The people. The number of them. The sheer jaw-dropping innumerability of them, walking in an endless stream; calm, orderly, silent, devout, determined, stoic, and above all joyous, from dawn to dawn: young, old, blind, lame, infirm, athletic, cloth bags packed with food and blankets on their heads, two unbelievable crore of them on one single day, the holy Mauni Amavasya, and if all of them stood in single file, the line would have stretched from Allahabad to Miami, and if you disregard the seas in between from Allahabad around the globe to Allahabad again, all these people, in garments of every primary colour, entire villages walking in tight formations, holding on to one another by the shirt tails and saree aanchals, some groups with dholaks singing the praises of the Hindu pantheon throughout the journey, sadhus of all possible ilk, sect, cult, belief, dress code, women who have never stepped out of their villages in their entire lives, the rich and the poor indistinguishable from one another in this greatest Indian adventure of all, two crore of them coming in for a dip at that confluence of two great (and one mythical) rivers, to taste the drops of amrit that Garuda (or Jayanta, son of Indra, according to some Puranas) spilled during his flight from the asuras, to wash away their sins, to commune with a benevolent higher force, to pray, to plead, to weep, to atone, to expiate, to demand, to negotiate with God, for to come to Prayag during the Kumbh is to have done all possible pilgrimages, and the Mahakumbh is the once-in-144-years mother of all Kumbhs, all these people, each with their private fears and agonies, dreams and demons, each alone, each a necessary part of the whole, all free here, utterly free, to do what they want, to commune with God in any way they can think up, in the largest congregation of human beings in history, and in an ecstasy of freedom that is the hallmark of Indian civilisation.
Stand on the river bund at three in the night, look down at the measureless streams of sleepless pilgrims entering a vast brightly-lit temporary city exuding the joy of life and teeming with the simplest dreams in the world, but the roar of that city drowned out by the heavenly voice of M.S. Subbalakshmi singing the story of the dasavatar, and do not feel ashamed if your spine tingles. This has nothing to do with your particular brand of religion, faith or atheism.
Back in Delhi, every time I close my eyes, I see the people walking past.