National Geographic : 2014 Feb
kumbh mela 129 bathes in these rivers washes away his sins and comes a step closer to heaven. Every year several million people make the pilgrimage to Allahabad to perform that ritual at a gathering called a mela. Every 12 years, when the alignment of the stars is considered particularly auspicious, the gathering is an order of magnitude larger, and a giant tent city rises out of the Ganges floodplain to host the Maha Kumbh Mela, or Kumbh. In 2013 the Kumbh drew an estimated 70 million people over 56 days. The mela has always excited outsiders’ curiosity, mainly for its exotic processions of naked, snarling, ash-smeared holy men. Reicher and his colleagues had a different focus. They were interested in the people who came to blend with the crowd, rather than stand out from it. Half an hour’s jeep ride from the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna, but still within the Kumbh “city,” 70-year-old Bishamber Nath Pandey and his wife, Bimla, 65, invite me into their tent. Carpets cover the dirt floor, but oth- erwise there’s little comfort. The Pandeys are kalpwasis, pilgrims who come to the mela for at least a month and live a spartan lifestyle while they’re here. They describe their daily routine to me: a dip before dawn, one frugal meal, chores, prayer, chanting. “Have you ever been sick during your stay?” I ask. The kalpwasis are predominantly elderly, their tents are unheated, and the temperature at night often falls to near freezing. The Ganges, according to the local authorities’ own measure- ments, is so polluted with sewage and industrial Laura Spinney’s portrait of a European city in 70 voices, Rue Centrale, was published last year. Alex Webb’s tenth book of photographs, Memor y C it y, created with the photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, will be published this year.