Like any cultural practice that is rooted in an ancient civilization that runs into thousands of years of antiquity, it is only natural that a mega event like Kumbh Mela would be ensconced amidst several interesting layers.
The root goes back to the Vedic scripture called Shrimad Bhagavatam, when Gods and Demons decided to pull together their physical might and churn the ocean for the secrets that it had to offer. So, they began the process of churning, using Mandar Mountain as the stone and a python named Ananta Naga as the rope. The first result in the order of offering was chaos. That came in the shape of a deadly poison – potent enough to destroy all the three worlds of heaven, earth, and hell. The nature of this exercise was that this deadly poison had to find its destiny first, in the order of things. So, Lord Shiva swallowed it to bail the universe. Once chaos was settled, order took over and the ocean gurgled out great many offerings – the prized one being Amrit – or the elixir of immortality. Amrit was held in a large jar called Kumbh. There followed a scuffle among the Gods and the Demons to possess Kumbh, and one among the Gods flew with it towards Heaven. He stopped along four places – Prayag, Hardwar, Trimbakeshwar, and Ujjaini – where little droplets of Amrit escaped the Kumbh and fell into the rivers. That is what makes these places holy.
That is the mythology. There are a few interpretations of it that pertains to consciousness, order and chaos, and the pursuit of meaning and inner peace for those that seek philosophical interpretations, while for the wanderlust this remains a delightful combination of history, symbolism, and heritage, as the concept of a mega ‘mela’ touches both the holy pilgrimage sites Hardwar and Prayagraj, making them the illustrious torchbearers of two different types of Kumbh (12 years Kumbh and 6 years Ardh-Kumbh).
While the earliest mention of this event goes back to the writings of Bhagvad Purana 3100 BCE, this finds a continuation in the medieval history where the seventh century traveller Hiuen Tsang’s elaborates about the event in his travelogue. The recent statistics, for those that are looking to be overwhelmed:
This is the largest religious and cultural congregation of humans. The last recorded number of pilgrims in the 2019 Ardh Kumbh was 120 Million. Attendees at the Kumbh Mela come from all sections of Hindu religious life, ranging from sadhus (holy men), who remain naked year-round or practice the most severe physical discipline, to hermits, who leave their isolation only for these pilgrimages, and even to silk-clad teachers using the latest technology. The religious organizations represented range from social welfare societies to political lobbyists. Vast crowds of disciples, friends, and spectators join the individual ascetics and organizations. The naga akhadas, militant ascetic orders whose members formerly made their livings as mercenary soldiers and traders, often claim the holiest spots at each Kumbh Mela’s most propitious moment. Although the Indian government now enforces an established bathing order, history records bloody disputes between groups vying for precedence. This Mela goes on for a period of 48 days and generates employment for thousands.Kumbh mela has been included in the UNESCO's representative list 'Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity' .
Significance of Kumbh Mela
This largest spiritual and religious gathering in the world has a lot of significance. It is believed that once every 12 years, when the Maha Kumbha Mela is observed, the sacred river itself transforms into sanctity spots, holding the primordial nectar. The pilgrims get to wash their sins, rejuvenate their lives and taste salvation.
Where is it Celebrated?
Kumbh Mela is celebrated only 4 times in every 12 years. The religious celebration site keeps rotating in between four pilgrimages. These respective pilgrimages are located on the banks of the most sacred rivers of Hinduism
In Maharashtra: In Nashik on Godavari
In Uttarakhand: In Haridwar on Ganges
In Madhya Pradesh: In Ujjain on Shipra
In Uttar Pradesh: In Allahabad on the rare confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.
Rituals of Kumbh Mela
The ritual bath for cleansing one's soul is the most important aspect of rituals in Kumbh Mela. The devout Hindus believe that taking a dip in the sacred river on the most auspicious day of the new moon will forgive their sins, thereby terminating the cycle of birth and death. Right from 3 o' clock in the morning, the pilgrims start assembling in lines
The other rituals include devotional singing, religious assemblies, mass-feeding and debates on religious doctrines. The order of entering into the sacred river is already fixed. The Naga Sadhus ( who do not wear cloth, their forehead is smeared with ash and they are not affected by material possessions) enter first. They are followed by Urdhwavahurs, Parivajakas and Shirshasins.
This event has been an interesting prospecting ground for missionaries and has had its share of experiences in the shape of Mughal overtures.