadhu sits after performing evening rituals at his camp.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Skull In Sand
Some sadhus use human bones in their rituals and healing rites.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Man Smoking Pipe
A naga sadhu smokes a chillum, a traditional clay pipe, at his camp.RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

Man Holding Long Hair
In addition to their clothing (or lack thereof) and body painting, many sadhus distinguish themselves with long dreadlocks.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Nude Men In Water
Naga sadhus bathe in the waters of the Ganges during Makar Sankranti.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Light Posts
Hindu devotees walk through a dust storm at the Sangham.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Walkways Over Water
Thousands of Hindu devotees make their way across the pontoon bridges spanning the Ganges.JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Men Running Into Water
Naga sadhus charge into the Ganges river during Makar Sankranti.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Praying Man
A devotee offers prayers to the Sun God at Sangham.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

A Indian woman makes mud stoves near the banks of the Ganges for use during Kumbh Mela.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Crowd At River's Edge
Hindu pilgrims gather to bathe at sunrise at the Sangham.Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tents Lights
Devotees' tents line the river's edge.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Woman Praying At Banks
A Hindu woman prays on the shore of the holy river.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Huge Crowd
Hundreds of thousands of Hindu devotees crowd the banks of the Ganges.JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Man With Bicycle
After the festival ends, massive amounts of refuse can be left behind. Above, a man collects recyclable material from camping grounds near the Sangham following the conclusion of Kumbh Mela.Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

Next, step inside India's eye-popping Theyyam festival, where humans become gods. Then, check out some of the weirdest festivals from around the world, and have a look at ten of the world's most eye-catching all-nude festivals and events.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society of history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.