Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering of human beings for a single religious purpose on the planet
From Chinese traveler Huen Tsang to Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, avowed atheists like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to Mark Twain; Kumbh Mela has always attracted a cross spectrum of people besides the sadhus and monks. So when Hollywood beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones expressed desire to be part of the religious fair, it hardly created a flutter.
It is touted as the biggest religious festival in the world. Around 70 million people participated in the 45-day Ardh Kumbh Mela held at Allahabad in 2007.
Bathing in the holy waters during the Kumbh is said to wash away your sins
Kumbh Mela at Allahabad is held every 12 years on the banks of the Sangam – the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. Kumbh Melas are also held at Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain; however, the Melas at Allahabad and Haridwar are considered the holiest.
Allahabad, also known as Tirathraj or Prayag Raj, enjoys special status among the Hindu pilgrimages. Lord Brahma is believed to have performed ‘yajna’ to purify the atmosphere after he created the universe. Hence, it is called Prayag or “the place of purification”.
How Kumbh began to be celebrated is buried in the depths of mythology. When the gods and the demons decided to churn the oceans, among the things that came out were the four Vedas, Dhanvantari the god of medicine and the deadly poison Halahal. However, the most important thing to come out was amrit or the elixir of life.
Rest of the story seems to be inspiration for Bollywood potboilers. Amrit would have guaranteed immortality and when the demons managed to get control, it sent a shiver down the collective spine of the Hindu pantheon. Lord Vishnu was enlisted to retrieve
Kumbh is a shortcut to spiritual liberation as it releases one from the cycle of birth and death
the prized pot. Vishnu as Mohini laid a honey trap to snatch the pot and succeeded too. However, while fleeing, drops of amrit fell on earth and each of the four spots became holy. No marks for guessing the four spots were Allahabad, Nasik, Haridwar and Ujjain.
Purna (complete) Kumbh takes place every 12 years at each of the four places. Ardh (half) Kumbh is celebrated every six years at Haridwar and Allahabad. Maha (great) Kumbh is celebrated after 12 ‘Purna Kumbh Melas’ or 144 years and is held at Allahabad.
Kumbha in Sanskrit means pitcher. It is also the zodiac sign for Aquarius in Indian astrology, the sign under which the festival is celebrated. Kumbh Mela is held at Allahabad when the Sun enters Capricorn and Jupiter enters Taurus. Kumbh Melas, especially those held at Allahabad and Haridwar, are considered the largest gathering of humans.
Snan parva or bathing in river Ganges is an important part of the Kumbh Mela rituals. It is believed that a dip in the holy river washes away all sins and liberates one from the cycle of birth and death.
Kumbh Mela is among the biggest religious convocations as sadhus from various sects participate
The communal bathing event is taken very seriously by the various Akhadas (literally “wrestling arena” are sects of Sadhus or Hindu Renunciates established by Adi Shankaracharya). Sadhus of various akhadas have been accorded an order of precedence and the rights are jealously guarded. Violation means sadhus literally trading blows. In the first Kumbh Mela held in the 20th century, an altercation between three akhadas snowballed and cavalry unit from Allahabad Fort had to be summoned.
On the days of the shahi snan (royal baths), the sadhus march to the bathing ghats in a procession. Once the sadhus cleanse themselves of sins, it is the turn of the laity. Hindus especially those in North India turn out in large numbers. During Kumbh Mela 2013, the shahi snans will be held on January 14, February 10 and 15. Naga Sadhus traditionally lead and initiate the bathing rituals during the Kumbh Mela.
Kumbh Mela is not just the ritual dip; it is also a religious convocation. Millions of sadhus and religious gurus converge on Allahabad during the Kumbh. For akhadas, it was compulsory to visit Kumbh to meet common people and apprise them about the right conduct sanctioned by Dharma. The top administrative body of Akhadas, Shree Panch (the body of five representing Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti and Ganesha, is also elected on every Kumbh.
What compels ordinary people to travel thousands of kilometers braving hazards of the journey and adverse climatic conditions? Is it just to take a dip and presume all sins have been washed away? The only way to tell is to make that trip to Allahabad.
Kumbh is a shortcut to spiritual liberation as it releases from the cycle of birth and death