Kumbh Mela: Historical And Cultural Background
By Akash Bhat
The Kumbh Mela is a great religious bathing fair and pilgrimage in India, said to be the largest religious gathering on earth. For more than a month every twelve years, this sacred tradition brings tens of millions of people to the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati rivers at Allahabad. The size of this pilgrimage, especially on the three main bathing days, has long been the focus of wide-scale astonishment, amplified in the age of multimedia communication. The focus of this amazement stems from images of the vast tent city sprung up on the delta of the three rivers; the royal processions, of holy men and naked ascetics, first in line for bathing in the river on the most “auspicious” (holiest) days; and the densely packed pilgrims who press toward the riverbank by the millions. Vivid color photographs of these remarkable phenomena rocket around the world, creating the global image of an exotic spectacle.
But the Kumbh Mela is far more than a media spectacle. The sheer human achievement of creating the temporary-and yet complex infrastructure of the twenty-square-mile “Kumbh City” on the dry flood plain of the rivers is astonishing. There are tents to house millions of people and like any permanent city there are roads and bridges, power stations and electricity, sanitation facilities and clinics, police and fire departments, and transportation and telecommunications.
And this occurs every twelfth year, prompting the most important question: Why do they all come?
What is the significance of this great pilgrimage for the thousands of ascetics who encamp here for a month and for the pilgrims who come for but a day?’
Tirtha: Spiritual Ford
Across India, pilgrimages draw Hindus to bath in the sacred rivers and to experience the festive life of a mela. There are thousands of places of pilgrimage across India, called tirthas, literally “crossing places.” Many tirthas are located along the banks of the sacred rivers of India representing both literal and symbolic places of crossing or “fords.” They are sites where religious rites, simple or elaborate, yield more powerful spiritual fruit. They are places where one’s prayers are more readily heard, where one’s generosity is amplified, where one’s penitential moments are more effective. They are spiritual crossings, where the river of this earthly life enables one to reach the far shore of immortality.
Prayag, the ancient name of Allahabad, is classically called the Tirtha Raja, meaning “King of Tirthas.” It is said that on the other riverside, tirthas absorb the sins and sorrows of countless pilgrims. The tirthas themselves, seeking a place to deposit this load of human burdens also come to Prayag, where they too are cleansed. While there are certainly many important temples in Prayag, the primary “altar” of this sacred place is the river bank, where the rivers meet and flow together, where people come for the simple rites of bathing, and according to legend, where other tirthas come to bathe as well. This is the power of Prayag. The traditional pilgrim’s map of the city focuses on the meeting rivers, with all the Hindu gods congregated in the landscape and river setting. It is a map where divine presence and the earthly city are depicted together.
Sangam: Meeting Rivers
India’s great rivers are said to be of divine origin and the waters of these rivers are understood to be a liquid form of the Goddess Shakti, who is the energy of creation itself. The Ganga and Yamuna rivers both come from high mountains of Himalayas at Gangotri and Yamunotri, places visited by pilgrims from throughout India. Many sources of India’s other sacred rivers are considered holy as well, including the headwaters of the Godavari, called the Godavari Ganga, near Nashik, in Maharashtra; the source of the Narmada at Amarkantak in the Maikala Hills of eastern India; and the source of the Kaveri at Talakaveri, in the Coorg hills of southwestern Karnataka. The confluence where two rivers meet is known as a Sangam and it is especially sacred for bathing. As the Ganga called the Mandakini (meaning “the River of Heaven ”) courses down the Himalayan mountain, it joins with two other rivers, the Alaknanda at RudraPrayag and the Bhagirathi at DevPrayag. At both Sangams, chains are sunk into the steep cement steps at the river’s edge to enable pilgrims to bathe safely in the swift current of the meeting rivers. The greatest of the Sangams along the Ganga is at Prayag. This is where the Ganga and the Yamuna Rivers meet the invisible, Sarasvati River. This place where the three rivers meet is called the triveni, the “triple-braid” of rivers. When the rivers connect at Prayag, they are broad and swollen with flood-waters from the rainy season. From here, the Ganga flows past Varanasi, and on through what is now Bihar and Bengal. Finally, a thousand miles downstream, there is a great confluence at the delta, where the Ganga meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal. This is the place of the famous Ganga Sagar Island, which hosts a three-day mela of approximately a million people taking bath every January.
The great destination of pilgrims to the Kumbh Mela is the Sangam at Prayag. For pilgrims, bathing at this very location marks the precise holy moment they are seeking. Here, the rivers are said to flow with amrit, “the nectar of immortality” during the auspicious period of the Kumbh Mela.
Amrit: Nectar Of Immortality
“From untruth, lead us to truth; from darkness, lead us to light; from death, lead us to immortality.” This oft-quoted prayer from the Upanishads reveals a more universal truth that spans cultures and religions—the yearning for immortality. In the Hindu story associated with the Kumbh Mela, even the gods seek to overcome death, and according to legend, a drop of amrit fell upon the earth at Prayag. Of old, so they say, the gods sought for themselves the nectar of immortality that was to be found deep in the ocean of milk. They decided to churn the ocean to bring it forth from the deep. Vishnu obliged and became a tortoise and his shell became the base on which the churn could be placed. The Himalayan Mount ‘Mandara’ became the churning stick and the serpent ‘Vasuki’ became the rope with which to churn. Yet to gain that nectar, the gods needed the help of the anti-gods, the asuras, to pull one end of the churning rope while they pulled the other. And so they all exerted themselves, each side pulling mightily until the kumbh, the “pot,” containing the amrit came forth from the ocean. It was immediately seized by the asuras. It seemed all was lost until Vishnu took the form of an enchanting maiden named Mohini, the deluder, and beguiled the asuras into letting her hold the kumbh. She delivered it immediately to the gods who swept it away to heaven. As they sped off with the pot, four drops of amrit fell upon the earth.
According to tradition, these drops landed in the four locations where the Kumbh Mela is observed today:
- Haridwar where the Ganga enters the plains
- Prayag at the Triveni Sangam
- Nashik on the Godavari River in Maharashtra
- Ujjain on the Kshipra River in Madhya Pradesh
Each place hosts a mela every twelve years in an astrologically determined, cyclic sequence that enables the Kumbh Mela to occur in approximately three-year intervals.
Skanda Purana contains the story and links it to the astrological conjunctions when the four Kumbh Melas take place and the places where the drops of nectar were spilled. It is generally agreed that the mention of a large astrologically determined mela occurred first in relation to the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar. According to Prof. D.P. Dubey, “It appears that the Kumbha Parva derives its name from an auspicious occasion of ritual bathing that used to take place at Haridwar, every twelfth year, when Jupiter was in Aquarius, and the sun entered Aries.” The legend of the immortal nectar aside, the praises of bathing in the San-gam and sipping its waters are ubiquitous in the Puranas. Two examples of many hundreds may suffice:
“ If one bathes and sips water where the Ganga, Yamuna, and Sarasvati meet, he enjoys liberation, and of this there is no doubt”. – Padma Purana Uttara Khanda 23.14
“Those who bath in the bright waters of the Ganga where they meet the dark waters of the Yamuna during the month of Magh will not be reborn, even in thousands of years”. – Matsya Purana 107.7
While the Kumbh Mela is often said to be “ageless” and “ancient,” those who have studied the history of the large mela in Allahabad see it as being more or less continuous since the Gupta period from the fourth to the sixth centuries. Perhaps the first historical description of a great mela in this region was in 643 CE, written by the Chinese, Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang, who had travelled to India to find Buddhist sacred texts. Hsuan Tsang wrote of a gathering of pilgrims to an “age-long festival” in the month of Magh (January-February). He explained how King Harsha displayed his generosity by giving away goods to all classes of people until he himself possessed nothing and returned to his capital wearing only a single piece of cloth. The Narasimha Purana, dated to the fifth or sixth centuries, also gives evidence that a month-long mela was known during the Gupta period. Sages are said to come from different orders assembling from various parts of India during the month of Magh.
What is the spiritual pull of the Kumbh Mela?
For most pilgrims, a holy dip in the rivers holds the most spiritual value. They dip fully into the waters once, twice, three times, and then take the waters in their cupped hands to pour it again into the river as an offering to the gods and to the ancestors. They make offerings of flowers and oil lamps, floating them into the current of the mother waters. In the evening, the pilgrims might come to the river bank for one of the Aratis (lamp offerings) that are performed by pujaris (priests) who raise huge, multi-wicked oil lamps to the river. The rites are simple, but absolutely central to the spiritual experience of the kumbh Mela. This is what they have come for. For those kalpavasis who have vowed to stay for a whole month, Ganga snan is a once or twice-a-day rite. On an ordinary day, bathing is a constant activity along the riverbank, beginning before dawn.
Shahi Snan, the Royal Bathing Days are astrologically auspicious, so on these days the power and magnetism of the holy waters is amplified, and the crowds swell. On these days, the ordinary bathing of pilgrims takes place in a crowd as many as twenty million. There are three traditional Shahi Snan days: Makar Sankranti, Mauni Amavasya and Vasant Panchami. There are other spiritually auspicious bathing days Paush Purnima, Maghi Purnima and Maha Shivratri.
Akharas: Ascetic Encampments
Akhara is a place of practice with facilities for boarding, lodging and training, both in the context of martial arts or sampradaya monastery for religious renunciates in Guru-Shishya tradition.
At highest level akhara are classified into one of the three different sampradaya based on their traditional system.
There are 14 Akharas in India in which 13 are registered.
These 13 Akharas are further divided as Nirvani, Digambar and Nirmal Sampradaya.
These akharas are also known as Sanyasi, Vairagi and Udasin Sampradaya.
(A.) Nirvani: The Shaivite are followers of Lord Shiva also known as Sanyasi. It has the largest number of akharas as well as Sadhus, Saints and Nagas.
(B.) Digambar: The Vaishavaite are followers of Lord Vishnu also known as Vairagi.
(C.) Nirmal: Also known as Udasin, followers of Multiple Gods