Many pilgrims believe the water will wash away their sins.
Just a few yards from the riverbanks, Mr. Modi appeared, again. This time, he took the form of a high quality cardboard cutout, so sharp and lifelike you could count the curly gray hairs on his forearms. For a second, it almost looked like the prime minister was personally watching over his fellow Indians as they plunged into the river.
The noise at the riverfront (and all along the pilgrimage route) was deafening. Police officers blasted earsplitting whistles at anyone who lingered too long in the water; “Sri Ram, Sri Ram,” a Hindu chant, blared from loud speakers; train horns blew in the distance, constantly.
Over a public address system, the authorities broadcast the cries of despondent children who had been separated from their parents in the hope that someone in that gigantic multitude would recognize their voice. (“Papa! Papa!” one pleaded.)
The smell of burning popcorn and woody incense cut through the other smells of damp clothes, sweat and dust.
The Ganges was cold and dark, the crowds oceanic, the din ceaseless. But no one was complaining. No matter that people had traveled for days, walked for miles, slept on the ground, and ate little, all for a few minutes in the river. They emerged with goose bumps on their arms and joy on their faces.
“It feels wonderful,” said Ashok Bhatt, a pilgrim who once lived in Tallahassee, Fla.
Daswanti Patel, an impoverished farmer, came from a village a couple hours away in a wagon pulled by a tractor. She was stunned by all the Kumbh bling — the piercing LED lights, the mesmerizing video billboards, the free clean water and the plywood palace rising just behind where she lay in a pile of hay with her husband and granddaughter, under a lumpy old quilt.
“We are not seeing any of this money spent in our area,” she said. “Back home, we live in a house made out of mud and hay.”
Last election, she voted for Mr. Modi. But when asked what she would do this coming election, she frowned and said: “Let’s wait and see.”