India's Kumbh Mela is the mother of all Hindu festivals, attracting millions of people to bathe at the holy confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in Allahbad. It's billed as the world's largest human gathering.
The Kumbh Mela festival is held every three years in four different cities on a rotating basis.
The present festival in Allahabad also happens to be a Maha Kumbh Mela, which comes once every 144 months, adding to the celebration's magnetic pull. Maha means "big" or "grand" in Hindi.
The event attracts more than 100 million bathers over a 55-day period. The largest and most important bathing day was on Sunday, when between 30 and 40 million people are expected to plunge into the holy water to wash away their sins.
A colorful sight
For Europeans, the bathing festival is a sight to be seen.
A little girl, perhaps five years old, clings tightly to her father as he dives with her three times into the icy water without warning.
The girl protests but her father doesn't relent. For him and millions of Hindus, bathing at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers during the holy period is the ultimate religious ritual.
"We have made a long journey here," the father says. "My daughter needs to bathe and cleanse her soul. She should be a good student and have a bright future."
The Kumbh Mela bathing festival is about redemption, enlightenment and relief, according to guru Ram Charan Giri. It's about seeking deliverance from sins and fulfilling wishes, he says.
The spiritual leader is standing along the river, preparing for his purifying bath. The corpulent man is dressed from head to toe in a saffron-colored cloth. His face is also painted with the bright orange of Hinduism. In his hand, he is holding the golden trident of the Hindu god Shiva representing destruction and renewal.
Heaven or hell
"When you bathe in the holy water during the Kumbh Mela, you purify yourself from the inside," says Giri. "You reach a state of complete satisfaction. After the bath, you will not go to hell but to heaven."
From their pilgrimage, many Hindus hope for the end of the cycle of eternal rebirth. But Giri sees this differently.
"In the end, everything depends on karma; your karma will determine whether or not you go to heaven or hell," he says. "I don't know how this relates to the notion of rebirth. But after a cleansing bath at the Maha Kumbh Mela, heaven opens up to you in the end. Your soul rests and you attain inner peace. If you make this pilgrimage, you are surrounded by gods and holy men, and you live in the lap of Mother Ganges."
Every 12 years, when the sun, moon and Jupiter meet in a special constellation, a parallel world arises at the gates of the otherwise quiet northern Indian city of Allahabad. There a sea of tents with millions of people arises along the sandy shores of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers.
Sea of tents
It is the world's largest human gathering. It is fully equipped with mobile clinics and mobile cell phone masts. With streets, bridges, electricity lines and sewage pipes connected to more than 35,000 toilets as well as with shops and centers for missing people. It's a place that's full not only of religious leaders but of charlatans as well.
For Munni Bai, Maha Kumbh Mela is the highpoint of her life. She has come by train to participate in the festival for the first time. In fact, this is her first train trip ever and she has spent several days en route.
The gaunt, old peasant woman is wearing a bright red sari. She drops to her knees in front of a Naga Bada, a holy man who lives a wandering ascetic life. He is moving around his tent nude, his body smeared with ashes. A small fire is burning in front of him, and he is smoking hashish.
The Naga Baba gives Munni Bai some ashes. In return, the devout pilgrim gives him a crumpled bill and proceeds to push the ashes in her mouth and swallow them.
"For me, this holy man is like the god Shiva. I firmly believe that my wishes will be fulfilled - I feel great," she says. "I want to keep coming back to the Kumbh Mela and die in the lap of Mother Ganges."
No one worries about how dirty and polluted the water is - not even Shoba, a doctor who has lived in Washington for more than 30 years. For her, the long trip to celebrate the Kumbh Mela bathing festival fulfils a lifelong dream."
"Our beloved Mother Ganges can' be contaminated," says Shoba. "You know what? I'm specialized in infectious diseases but I'm still going to take a holy dip. Mother Ganges is life. I bathe in her without hesitation. I believe in the cleansing power of the bath."