Touted as the biggest religious congregation in the world, The Kumbh Mela is as fascinating as it is chaotic. Frequented by babas and bhakts alike, the 58 day Indian festival is often referred to as a spiritual cleansing of sorts. Eager to know more? Read on..
1. The Kumbh Mela takes place every three years, not twelve.
As far as cultural festivals go, the Kumbh Mela is the largest Hindu gathering of pilgrims in the world. The festival, which takes place during an auspicious time every three years, is celebrated at different locations depending on the position of the planet of Bṛhaspati (Jupiter) and the sun.
2. The festival takes place at 4 locations in India depending on the position of Jupiter and the sun.
The mela is organized every three years (and not 12, as often believed) on a rotation basis of Prayag (Allahabad), Nashik, Haridwar and Ujjain. Let’s break it down for you –
If Jupiter and the Sun are both in Leo – Nashik, if the Sun is in Aries – Haridwar, If Jupiter is in Taurus and Sun in Capricorn – Prayag and if Jupiter and the Sun are both in Scorpio – Ujjain. This year it is being held in Nasik.
3. The origin story is fascinating
The story of the festival dates back to the days of the Devtas (gods) and Asuras (devils) in Hindu mythology and Vedic scripture. According to these texts a time came when all the Devtas had lost their power and strength after being cursed. To earn them back, Lord Vishnu directed them to churn the ocean of milk to receive amrit or the nectar of immortality. There was a flip-side to this, as the deities were forced to make an agreement with the Asuras. Their lack of enough…let us say.. ‘god power’ led them to clue the Asuras in on the plan, who in exchange for their help were promised half the amount of nectar churned out. Years later, the amrit was presented to them, which the Devtas kept to themselves thus leading to another long and drawn-out war.
Now it was during THIS battle (which the Devtas won), a few drops of the nectar from the Kumbh is believed to have spilled onto four particular places in India. At the Sangam of Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati in Allahabad, the banks of river Ganges in Haridwar, the Godavari river at Nasik and the river Kshipra in Ujjain. The elixir is said to have turned back the rivers into that amrit, at the climatic time of every Mela, which is why pilgrims regard bathing in these rivers to be a spiritual cleansing – the essence of auspiciousness and purity of the soul.
4. The festival is at least 2000 years old
Chinese traveller Huan Tsang first documented Kumbh Mela, 2000 years ago when he visited India in 629 – 645 CE. This easily gives the holy pilgrimage a good head-start when it comes to the oldest pilgrimages in the world.
5. Amongst the pilgrims are the powerful Naga Babas and Sadhus
The Naga Babas are men who have renounced all things material and have devoted their lives to the devotion of Lord Shiva. Naga Babas are usually naked regardless of weather conditions and must abstain from all pleasures and luxuries of life – including marriage and sex. This austere life is often lead in nature and obscure places, far away from city life. The only time the Naga Babas are seen by common folk, is during Kumbh Melas when they descend upon this four cities to attend the holy festival. They also perform extreme, painful and death defying acts to prove their devotion and the strength of their souls. Some bury themselves underground for days, while others take up oaths like standing straight for 12 years or carrying heavy weights with sensitive parts of their bodies, including their genitalia. Ouch.Sadhus also gather to perform all kind of feats, to show off their warrior skills, with their weapons, which include sticks, tridents, swords and spears.
6. The festival is frequented by millions
The 58 day festival reached a record breaking attendance in 2013, when around 100 million people participated in the 2013 Mela. In 2001, the Allahabad venue saw 40 million on one it’s days, making it the busiest day in Kumbh Mela history. This mass population has unfortunately yet often resulted in stampedes, fires and violence through the years. In the recent years, the Indian police has taken up regulation of the festival with around 50,000 police officers patrolling the areas.