The Kumbh Mela is the greatest of the north-Indian fairs and it has exerted a mesmeric influence over the mind and the imagination of the ordinary Indian from time immemorial. It is held once every three years by rotation, on the banks of the Godavari in Nasik, the Shipra in Ujjain, the Ganga in Haridwar and the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati in Prayag or Allahabad as it is called now. The Purna (complete) Kumbh or Maha Kumbh, the biggest and the most auspicious fair, which falls once every 12 years, is always at Allahabad, for the Sangam or confluence of rivers is considered to be particularly holy. The last Maha Kumbh was held in 1989. When the particular configuration of the Kumbh at Allahabad falls on a Monday, it is called the Somvati Amavasya and the spiritual benefits increase manifold. The Purna Kumbh is followed by the Ardh Kumbh in importance and this fair falls every six years when millions of devout congregate at Allahabad on the banks of the holy river, braving the hazards of cold, disease, hunger and myriad of other privations to gain spiritual salvation and contentment from.
Kumbh Mela : History
Historically speaking, the roots of the Kumbh can be traced to the river festivals in which pots of grains were soaked in the waters of the holy rivers and put to seed, with the rest of the grain during sowing time. It has also been considered to be a pre-Aryan fertility ritual, for the Kumbh symbolizes not only the Mother Goddess but also the womb, the generative pot. Rivers, as givers of life and agents of fertility, became tirthas (holy places) as they act as bridges between heaven and earth, the human and the divine.
Credit for organizing the Kumbh into a congress of Hinduism, where rishis, munis, sadhus and yogis gathered to discuss and debate upon the finer points of their faith and disseminate their religion, goes to the seventh-century Shaivite philosopher and religious guru Adi Shankaracharya. He infused new life into the tottering citadel of Hinduism, which had been badly battered by the breakaway religions of Buddhism and Jainism, by organizing the Kumbh Mela.
Kumbh Mela : Legends
The origin of Kumbh, which is an ancient and continuing element in the Indian ethos, extends backwards into mythology. The story is related with some variation in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. According to one source, the gods, who had been defeated by the demons, approached Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, seeking the boon of rejuvenation and the gift of immortality. Vishnu directed them to the primeval ocean in which were hidden the secrets of life and death. The gods sought the help of the demons, to whom they promised part of the spoils. Making a paddle out of Mount Mandar and a rope out of serpent Anant Nag, they churned the ocean till it yielded the holy cow and the flying horse, the lyre and the siren, Lakshmi and Vishwakarma. Finally, Dhanvantari, the divine physician, emerged holding the Kumbh (pitcher) of Amrit (the nectar of life) that could bestow immortality. As both the demons and the gods plunged for the pot, Dhanvantari changed himself into a rook and flew off to the heavens, with the pitcher. On his journey, which lasted twelve days, he rested at four spots - Prayag, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar, which have consequently been consecrated by drops of nectar that fell there. Therefore, these places are considered holy by the Hindus and have become important pilgrim spots.
Then there is story that neatly sums up the attitude of the ordinary Hindus to the Kumbh. According to this, as Parvati, the consort of Lord Shiva, watched the millions gather at the holy Kumbh, she became pensive and turning to Shiva said "You are indeed compassionate my Lord, but to me it seems your compassion has done more harm than good for only a fool would lead a virtuous life when Moksha can be attained by a mere dip in the holy river." On hearing her complaint, Shiva suggested that they pay a visit to the Kumbh. Taking the form of a Brahmin couple, Lord Shiva lay prone on the ground while beside him Parvati sobbed profusely like a bereaved wife. When the pilgrims stopped to enquire about her plight, she answered all queries by saying, "Lord Shiva has promised that the mere touch of a sinless man can bring my husband to life. But if the person is not sinless, he will die instantly." On hearing this all the pilgrims recoiled, for none of them truly believed that they had been cleansed of their sins after the holy dip. Thus the widow sat crying, until a drunk came staggering along and as soon as he found out her problem, he was certain that a dip in the river would purify him. After a quick dip in the river, he returned and bent down to touch the dead Brahmin, whereupon Shiva revealed himself and said, "You indeed attained Moksha my son, so far only you." Back at their heavenly abode, Shiva asked Parvati, "With all my divine compassion I do not seem to have succeeded in making salvation so very cheap, after all, have I?
Kumbh Mela : Special Attractions
The Kumbh Mela became an important meeting ground for the devout Hindus and its importance has not diminished over the years. Even today, millions of pilgrims from all over the world, from various walks of life, sects and communities, gather at the Kumbh. For most it is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. They probably plan and save over many years to make this visit to the king of tirthas, the Purna Kumbh, seeking salvation. For thousands of traders, shopkeepers and pedlars who gather there, the mela means business and profits. Many come to enjoy the lively and colorful bustle of crowds buying curios and magical stuff and generally having fun. It is both a holy day and a holiday for the people.
Kumbh Mela : Rituals and Traditions
The main rite performed at the mela is the ritual bath. Orthodox Hindus, who give great importance to the performance of ritualistic action, believe that a dip in the sacred waters on the auspicious day will cleanse them and their ancestors back to the eighty-eighth generation, off all evil and sin, thus ensuring their salvation or freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. Ritual bathing is a public act and is performed in the open and ideally on the banks of a river or stream. It includes the complete submergence of the body under water and an oblation to the sun. The most auspicious day for the ritual bath at Kumbh is on the day of the new moon.
The ascetics and sadhus are an integral part of the Kumbh. One of the aims of all devout Hindus, who make a pilgrimage to the Kumbh, is to have darshan of these holy men. By touching their feet and listening to them, their followers hope to gain spiritual enlightenment.
The most conspicuous sadhus at the Kumbh are the Nagas or naked sadhus. The Nagas smear their bodies with ash and sport long matted hair. Constant exposure to the elements and rigorous self-control makes them impervious to the extremes of hot and cold. They never need to adjust their clothing to suit the weather. Originally a militant armed band, the Nagas were recruited to defend the ascetics who had taken the vow of nonviolence and therefore could not retaliate when hostile Buddhist, Vaishnavite or other monastic orders attacked them. The eyes of the Nagas are usually red with the intake of charas and ganja, which is also considered to be one of the means of attaining siddhi (greatness).
Besides the Nagas, there are several other types of sadhus-the Urdhwavahurs who practice severe physical austerities and their bodies are usually emaciated and limbs shriveled; the Parivajakas, who live under a vow of silence and go about tinkling little bells to get people out of their way; the Shirshasins who stand all 24 hours and sleep with their heads resting on a vertical pole attached to an oblong pole or meditate for long hours standing on their heads; and the Kalpvasis, who spend the entire month of Kumbh on the banks of Ganga, meditating, performing rituals and bathing thrice a day.
There are also thousands of godmen among the bustling crowds, who try to outdo each other in selling themselves. Many guarantee peace, freedom and salvation over loudspeakers competing raucously for attention.
On the day of the new moon, the day begins at about 3 am, when the first lott of pilgrims line up for a dip in the river. Scantily clad, they chat non-stop 'Jai Ganga Maiya' (long live mother Ganga). When they finish, they leave quickly, to make way for the next lot of bathers. Most of them shave their heads before the holy bath, as it is considered a part of the ritual.
With the first rays of the sun, the processions of akharas or groups of sadhus of a particular sect begin. The different sects of sadhus move in the form of a procession towards the river. The processions are usually led by the Nagas. A messenger who carries a turban aloft a pole precedes every akhara at the Kumbh, announcing their arrival. There is an air of ostentation about these holy men. The heads of the sects move in golden chariots, with silk umbrellas and leopard-skin rugs. All the akharas try to outdo each other in terms of grandeur and fanfare. The endless crowd surges towards the Sangam, the magnet that draws them all together. Everyone is absorbed in the magic of the moment.
After their minds and bodies have been cleansed by the purificatory dip, the pilgrims wear fresh clothes and proceed to perform puja on the riverbank. After having had their meals, the pilgrims walk around listening to discourses of various sadhus or have a darshan of the well-known godmen. By next morning the pilgrims are ready to leave. Some stay back a few days, weeks, even a month, but eventually they depart in the belief that all their sins are cleansed and that they have achieved spiritual salvation.
Ardh Kumbh Mela is held every sixth year after a Maha Kumbh Mela that takes place every 12 years. The very auspicious Ardh Kumbh Mela was fallen in April - May 2004.
The Historical Origin
The origin of the Kumbh Mela dates back to the time, when there arose a conflict between the gods and the demons over the possession of the pot of amrit, the immortal nectar. As they were involved in the churning of the ocean for the immortal elixir, the ocean yielded many treasures, till finally Dhanvantri came with the coveted pot in his hands.
The gods and the demons fought to posses the pitcher. In the process, some drops of the immortal nectar splashed and fell on the earth at four places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain that became the famous pilgrimage centers.
The Auspicious Bathing Dates was for the Ardh Kumbh Mela in 2004 :
- Monday, 05th April '04 : Purnima
- Monday, 19th April '04 : Krishna Amavasya
- Thursday, 22nd April '04 : Shukla Tritiya
- Saturday, 24th April '04 : Shukla Panchmi
- Tuesday, 04th May '04 : Shahi Snan - Purni
Magh Mela : Magh Mela is held annually, other than the years of Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh and is rightfully called the annual mini Kumbh Mela. The auspicious Magh Mela is so called as it falls in the Magh period (Jan-Feb). This annual religious event or the great bathing festival is a smaller version of the gigantic Kumbh Mela that is held after every 12 years. Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the Saraswati, hosts the annual Magh Mela. Every twelfth year the Magh Mela becomes the Kumbh Mela, when millions of pilgrims converge to commemorate the remarkable event. It starts every year from Makar Sankranti in January and ends at Maha Shivratri in February.
The Treasured Past
Kumbh Mela's history originates from the beginning of the creation of this universe. The gods were advised by Lord Vishnu, to churn the ocean for amrit (nectar), intake of which would make them immortal. Gods thus, sought the help of demons to churn the ocean. During the process of things, among other things, pot of amrit also appeared.
A fight started to take the possession of the coveted jar of amrit. During this fight, some drops amrit fell at four places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. These places assumed great religious significance as important Kumbh sites.
The Holy Bath
It is said that taking a bath at the holy Sangam is said to purge the pilgrims of all their sins. During the auspicious period when the Magh Mela is held, a temporary township comes up on the banks of the Ganga river to shelter millions of pilgrims. Devotees live in these temporary shelters for the whole duration of the mela leading a sacred life.
The Purna Kumbh Mela :
The Purna Kumba, held once in every 12 years, is considered to be the largest and the most auspicious gathering of humans. The last Purna Kumbh was held in 1989 that hosted over 15 million people, who congregated to take a dip in the holy waters.
As per the mythological origin of the Kumbh, the gods sought the help of the demons in churning of the ocean to gain the gift of immortality-the pot of amrit or nectar. They used a big mountain as a paddle and a giant serpent as the rope.
In the process, the ocean yielded the divine gifts including: the holy cow, the flying horse, the lyre and the siren, Lakshmi (goddess of fortune and wealth) and Vishwakarma (the divine architect and constructor). Last came, Dhanvantari, the divine physician, bearing the Kumbh (pot) of amrit.
As the gods did not want the demons to attain immortality, they grabbed the pot from the divine physician and tried to escape. A fierce fight ensued over the pot for 12 days (equivalent to 12 human years) during which some drops of nectar fell at four places on the earth- Prayag, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar. These places became important holy pilgrimage places.
According to the astrological predictions, the Kumbha Mela is held when the planet Jupiter enters the sign of Aquarius and the Sun enters into Aries. At Prayag, the Kumbh Mela takes place in the month of Magha (January-February) and the new moon day is considered to be the most auspicious.
The Holy Dip
Millions of pilgrims gather from various walks of life, sects and communities at the Kumbh in order to seek salvation. They have a belief that a dip in the sacred waters on the auspicious day would cleanse them of all the sins ensuring salvation.
The Inherent Feature
The most important part of the Kumbh are the naked sadhus with long matted hair and bodies smeared with ash. Besides the Naga sadhus and saints, there are Urdhwavahurs who practice severe physical austerities, the Parivajakas, who live under a vow of silence, the Shirshasins who stand all 24 hours and meditate for long hours, the Kalpvasis, who meditate and perform rituals at the banks of the holy Ganga.