In January and February 2013 more than 100 million people from India and abroad travelled to the holy site of Sangam, Allahabad, to clean their sins by bathing at the confluence of three holy rivers, the Ganges, Yumana and Saraswati. While the Ganges and the Yamuna actually meet, the Saraswati is believed to be an invisible river that flows underground and meets the other two rivers from below. The event is called Kumbha Mela and takes place on this site every 12 years. The 2013 edition was a Maha Kumbh Mela, a particular auspicious event that takes place once every 144 years.

The word kumbh means pitcher and mela means fair. Legend says that when the Samundra Manthan (the churning of the ocean of milk) took place, the Gods found the kumbh which contained the amrut (immortal nectar). Though the Gods and the demons were churning the ocean to obtain the nectar together, and were meant to share the pitcher, the Gods took away the kumbh. During this chase, the amrut fell in four different places, the cities today where the Kumbh Melas are held. This amrut is what makes these rivers holy, and pilgrims and sadhus (holy men) come here to gain absolution by bathing in the holy waters.

Over a period of 55 days the government of Uttar Pradesh built a temporary tent city including eighteen temporary pontoon bridges crossing the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, 550 km of pipelines, 770 km of electrical lines, 40 hospitals/clinics, and 156 km of road. At the end of the event the city was completely dismantled and the entire area flooded under water during the monsoon season.

The event sees a continuous stream of pilgrims crossing the pontoon bridges, many of them carrying bundles containing bedding, clothing, rice and food for the days ahead. The pinnacle of the gathering is the Mauni Amavasya Snan (main bathing day) on February 10. Hindus believe that submerging themselves in the sacred waters on the most auspicious day of the new moon will absolve them and their ancestors of sin, thus ending the cycle of rebirth. Many arrived before the first light. On this particular day more than 30 million people were on hand to take part in the ritual, the largest human gathering in the history of the world.  

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