Hindus traditionally regard river confluences (sangams) as auspicious places, and none more so than the one at Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet the River of Enlightenment, the mythical subterranean Saraswati. According to legend, Vishnu was carrying a kumbha (pot) of amrita (nectar), when a scuffle broke out between the gods, and four drops were spilled. They fell to earth at the four tirthas of Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. The event is commemorated every three years by the Kumbh Mela, held at each tirtha in turn; the Allahabad sangam is known as Tirtharaja, the “King of tirthas”, and its mela, the Maha Kumbh Mela or “Great” Kumbh Mela, is the greatest and holiest of all.
The largest religious fair in India, Maha Kumbh Mela was attended by an astonishing seventeen million pilgrims in 2001, and even more in 2013. The vast flood plains and riverbanks adjacent to the confluence were overrun by tents, organized in almost military fashion by the government, the local authorities and the police. The mela is especially renowned for the presence of an extraordinary array of religious ascetics – sadhus and mahants – enticed from remote hideaways in forests, mountains and caves. Once astrologers have determined the propitious bathing time or kumbhayog, the first to hit the water are legions of Naga Sadhus or Naga Babas, who cover their naked bodies with ash and wear their hair in dreadlocks. The sadhus, who see themselves as guardians of the faith, approach the confluence at the appointed time with all the pomp and bravado of a charging army.
Although the Kumbh Mela is only triennial, and not always in Allahabad, there is a smaller annual bathing festival, the Magh Mela, held here every year in the month of Magha (Jan–Feb).