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Few spectacles on Earth can compare to the great six-week Hindu pilgrimage, the ancient Kumbh Mela, during which literally tens of millions of people make their way to the river Ganges in order to bathe and worship. The 2013 Kumbh Mela takes place at Allahabad (Prayag) in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Sixty years ago, in 1953, LIFE photographer James Burke chronicled an earlier Kumbh Mela in a series of pictures that, for reasons lost to time, were never published in the magazine. Here, in the midst of the 2013 Kumbh Mela, LIFE.com posts a series of those images — photos that capture something of the raw intensity and almost overwhelmingly sacral nature of the celebration’s rites.
The great American writer Mark Twain, of all people, also captured (or at least suggested) the unimaginable scale and the depth of faith on display everywhere during the phenomenal gathering:
“It is wonderful,” Twain wrote in 1895, after witnessing that year’s Kumbh Mela, “the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination.”
James Burke photographed stories for LIFE magazine in places as far-flung as Greece, Laos and Africa. (See Burke’s photographs of Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay after their landmark first ascent of Everest in May 1953.) He died in 1964 while working on a major photo essay on the Himalayas; while trying to get a better angle for a photograph in the mountains, he lost his footing and fell 800 feet to his death. He was 49 years old.