10 Largest Religious Gatherings Around the World

Updated on June 14, 2018
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Nivedya is a biomedical major in Arizona State University minoring in Anthropology and Writing.

Supplicating pilgrim in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Supplicating pilgrim in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. | Source

Many of the religions throughout the world consider a certain place to be especially sacred. The followers of these religions often make pilgrimages to these locations to show their devotion, or simply to absorb the sanctity of the space. Below is a list of 10 places around the world where masses of believers congregate for this purpose.

10 Largest Religious Gatherings Around the World

  1. Maha Kumbh Mela (India)
  2. Arba'een Pilgrimage (Iraq)
  3. Pope Francis' Catholic Mass in 2015 (Phillippines)
  4. Hajj (Saudi Arabia)
  5. Makara Jyothi in 2007 (India)
  6. Bishwa Itjema (Bangladesh)
  7. Attukal Temple (India)
  8. Black Nazarene (Phillippines)
  9. Nabakalebara in 2015 (India)
  10. Beatification of Pope John Paul II in 2005 (Vatican City)

1. Maha Kumbh Mela (India)

The religious festival is attended by an estimated 120 million and is celebrated once every twelve years. (1)

A celebration deep-rooted in Hindu values is celebrated all over India, but the largest peaceful gathering occurs in the city of Allahbad. It is also considered the world's largest congregation of religious pilgrims. According to medieval Hindu mythology, the Hindu god, Lord Vishnu, dropped pots containing 'Amrita,' which symbolizes the drink of immortality, in four places which serve as sites of pilgrimage. (2)

A major event the pilgrims participate in is ritual bathing in the holy rivers. They also take part in religious conversations and blessings from priests or scholars. (3)

2. Arba'een Pilgrimage (Iraq)

This is the world's largest annual gathering. It is held in Iraq and is attended by over 20 million Shia Muslims annually. The religious gathering commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammad's grandson. As an act of religious solidarity, Muslim pilgrims make the journey to the holy city of Karbala on foot. (4)

Pilgrims are provided with essentials such as accommodation, food, clothing etc. by the community as they make their journey to the holy city, which is believed to ward off negativity and wash away sins. (5)

The pilgrimage has also been a target for various opposition groups such as Sunni Muslims, but pilgrims maintain solidarity even through political instability and continue to march annually.

3. Pope Francis' Catholic Mass in 2015 (Philippines)

Pope Francis' apostolic and state visit to the Philippines garnered a record breaking crowd of 7 million people. The mass conducted by the pope was the largest gathering in papal history. The visit was subject to controversy due to economic and security implications. The pope had to be flown into the location (Luneta Park) due to the high density of the crowd. (6)

Shockingly, a terrorist attack was planned by an extremist group, but the potentially fatal bomb detonation was foiled by the Philippine Armed Forces. (7)

4. Hajj (Saudi Arabia)

An Islamic practice every Muslim must fulfill at least once in their lifetime is the pilgrimage known as Hajj, which occurs annually in the city of Mecca located in Saudi Arabia. The three-day event draws a crowd of over 3 million pilgrims annually, where devout Muslims pray to attain "Hadith," which is a moral and religious guidance.

The pilgrimage occurs in the last month of the Islamic calendar. Pilgrims have to make seven counterclockwise rounds around the Kaaba, which is a holy monument providing a direction of prayer.

Various rites are performed during this highly spiritual journey, and pilgrims are expected to follow a simplistic and pure lifestyle during the days of Hajj. (8)

The economic aspect of the religious pilgrimage is also of high value to Saudi Arabia, as the Islamic country has earned up to $8.5 billion dollars from Hajj. (9)

5. Makara Jyothi in 2007 (India)

This pilgrim center and temple is located amidst a dense forest in the southern region of India. It was visited by over 5 million pilgrims in 2007 for a festival known as 'Makara Jyothi,' occurring annually on the 14 of January.

Devout Hindus worship a star on this day and devotees believe that the celestial lighting is a blessing received from the Hindu god Lord Ayyappan. (10)

Although the Sabarimala Temple (the site of Makara Jyothi celebration) draws a crowd of 50 million visitors annually, the specific day of the miraculous celestial lighting observation gathered 5 million pilgrims in 2007, making it one of the world's largest religious gatherings. Revenue collection and donations amounted to $10.6 million dollars. (11)

6. Bishwa Itjema (Bangladesh)

Bishwa Itjema is an annual gathering of Muslims in the capital city of Dhaka, Bangladesh attended by devotees from over 150 countries. In 2010, an estimated 5 million attendees performed daily prayers and listened to various recitations held by scholars of Islam. The main cause for such solidarity is to pray for world peace. This gathering is particularly interesting due to its non-political motive. The gathering was initiated to remove negative stereotypes, and to focus solely on solidarity and unity amongst communities.

Initiated in 1949, it is now the world's second-largest Muslim gathering. (12)

7. Attukal Temple (India)

This religious gathering is observed in the state of Kerala, India and commonly breaks attendance records, often drawing a crowd of 3 million women. This makes it the largest gathering of women in human history. (13) Devotees seek blessings from the 'Attukal Devi' who is said to have the power of knowledge, wealth, and strength. During the final day of the festival, millions of women gather around the temple and prepare a sweet rice dish using fire pots. The rice is to be used as a ritualistic offering to the Goddess Attukal.

The ritual has taken place annually for hundreds of years, and continues to serve as a positive representation of female solidarity.

8. Black Nazarene (Philippines)

A Filipino Catholic tradition, Black Nazarene depicts Jesus Christ en route to his crucifixion. Carved in the 16th century in Mexico, it was then transported to the Philippines in 1606. Filipino Catholics consider the icon to be miraculous, having the ability to cure diseases. The procession is attended by an estimated 2.6 million devotees hoping to touch the icon to receive blessings. (14)

The figure of Jesus portrays different characteristics than most depictions, such as dark skin, maroon and gold vestments, and a cross held over the shoulder. The procession lasts for approximately 20 hours, in order to provide an opportunity for millions of devotees to worship the Black Nazarene. In 2011, over 6 million worshippers attended the procession, making it one of the largest religious gatherings in human history. (15)

9. Nabakalebara in 2015 (India)

This religious event is unique since it occurs between a span of at least 12-19 years. The next event occurs at 2035, chosen according to the Hindu Calendar, which conforms to astrological planetary positions. (16)

A rather peculiar aspect of this event is the replacement of the holy image present at the temple during every festival. Initially, the devotees seek a very specific species of the neem tree in order to carve an image, and during the main festival day known as 'Debasnana Purnima,' the old images are replaced at midnight by the newly carved ones and worshipped by over 5 million people. The new deities are adorned with silk, musk and ornaments worth thousands of dollars. (17)

10. Beatification of Pope John Paul II (Vatican City)

According to the Catholic Church, beatification is an individual's entrance to heaven, and since the Pope's death in 2005, thousands of people had requested his beatification as a saint. The beatification of Pope John Paul II was conducted in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. (18) With 22 world leaders in attendance and over a million viewers, the event was remarkably historic. (19)

Sources

  1. http://hydrologie.org/redbooks/a286/iahs_286_0160.pdf
  2. https://web.archive.org/web/20100403014350/http://www.indianembassy.org/new/maha_kumbh_mela_2001.htm
  3. https://books.google.ae/books?id=1pCXqynwwQcC&pg=PA17&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2211973617301307
  5. http://www.aimislam.com/reflections-arbaeen-pilgrimage-biggest-mourning-procession/
  6. https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/philippine-bishops-conference-launches-theme-pope-francis-2015-visit
  7. http://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/01/22/15/ji-plot-why-cell-signals-turned-off-during-pope-visit
  8. https://books.google.ae/books?id=OZbyz_Hr-eIC&lpg=PP1&dq=isbn:1438126964&pg=PA282&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
  9. http://english.alarabiya.net/en/business/economy/2014/08/26/-9-billion-income-from-hajj-expected.html
  10. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-kerala/sighting-of-makarajyoti-brings-good-luck-and-blessings/article18392161.ece
  11. https://web.archive.org/web/20080118110549/http://www.hindu.com/2008/01/15/stories/2008011553760400.htm
  12. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/bangladesh/12088120/What-is-the-festival-of-Bishwa-Ijtema-and-where-is-it-held.html
  13. https://web.archive.org/web/20090208152651/http://guinnessworldrecords.com/news/2008/03/080304.aspx
  14. https://books.google.ae/books?id=lD_2J7W_2hQC&pg=PA118&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
  15. https://ejournals.ph/article.php?id=3177
  16. http://www.shreekhetra.com/navakalevara.html
  17. https://books.google.ae/books?id=XX_XAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y
  18. https://www.fjp2.com/news/vatican/9840-master-of-papal-ceremonies-on-jpii-beatification?lang=en
  19. https://web.archive.org/web/20091230032224/http://www.vicariatusurbis.org/beatificazione/English/HomePage.htm

© 2018 Nivedya

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