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What is the Kumbh Mela?
It is an event beyond imagination. The kind that encompasses every aspect of the human existence, and yet, seeks to distance itself from the earthly cycle of life and death and move towards a higher thought. It is one of the pillars of an ancient civilization; it is a glimpse of eternal hope combined with transitory life. It is the Kumbh Mela. It is, for want of a more powerful word, Faith. The faith of a 5,000 year old behemoth called India. For a culture that acknowledges the material—but points to a deeper meaning of life – the Kumbh is a phenomenon bred in the soil, and nourished over centuries.

Even as the holy scriptures from the Vedic era prescribe prayer, fasts, ritualistic holy baths, charity and good deeds as the way to a well-balanced and well lived life, the Kumbh has a place all its own.

The Legend of Kumbh
The founding legend attributed to the Puranas (ancient texts containing the narratives of the history  of the universe and India), has it that the demons and the gods churned the ocean for Amrit, the elixir of eternal life. In the ensuing struggle, a few drops of it fell out of the kumbh (pitcher) they were carrying, and landed on four places that are today known as the holy cities of Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik. It is believed that these drops gave unknown, mystical powers to these places and hence observing the congregation called the Kumbh Mela (literally translated: the Fair of the Pitcher) in any of these places is supposed to impart great merit to the participants.

Slated as the ‘biggest peaceful congregation on Planet Earth’ and still growing, the pilgrimage is noteworthy for the Sadhus (or ascetics) from every nook and corner of India who articulate the transitory aspect of life and stress on the need to look beyond the physical and emotional limits that human beings set for themselves.

Visitors throng from India and abroad to interact with the Sadhus and benefit from their wisdom and understanding of life. The sadhus belong to as many as 13 distinct akhadas or groups (as per their ideology.) The darshan (opportunity to meet with the sadhus) is crucial to the experience of the Kumbh Mela and because of this worshipers must be careful so as to not displease the sadhus. Meeting the sadhus is meticulously arranged and worshipers often leave tokens at their feet.

Attendees at the Kumbh Mela come from all sections of India, ranging from sadhus who remain naga or naked and practice the most severe physical discipline, to hermits, who leave their isolation only for these pilgrimages, to techno-savvy, jet set teachers resplendent in the finest clothing.

Vast crowds of disciples, friends, and spectators join the individual ascetics and organizations. The naga akhadas often claim the holiest spots at each Kumbh Mela’s most auspicious moment. Although the government now insists on an orderly bathing order, history records bloody disputes between groups vying for precedence.

Roll-call of rotation
Planetary movements dictate that while the regular Kumbh Mela is held every 3 years in any of the four cities of Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik, the Ardh (half) Kumbh Mela is held every six years at Haridwar and Allahabad (Prayag) while the Purna (complete) Kumbh mela takes place every twelve years, at four places Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik, based on planetary movements. The Maha Kumbh Mela is celebrated at Prayag after 144 years (after 12 complete or purna Kumbh Melas).

Each site’s celebration is based on a distinct set of astrological positions of the Sun, the Moon, and Jupiter, the holiest time occurring at the exact moment when these positions are fully occupied. The Kumbh Mela at Prayag, in particular, attracts millions of pilgrims. In addition, a Maha (great) Kumbh Mela festival is held every 144 years at Prayag; the 2001 festival at Haridwar attracted some 60 million people.

Kumbh Melas at different cities:
While the Kumbh Melas are similar in nature, each city has its unique flavour and tour-worthy spots that add to the experience. All 4 are historical cities, and even as Prayag, Haridwar and Ujjain are picturesque in natural beauty, Nashik with its assorted cultural influences is a study in contrast. Some would say the Kumbh mela at Haridwar has special significance, as Hindu mythology believes a pilgrimage to Haridwar is the gateway to heaven. Rivers have always enjoyed a special status in the Hindu way of life, especially the river Ganga and its tributaries.

Believed to be possessed of the ability to cleanse one’s sins, the very mainstay of the Kumbh Mela is the holy dip or the Shahi Snan by the sadhus, perceived to be the wisest of all men. Besides the Ganges, there are also two other sacred rivers located at Allahabad, the Yamuna and the Saraswati . The Yamuna, like the Ganges has its earthly origin in the Himalayas. The Saraswati, however,has disappeared since, and has been identified by some experts as the river Ghaggar today. (Saraswati is mentioned many times in India’s ancient texts like the Vedas and the epics and is said to be present at Allahabad where it joins the Yamuna and the Ganga.)

This confluence of India’s three most sacred rivers at Allahabad is called the Triveni sangam. The combined sanctity of the three holy rivers, coupled with the spiritual powers obtained from the pot of nectar of immortality, has earned Allahabad the rank of teertharaaja, the king of holy places.

Marvelous, Mystical and Massive
In 1895, the celebrated English author Mark Twain attended the Kumbh Mela. So moved was he by what he saw that he wrote– “It is wonderful, 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, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites”. If this sounds a bit too romantic for modern ears, here’s a description from The Atlantic Quartz Website to get an idea of how big it actually is “Imagine the entire population of Shanghai—about 23 million—camping on a 4×8 kilometer field. Add to that mass of humanity every last man, woman and child in New York City and you’re getting closer to the Kumbh’s expected attendance. But you’re still not quite there. The area of the mela is also on the rise: from 1,495.31 hectare and 11 sectors in 2001 to 1936.56 hectare and 14 sectors in 2013. That’s about 4,784 acres of land – about the size of Madrid’s famous Casa de Campo Park.”

The Kumbh down the ages
Despite the legend, the exact origin of the Kumbh Mela is difficult to pinpoint. Some people believe that the first written evidence of the Kumbha Mela can be found in the accounts of Chinese traveller, Huan Tsang or Xuanzang who visited India in 629 – 645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana. He describes how Harshavardhana distributed goods and money generously at a gathering at Prayag. In the 8th century, the Shankaracharya popularized the mela amongst the common people. With each passing year the fair began to garner more and more crowds.  According to The Imperial Gazetteer of India, an outbreak of cholera occurred at the 1892 Mela at Haridwar, which lead to the rapid improvement of arrangement by the authorities and the formation of Haridwar Improvement Society, and in 1903 about 400,000 people attended the fair. Since then, it has gone from strength to strength, with 60 million people (about 1 per cent of all humanity) in attendance.

Rich and poor, brown and white, young and all, are all part of this humongous theatre that offers anyone remotely observant a chance to broaden their horizons.

A word of caution, beyond the din
The Kumbh Mela, despite its awesome beauty, energy and colour, continues to be a hotbed of superstition. Critics complain that this is one of those events responsible for the stereotypical type-casting of Indian culture in the West. Fascinating and frustrating in equal
measure, it defies definition on every level. All visitors—whether Indian or foreign—are advised not to believe everything they see. Good old common sense works at all times.
Instead, the celebration ought to be seen as one of the continuing traditions of one of the oldest civilizations of the planet: India. A tradition that underlines a single truth: the more things change, the more they remain the same. And thus, the quest to look at life beyond the obvious continues from Kumbh to Kumbh.

Author: Kalyani Sardesai
Information Courtesy: Anita Joshi
Photographs © Kumar Mangawani, Heramb Sahasrabuddhe, Kiran Tambat
Source: Maharashtra Unlimited Magazine Volume 4 Issue 2 (2015)
Web editor: Kshitija Pande



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