The Kumbh Mela is considered as one of the world’s oldest and most significant gathering of religious pilgrims and is also one of the most significant Hindu pilgrimages. The Kumbh Mela is over 2000 years old and has been documented by Chinese travellers to India during the reign of King Harshwardhan, and the 2013 Kumbh Mela held in Haridwar witnessed over 100 million visitors.
The Kumbh Mela is held every 3 years in a rotation in Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain, hence each location host the Kumbh Mela once in 12 years, with the next Kumbh Mela to be held in Allahabad in 2019 followed by Haridwar in 2022.
Every 6 years, Ardh Kumbh Mela is hosted by Haridwar and Allahabad. Kumbh Mela is also known as the festival of the sacred pitcher as Kumbh literally translates as a pitcher in Sanskrit. The story behind the Kumbh mela goes back to mythological times when it is said that Gods were used to residing on Earth and demons were causing havoc over the world as the God’s were weakened by a curse of Sage Durvasa.
It was then that Lord Brahma advised the Gods to churn out the nectar of immortality with the help of the demons. Upon learning about the plan of the Gods, the demons decided not to share the nectar with the Gods which lead to a 12-day chase, during which it is believed that some of the nectar fell in four places, namely the present day Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain.
Hindus believe that the waters of these holy rivers turn into nectar during the dates when the Kumbh Mela is held with devotees believing that taking a dip in the sacred rivers during the Kumbh Mela liberates a person from all their past sins and they are eternally blessed by the divine waters of the holy rivers. These dates are calculated and determined according to the zodiac positions of the planet of Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon.
Travellers and tourist can experience several divine encounters at this event and witness holy men from many different Hindu sects. For example, the Nagas, who do not wear anything, the Kalpwasis, who bathe a day thrice, the Urdhawavahurs, who believe in putting their bodies through extreme austerity with each sect has their own sacred ritual which the travellers can witness during the Kumbh Mela.
Travelers can also experience a mix of religious and cultural features of Hinduism with the atmosphere filled with chiming bells, smell of fragrant flowers and incense in the air, sounds of Vedic hymns, chants, mantras, drum beats etc throughout the mela, sadhus from different akharas or orders proceeding with the gold and silver chariots with devotees pulling them etc.
Every pilgrim at the Kumbh Mela showcases paramount of vigour and flair desiring for the cleansing of their soul and washing away their past sins in the holy waters of the sacred rivers at the site of the Kumbh Mela.
Kumbh Mela- The largest congregation of religious pilgrims in the world
With a rich history that dates back to time immemorial, the Kumbh Mela is the paramount pilgrimage festival of the Hindu religion. Held in four holy cities of the Indian subcontinent, the Kumbh Mela witnesses millions of devotees traveling across the globe, just to experience the grandeur of this religious fair.
It is the confluence of people belonging to different social, religious, and cultural sects of the society, who all come together to see the blessings from the Almighty. Held after every 12 years, this festival is organized with great spirits and devotion. Given below is a guide to all you need to know about the extravagant fair of Kumbh Mela.
Legend of the Kumbh Mela- The history behind the festival
Inscribed in the ancient texts sacred to Hindus called The Puranas, the intriguing legend of Kumbh Mela dates back to thousands of years ago. It speaks about the time when the Devtas (or the Gods) and the Asuras (or the Demons) used to reside on Earth. The demons were causing mayhem, creating a ruckus everywhere they went and causing destruction. Our Golden Triangle Tour Packages India offers many golden opportunities to tourists for travelling in India and see and hang out many beautiful places of India.
The gods were watching all their doings but were unable to act. They were under the curse of Sage Durvasa, and it is because of the curse their powers had become weak. They had to wait for the curse to lift in order to use their divine powers with full might. With time the demons got more atrocious and started causing great unrest. So one day, Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe, decided to end their tyranny.
He went up to the Asuras and told them about the Milky Ocean hidden in the celestial region of cosmos. The water of the Milky Ocean, when churned non-stop for hundreds of years, yields divine nectar. This nectar, known as the Amrita, was the magical elixir of immortality. The Asuras, determined to obtain this nectar, agreed to work in unison with the Devtas and divide the nectar into equal parts. As decided, they reached the shore of Milky Ocean.
With Mount Madara as the churning rod and Vasuki, the serpent, as their rope, the Demons, and the Gods started churning. They toiled for 1000 years. Lord Shiva, the destroyer, also drank the poison which formed during the process. One day, after a lot of hardship, Dhanwantari, the divine healer, finally emerged, holding a pot in her hands. And in this pot was Amrita, the nectar of immortality. She handed the sacred pot to the gods.
However, upon receiving the pot, the gods tricked the demons and refused to share the nectar. Enraged, the demons started looking for it. Lord Brahma then handed over the pot’s responsibility to Lords Brahaspati, Surya, Shani, and Chandra. When the demons came to know about their plan, they came after them.
The lords ran with the sacred pot in their hand to protect the nectar from falling into the wrong hands of the Asuras. The chase lasted for 12 days, with it said to be almost 12 years of Earth. During their fight, it said that some drops of the nectar fell in four places. These places were Haridwar, Ujjain, Prayagraj and Nasik. And this is how the story of their fight became the legend behind the revered festival of Kumbh Mela.
Significance of the festival
The name itself reveals the tale behind this festival. According to the Sanskrit language, the word Kumbh means ‘Pot’, while Mela means ‘Fair’ or ‘Gathering.’ Hence, Kumbh Mela is the festival that celebrates the sacred pot of immortality elixir, which was bravely guarded by the Gods of Hindu mythology.
Every 12 years, pilgrims gather from farthest corners of the world to celebrate this occasion. The 4 cities, where the drops of nectar fell, are worshipped as a holy land. During the days of Kumbh Mela, it is believed that the water of the sacred rivers flowing, transform again into Amrita.
Thus, people bath in these water with the hope to become pure by washing away their sins, and achieve their lord’s blessings. A dip, with pure heart and devotion, grants an eternal life free of sins.
Different aspirations bring different individuals to the retreat of Kumbh Mela. Some pray to seek forgiveness. Some pray for their god’s blessings. Some seek the peace it brings from within while others come to feel the liveliness surrounding the carnival.
When it comes to integration, Kumbh Mela is the perfect platform for fusion of people belonging to diverse sects of society. Despite their different religious, social, and cultural beliefs, tourists from varied traditional cultures come together and take part in the festivity.
Through its various rituals, it spreads the message of humanity, peace, oneness, and harmony. Each ritual incorporates the sciences of astronomy and astrology, along with cultural beliefs and religious practices.
Types of Kumbh
Depending upon the intervals between two consecutive celebrations, Kumbh Mela in India is categorized into three types.
The first is known as Purna Kumbh Mela. Literally translating to ‘full’ Kumbh, this fair is held once in 12 years at each of the 4 sites.
The second one is called Ardh Kumbh Mela, or the ‘half’ Kumbh. The venue is rotated between Haridwar and Prayagraj in Allahabad. It occurs in every 6 months.
Lastly, the third type is called the Great Kumbh or the Maha Kumbh Mela. Held only at Prayagraj, this festival is celebrated once 12 Purna Kumbh Melas come to completion. Hence, it only occurs once every 144 years.
Venues of Kumbh Mela- When and where is it celebrated?
While waging war with the demons, the drops of nectar dropped by Lord Vishnu (the preserver) served as the source of divine powers that transformed the land and water of these places. Since then, the cities of Haridwar, Prayagraj, Nasik, and Ujjain have become supreme pilgrimage sites.
The banks of the holy rivers coursing through these cities is where the Mela is set up. Hence, every 3 years, one of these holy cities organizes the fair in rotation, to welcome the devotees with great pomp and zeal. Dates are finalized by observing the different zodiac signs in that period. The positions of Brahaspati (Jupiter), Surya (Sun) and Chandra (Moon) together help to decide the auspicious dates to commence the celebrations.
In Haridwar, the fair is set up near the banks of holy river Ganga. It falls in the spring season, between March and April, or Hindu month of Chaitra. The zodiacal position of Jupiter is in Aquarius, and Sun is in Aries. The first bathing day always falls on Shivratri.
In Pragyraj (Allahabad), the intersection of River Ganga and River Yamuna forms the site for the fair. It is organized in the winters of January and February, as per the Hindu month of Magha. The first bathing day always falls on Makar Sankranti. During this period, the Jupiter lies either in Aries or Taurus, while the Sun and Moon lie in Capricorn.
In Nasik, the ghats of River Godavari form the setting. The fair is organized in summers, in the Bhadrapada months of August and September. The first bathing date is Chaitra Purnima.
Finally, in Ujjain, the banks of River Shipra serve as the ground for the fair. The first bathing day falls on Simha Sakranti. And the festival occurs in Vaisakha, the spring season, in April and May.
Rituals of Kumbh Mela- What all happens during the 48 days
Thousands of tourists filled with great zeal and fervor attend the day-long rituals that take place on the embankments of the sacred rivers. Devotional prayers are sung along with beating drums and ringing bells to please the gods. The highlights of all the rituals and ceremonies of this festival are mentioned below.
Aarti: The Devotional Singing
In Hinduism, deities are worshipped by chanting melodious hymns, or Aartis. These songs are sung to praise the glory of the gods. Through them, the devotees express the gods their gratitude for providing them with all they have in their life and seek their blessings to endure each hardship with strength. Through these hymns, they speak of the undying devotion they have for their creator, and in return, ask to bless their loved ones with happiness and prosperity.
Maha Aartis are sung twice a day. The first one is sung very early in the morning, almost at the break of the dawn, while the second one is during the evening. This moment is one of the most transcendent experiences. Pilgrims and tourists gather at the Ghats or the banks of the holy rivers. Staged on a platform near the river stand the priests, adorning cotton dhotis, and lighting the gold plated lamps.
Absolute silence surrounds the setting, with nothing but the sound of waves gently lapping, escaping the quiet. And then the Aarti begins. The priests lift the dazzling lamps and start rotating them in circles as they chant the mantras. Bells are ringed in rhythm to the chorus. The tourists attending the ceremony close their eyes and with folded hands, start reciting their prayers. The rhythmic synchronization and resonating melodies of the event are what captivates the heart of the tourists present in the ceremony.
Deep Dan: The Lighting of Earthen Lamps
A graceful ritual of the festival is the lighting of handmade earthen lamps called Diyas. Known as Deep Dan, this ceremony involves decorating the exterior of the shops, stalls, and houses present in the city with glowing diyas and candles.
They are placed inside the temples, near the river banks, in some sacred spots in the forests, and even in front of the idols of God. The golden flame of the diyas illuminates the entire city during the nighttime. The idea behind this ritual is admirable. Just like a single glowing Diya can drive out the darkness from any place, it is symbolized that even a single small act of kindness can drive out the bitterness from any person’s heart.
Snan: The Religious Bath
Marked as the most significant ritual of the entire festival, Snan, or the holy bath, witnesses thousands of pilgrims collecting at the river banks to take a dip in its holy waters. The event begins with a celebratory procession of the sadhus present at the ceremony, who march towards the Ghats. Walking alongside them are people mounted on elephants and horses, carrying banners and flags in their hands, cheering the monks walking ahead. Musicians play tunes with great pomp, enthralling the tourists with their melodies.
As the Kumbh procession reaches the banks, the holy monks take the first dip in the waters, after which the bathing ritual begins for the common people. Pilgrims close their eyes and chant prayers with full devotion while standing in the river. They then take a dip and bathe in this water, with the hope of atonement of their past sins. Flowers, milk, coconut, and sindoor (vermillion) are presented as offerings.
The religious bathing takes place every day, starting as early as 3 a.m. However, the most auspicious bath is considered on the night of the new moon or Amavasya. Legend has it that bathing in the river on this day liberates a person from the rebirth cycle, and hence achieves moksha or salvation.
Yajnas and Kirtans: The Chanting of Prayers
After bathing in the holy river, the pilgrims move towards the temples where the priests perform the yajnas. Brahmins, or the priests, light a sacred fire, and crowds gather around the platform. After making offerings to Agni, the holy god of fire, the priests start mouthing Sanskrit mantras to worship and seek the boons of the Almighty. It is said that through yajnas, a spiritual connection binds the gods and his devotees together.
Another form of spiritual recitation is Kirtans. Priests play instruments and chant devotional hymns describing the traditional folklore and legends of their deities. The audience sings along with the singer, while musicians play classical instruments like harmonium, veena, and sitar (string instrument), tablas (single drums), flute and cymbals.
Darshan: Interacting with the Sages
Kumbh Mela is an amazing opportunity for those wishing to closely observe the life of Sadhus, the orthodox religious worshippers. Darshan is a Sanskrit word that means ‘viewing.’ It is the interaction between the Sadhus and the common masses.
Traveling endlessly for days, these Sadhus belong to different akharas or religious sects and are the distinguished followers of different Hindu deities. On arriving at Kumbh Mela, they perform Snan at the river and then reside in their tents. Sadhus adopt an austere way of life.They are free from materialistic desires and devote their life to the service of their Almighty. Hence, to seek spiritual advice and knowledge, the pilgrims take a keen interest in interacting with these sages.
This event is known as Darshan and is an unparalleled experience where you get to indulge in intimate conversations with these religious devotees. The meetings are presided over in careful supervision of the authorities to ensure nothing happens that can enrage the sadhus or hurt their religious sentiments.
Mahaprasada and Langar: The Celebratory Feast
Refreshing drinks, sweets, and delicacies are prepared by street vendors who set up stalls in Kumbh Mela. The tourists satisfy their taste buds by indulging in local cuisines at the restaurants.However, the auspicious food of the rituals is served in a celebratory feast called Mahaprasada.
Considered as the blessing of the god, the incredibly luscious prasad is prepared using milk and dry fruits and is generally a sweet like halwa and laddoo. Devotees volunteer to work collectively for preparing the prasad and distributing it to each and every pilgrim present.
A communal feast is also organized for the priests, as well as the hungry and needy pilgrims. This is called Langar. Funded by the donations received from various families and communities, the food in Langar is also cooked and served by volunteers. All dishes prepared are meat-less and purely vegetarian as the people criticize any form of violence against animals.
Pravachan: The Enlightening Religious Discussions
Monks, saints, and religious scholars gather to preach the sayings of ancient Vedic texts and Holy Scriptures. This social event is known as Satsang, while the recitation and discussions are known as Pravachan. Huge masses of pilgrims collect in tents while the saints recite notable texts from the holy books.
They explain the meanings of those legends, the importance they hold in the Hindu religion, and how one can incorporate the lessons from them to live a peaceful life. From sacred texts like Mahabharata and Ramayana to scriptures of Bhagavata Purana and Vedas, the teachings give insightful knowledge annotated in the Hindu mythology.
Sadhus and Sants attending the Mela
Preserving the teachings of Hinduism and its culture is the religious community called Akharas. The sacred saints of these communities are titled Sadhus and Sants. These monks decide to follow very strict rules to lose themselves completely in the devotion of their gods. Some fast for days, while others who bathe four times a day. Some plain monochrome clothes, while others stay wear nothing and cover their entire body with ash.
Each akhara has worshippers of a particular deity, but most of them are devotees of Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Every 3 years, when the Kumbh Mela is organized in one of the four pilgrimage sites, sadhus from over 13 akharas grace the fair with their presence and interact with the pilgrims. Many rituals like Shahi Snan, do not commence till the sadhus take the first dip in the sacred river. The 13 akharas attending the Kumbh Mela are as follows.
The Shaiva akharas are orthodox followers of Lord Shiva, the destroyer. There are 7 Shaiva akharas, namely Mahanirvani, Atal, Niranjani, Anand, Juna, Avahan, and Agni.
The Vaishnava akharas are the worshippers of Lord Vishnu, the preserver. They are 3 in total, namely Nirvani, Digambar, and Nirmohi.
Finally, the Sikh akharas are followers of Sikhism. They are also 3 in number, namely Bara Panchayati Udasins, Chota Panchayati Udasins, and Nirmal.
Some people make the transition during the Kumbh Mela by adopting the life of Kalpavasis. Liberating themselves from worldly desires, the Kalpavasis fast during the days, eat plain vegetarian food, follow non-violence, and swear lifelong celibacy.
Cultural Events of the Mela
Despite being a prominent pilgrimage for Hindus, Kumbh Mela is not just about the grand religious ceremonies. A lot of cultural performances and activities are organized by the authorities to entertain the tourists attending this extravagant fair.
The cities remain alive even at nights with crowds walking merrily on the river banks, enjoying the gentle breezes and illuminated vistas of the city. Boat rides and rafting are organized at some spots during the day time.Folk singers coming from different corners of the country fill the air with their mellow symphonies. Classical dancers swoon to the rhythm with their traditional dance forms and give cultural dance performances.
Laser shows, a popular event amongst the tourists, are also organized on some nights. You can also discover the archeologically and historically significant sites on a guided tour of the city. And you can shop locally for handcrafted artifacts to take as souvenirs of the festival.
Facts about Kumbh Mela
- Kumbh Mela is the supreme pilgrimage of Hindus, witnessing a massive crowd of about 30 to 50 million people, making it “world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims.”
- Held after every 12 years, the dates of this festival based on the zodiacal positions of Jupiter, Moon, and Sun, and follow the Hindu lunisolar calendar.
- The entire celebration generally lasts up to 48 days but can even extend to 3 months.
- Origin of the festival dates back to thousands of years and is mentioned in texts called ‘Puranas’ as Samundra Manthan. This is the reason why the fair’s location is always near the banks of some holy river.
- The event has also been included by UNESCO in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
- Large scale management required for smoothly organizing this festival serves as a temporary yet important source of income for many people.
- Due to the heavy crowd that gathers, there are a lot of people who get separated from their families during the celebrations. Hence, assistance is provided to them through the Bhule-Bhatke Kendra.
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