Held once in every 4 years, the Kumbh Mela is one of the biggest events for the Hindus. The exact origin of the Kumbh Mela is very hard to pinpoint.
The fair is an ancient one and the reason it is held can be traced back to the ancient episode of ‘Sagar Manthan’. KumbhMela derives its name from the immortal – Pot of Nectar – described in ancient Vedic scriptures known as the Puranas. Kumbha in Sanskrit language means ‘pot or pitcher’. Mela means ‘festival’. Thus KumbhMela literally means festival of the pot.
It is a religious bathing festival of enormous size where monks, pilgrims, and devotees will come from their remote dwellings and hiding places to gather for a historical moment.They come to experience the essence of their culture and to participate in the largest spiritual gathering of humanity, the MahaKumbaMela.
History of KumbhMela
A very interesting legend revolves around the celebration of this large fair. The fair can be traced back to the ancient episode of ‘SagarManthan’ or ‘Churning of the Ocean’ that is described in the ancient Vedic text of “Shrimad-Bhägavatam”.
It is not exactly known since when people began to hold KumbhMela at the four places of its celebration. It is widely known how this spectacle of faith has attracted the curiosity of foreign travelers from time to time. The famous seventh century Chinese traveler Hiuen-Tsang was probably the first person to mention KumbhMela in his diary. Hiuen-Tsang gave an eyewitness account of KumbhMela reporting how during the Hindu month of Magha (January-February) half a million people had assembled on the banks of the River Ganges at Allahabad to observe a celebration for 75 days. He also wrote that the pilgrims to the fair assembled along with their king, his ministers, scholars, philosophers and sages. The king had donated huge amounts of gold, silver, and jewels in charity to acquire good merit and assure his place in heaven. This indicates that KumbhMela was already quite popular in the seventh century.
In the eight century, the great Indian saint Shankara popularized the KumbhMela among the common people. As a natural consequence, with each passing year the fair began to be attended by more and more people. The holy ritual of taking a bath in the holy river waters is a must for all devotees. The sacred Hindu scriptures stress on having the guidance of a spiritual leader who has acquired the knowledge of the self. Only such a realized person can impart one the true knowledge and show him/her the path towards spiritual fulfillment. The great Shankara placed special importance to the opportunity of associating with saintly persons while at KumbhMela. Hence, both discourses by sadhus (holy men) and sacred bathing are still the two main purposes of the pilgrims thronging KumbhMela.
By 1977, the number of pilgrims attending KumbhMela had grown to a record 15 million! By 1989, the attendance was approximately 29 million – nearly double that of the previous record. Today, around 60 million people is said to attend the MahaKumbhMela, making it the largest gathering anywhere in the world.
Cities of KumbhMela
In theory the KumbhaMela festivals are supposed to occur every three years, rotating between the four cities. In practice the four-city cycle may actually take eleven or thirteen years and this because of the difficulties and controversies in calculating the astrological conjunctions. Furthermore, the interval between the KumbhaMela at Nasik and that at Ujjain is not of three years; they are celebrated the same year or only a year apart. This deviation in practice is intriguing and cannot be fully explained by either astrological or mythological means. The following chart gives the astrological periods of the four melas, and the years of their most recent and future occurrences:
Hardwar – When Jupiter is in Aquarius and the Sun is in Aries during the Hindu month of Caitra (March-April); 1986, 1998, 2010, 2021.
Allahabad – When Jupiter is in Aries or Taurus and the Sun and Moon are in Capricorn during the Hindu month of Magha (January-February); 1989, 2001, 2012, 2024.
Nasik – When Jupiter and the Sun are in Leo in the Hindu month of Bhadrapada (August-September); 1980, 1992, 2003, 2015.
Ujjain – When Jupiter is in Leo and the Sun is in Aries, or when Jupiter, the Sun, and the Moon are in Libra during the Hindu month of Vaisakha (April-May); 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016.
The major event of the festival is ritual bathing at the banks of the river in whichever town it is being held. Nasik has registered maximum visitor to 75 million. Other activities include religious discussions, devotional singing, mass feeding of holy men and women and the poor, and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated and standardized. KumbhMela is the most sacred of all the pilgrimages. Thousands of holy men and women attend, and the auspiciousness of the festival is in part attributable to this. The sadhus are seen clad in saffron sheets with ashes and powder dabbed on their skin as per the requirements of ancient traditions. Some, called nagasanyasis, may not wear any clothes even in severe winter.
After visiting the KumbhMela of 1895, Mark Twain wrote:
“It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”
Significance of KumbhaMela is that it offers the chance to attain liberation from the endless suffering of existence and to merge with the Brahman. Brahma Purana and Vishnu Purana state that bathing in month of Magha at Prayag or Sangam (Allahabad) is equal to millions of Ashvamedha rituals. The bathing ritual is equal to circumambulating the earth one million times. The KumbhMela bathing ritual also washes away sins of several generations.
RigVeda also talks about the importance of the confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswathi at Prayag. The importance of the ritual can therefore be traced back to Rig Veda. The ritual is also mentioned in the VarahaPurana and the MatsyaPurana. Liberation or merging with the Brahman is the main significance of KumbhMela.
It is also believed that the ashram of the great sage Bharadvaja where Lord Ram, Sita and Lakshman stayed during their exile was located at the Sangam. The Sangam or Prayag finds mention in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Mahabharata states that Lord Brahma conducted a yagna at Sangam. The Pandavas are also said to have visited the Sangam. Several great saints including ChaitanyaMahaprabhu and Shankaracharya are believed to have visited the Sangam and the KumbhMela.