What does the world’s largest human congregation look like? Congested? Yes. Boisterous? Yes. Unruly? No! Yes, it will be intensely crowded, unimaginably noisy and worryingly chaotic; yet, the Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest gathering of humans, takes place every 12 years peacefully, without incident in each of its four locations. Over 100 million people attended the Kumbh Mela held in Prayag in Allahabad in 2013. This is by far the biggest gathering to have taken place in the world till date.
Since history, the fair has attracted not only devout pilgrims who seek to cleanse their soul in the holy waters, but also plenty of visitors from outside the country who are fascinated by the sheer scale of the Kumbh Mela. The first visitor to write about Kumbh Mela was the Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang way back in the 7th century CE. He wrote that the fair was attended by thousands of people ranging from the royalty to the common man and described how the King distributed huge quantities of gold and silver among his people during the fair.
For unlike in gatherings of this magnitude, the crowd at the Kumbh Mela is neither stressed nor irate; instead, the people help one another achieve the purpose for which they’ve undertaken this pilgrimage.
Let’s delve deeper into the details of the Kumbh Mela to understand what’s it’s about.
Where and When does the Kumbh Mela take place?
Prayag in Allahabad is where the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswathi merge and this is the most important location for the Kumbh Mela. Apart from this, the Mela takes place once in three years alternatively in three other locations namely Haridwar on the bank of the River Ganga, Nashik at the banks of River Godavari and Ujjain on the banks of River Shipra. The location and dates of every Kumbh Mela is determined by the Sun’s position corresponding to four different planets, analyzed by astrologers.
The next Kumbh Mela will be held at Nashik in August 2015. Allahabad’s Ardha Kumbha Mela (Half season) will be held in 2019. The Maha Kumbh Mela which occurs once in 144 years is held in Allahabad and is considered most auspicious; this took place in February 2013.
The legend behind the festival
Kumbh means urn and mela means fair. In Indian mythology, when the universe was first created, devas (Gods) started feeling weak and in order to boost their strength, decided to churn the primordial ocean of milk for nectar that would lead to immortality. Since they couldn’t do this colossal task on their own, they had to seek the help of Asuras (demons) and agreed to share the nectar with them. However, when the kumbh containing the nectar emerged, each group sought to make it their own; finally Garuda, Lord Vishnu’s celestial mount, grasped the urn and flew away with it. During the flight, a few drops of the nectar fell on earth at four places, namely, Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Since the fight between the Devas and Asuras took place over twelve celestial days that equals twelve human years, the Kumbh Mela is observed in each of these four places every twelve years.
Ironically, people visit these places where drops of the nectar of immortality are believed to have fallen, not to seek immortality, but to seek Mukthi, i.e, freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
What happens at the Kumbh Mela?
It is believed that at the time of the Mela, when the astrological patterns fall into place, the sacred rivers spew cosmic energy and their power multiplies. In India, rivers are worshiped as Gods and a dip in a holy river like the Ganges is believed to have multiple divine benefits. At the Kumbh Mela, the spiritual energy of the rivers is at its peak and it is believed that the River Saraswati which is mostly hidden comes to the surface at the meeting place of the three rivers at this time. So devotees rush to splash in the waters and cleanse their souls.
Since these are the places where the holy nectar is believed to have been dropped, people believe that a dip in these rivers during this auspicious period will bring their body’s energy points in contact with the greater spiritual energy, resulting in a positive change of mind, absolution from past sins and hope for a new beginning.
The Kumbh Mela is also a place of confluence for the spiritual men and women of India. Holy men wearing different kinds of attire, or wearing nothing at all, gather at the location to partake in the holy dip. There are different groups of sadhus, each group following its own rigorous rituals and having its own unique identity. There is a specific order followed among the religious groups to get into the water and this is strictly enforced. The ritual of holy men getting first preference to take a dip in the river followed by others takes place on specific days called Shahi Snan days.
The Naga Sadhus are usually the first to get into the waters; this group of sadhus believe themselves to be the children of God. They believe in surrendering all their material possessions; this includes clothes. So they remain naked in spite of cold temperatures.
Among other groups, there are the Parivajakas who follow an oath of silence, Kalpvasis who stay by the river all the time, Urdhwavahurs who follow strict, punishing routines and Shirshashinse who have taken a vow to stand all the time, even while sleeping. The Kumbh Mela is a time to see and get blessings from holy saints, many of whom leave their caves in the Himalayas, just for the Mela. There is a procession of holy men sitting on various mounts ranging from elephants to horses, chariots and palanquins. The procession is accompanied by strident music with blaring trumpets, rhythmic drums, the sound of conch shells blown and ringing bells. Just watching this ceremony is a fascinating experience.
After the holy men dip and splash in the freezing water and even play like children, the pilgrims get their chance to enter the river and offer their prayers. The ritual is not restricted to any age group; from newborn babies to seniors, everyone participates in the holy bath. Several people give away money to the needy and to religious men; some prepare and offer food to other pilgrims. These donations are believed to help in the main goal of salvation.
In spite of the crowds, everyone who visits the fair gets a chance to take a dip in the water. The crowds are well organized and there is a spirit of harmony among the pilgrims that enables them to share their moment of bliss with others.
Apart from the ritual dip, pilgrims have other activities to look forward to like religious discourses and devotional music sessions (bhajans). Spiritual leaders use the mela as an opportunity to spread their ideas and teachings, influencing a lot of people and motivating them.
Since this is a “spiritual” fair, all gimmicks associated with spirituality are also present at the Kumbh Mela. So here you can see snake charmers who seem to make snakes dance to their tunes, palm readers who are surprisingly good at reading your past and can offer you a good idea of the future and traders who sell everything spiritual from bronze lamps to incense sticks.
Reaching there and staying
Special trains are arranged by Indian railways to meet the additional travel demands of the fair. Allahabad is located prominently in the Northern plains and hence is easily reachable by road, rail and air. Haridwar is connected by train and road to major cities in India. Ujjain, where the Kumbh Mela is scheduled to take place in April-May 2016, is on the Western railway line and easily accessible from anywhere in India. Around 300,000 sadhus are expected to participate in 2015’s Kumbh Mela at Nashik. The Government has made arrangements for accommodation space for these holy men and pilgrims. Nashik is close to the industrious city, Mumbai and is a major stop on the Central Railway network.
Each of these four places, being prime pilgrimage centers, have a good share of hotels, guest houses and dormitories where you can stay provided you book well in advance. Apart from this, an entire city of tents is formed on the banks of the river; this land is allotted by the Government for the Kumbh Mela and different sadhu groups have their own tented space where they stay for the duration of the fair along with their devotees.
There are luxury tents too with comforts for modern visitors; several travel agencies arrange accommodation in these camps along with the services of a guide. Food is always vegetarian, no matter where you plan to stay during the Kumbh Mela. Apart from special trains and space for accommodation, the Government ensures availability of enough food, drinking water and security. Thousands of police personnel are employed for the fair to guide the pilgrims and manage the fair.
The Kumbh Mela has been, and still is very attractive to visitors from outside India; thousands of people from Europe and the United States visit India just to see the phenomenon called Kumbh Mela. While efforts have been taken to ensure the safety and comfort of visitors, it’s important to remember that the sheer scale of this event makes it difficult to manage. This is not a regular coach tour that you can see and admire from outside. A visit to the Kumbh Mela involves more than taking a dip in a sacred river; it’s more like diving into a sea of humans belonging to a completely different world. The journey can be difficult; yet it’s sure to be fascinating too.