Kumbh derives its name from the immortal Pot of Nectar, which the Demigods (Devtas) and Demons (Asuras) fought over, described in ancient Vedic scriptures known as the Puranas. It is these Vedic literatures that have stood the test of time, out of which the tradition has evolved into the one that the world now knows as The Kumbh Mela or The Kumbha Mela.
THE LEGEND BEHIND THE FESTIVAL
The story behind the mela goes back to the time when the gods (devas) used to reside on earth. Sage Durvasa’s curse had weakened them, and the asuras (demons) caused havoc in the world. Lord Brahma advised them to churn out the nectar of immortality with the help of the asuras. When the asuras got to know of the devas plan to not share the nectar with them, they chased them for 12 days. During the chase, some of the nectar fell at the four locations mentioned above. The Kumbh Mela is held on the dates when the waters of these sacred rivers are said to turn into nectar.
Because 12 days of Gods are equivalent to 12 years for humans; the Kumbh Mela is celebrated once every 12 years in each of the four places – banks of river Godavari in Nasik, river Kshipra in Ujjain, river Ganges in Haridwar, and at the Sangam (confluence) of Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati in Allahabad, where the divine nectar drops are believed to have fallen.
WHEN IS THE FESTIVAL CELEBRATED?
The exact dates are calculated according to a combination of zodiac positions of Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon. Hindus believe that those who bathe in the sacred waters during the Kumbh are eternally blessed by the divine. All their sins are washed away and they come one step closer to salvation. According to the Puranas: “Those who bathe in the bright waters of the Ganga where they meet the dark waters of the Yamuna during the Hindu month of Magh [January/February] will not be reborn, even in thousands of years.”
The festival in Prayagraj or Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, where the Ganges and the Yamuna meet, has become the largest. Every 12 years, millions of Hindu pilgrims travel to the Indian city of Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela, the largest public gathering in the world. This Kumbh is also a Maha (or great) Kumbh, which happen every 144 years.
HOW OLD IS THE FESTIVAL?
Hard to say. The exact age of the festival is uncertain. According to few scholars, this fair started in 3464 BCE i.e. it is a tradition existing 1,000 years prior to Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro culture. The first written evidence of the mela can be found in the accounts of the Chinese Buddhist monk, scholar and traveller Xuanzang (c. 602–664 CE), who visited India during the reign of King Harshavardhana (r. 606 to 647 CE). He reported that during the Hindu month of Magha (January-February) half a million people had assembled on the banks of the River Ganga at Prayagraj 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.
THE HOLIEST DAY FOR BATH
Mauni Amavasya is considered the holiest of the 56-day festival. Millions of Hindu holy men and pilgrims descend at the Kumbh mela site for a bracing plunge in Ganges to what they feel will wash away sins; many of them walked miles before they reached the river bank. According to ancient religious scriptures, Mauni Amavasya is the day on which Manu sage appeared in this world, millions of years ago. It is believed to be the day when the universe was created. On this day, the Moon enters into the Capricorn sign.
Practising austerities is believed to purify an individual’s existence and observing the vow of silence is apparently the simplest way to do so. The day holds extreme religious importance and taking bath on this day in the holy waters is deemed significant and auspicious. Besides the bath, meeting so many sages and sanyasis in one place is a great experience. There are arrangements of huge bhandaras, where the pilgrims are served food. One can listen to so many satsangs being organized at different camps and akharas. The Mela echoes with hundreds of musical performances, voices droning over loudspeakers, chants and prayers, the occasional trumpeting of an elephant and the din of millions of people.
THE PICTURE GALLERY
AN AUSPICIOUS COINCIDENCE OCCURRING AFTER 147 YEARS
On this Mauni Amavasya this year, the planets Shani (Saturn) and Rahu have come together. This is a rare occurrence and happened after the lapse of 147 years. During this period, the sun and the moon will travel together in their orbit. It last happened in 1865. Therefore, this period is considered as very beneficial for taking a bath, donation, and shraddha (Special rituals performed for the departed ancestors). This special occasion also caused the rush of devotees in an increased proportion. For the pilgrims, bathing is the climax of the journey.
I along with my wife, Jaya and son, Babai have come to Allahabad for taking bath in river Ganga on the auspicious occasion of Mauni Amavasya. We reached Allahabad by train via Kolkata on February 6th. Our Guruji also reached Allahabad on the nights of February 8th from Varanasi for the bath with us.
We feel privileged to have bath with our Guruji. The tithi (Auspicious day) of Mauni Amavasya began from 3.15 p.m. on February 9th. We started our journey for the bath from the home of Jaya’s parents at 11.30 p.m. of February 9th. We joined the sea of humanity walking slowly towards the Triveni sangam. We reached the ghat at around 2.30 a.m. of February 10th. At first, Jaya, Boudi, Guttu and I took our dips with Guruji, while Babai & Prasanta was guarding the clothes. They had their dip and bath after we returned to the ghat. It was quite a cold night with temperature dropping below 8°C. But the sheer excitement of the event did not make us feel that the night and the water were so cold! We jumped into the river Ganga during the Amrit Muhurt of Mauni Amavasya, February 10th, 2013.
We walked back to home with huge mass of people around on every road and corner. The police was doing a good job there and I found them very polite, to my surprise! We reached home at around 5 a.m.
It was a really out of the world, divine experience. It can just be experienced and not be defined by any logic or knowledge based explanation. Millions of people are coming here in search of the divine nectar.
HOW BIG IS THE FESTIVAL?
The festival is one of the largest peaceful gatherings in the world, and considered as the “world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims”. An estimated 120 million people visited Maha Kumbh Mela this time over a two-month period, including over 30 million on a single day — the day of Mauni Amavasya. It’s said that the gathering was so huge that it could be seen from the space! 22 ghats (banks) of river Ganga were specially prepared to facilitate the pilgrims taking Holy bath.
We walked on the streets of Allahabad and the nearby Allahabad City station to see the huge gathering of pilgrims walking for the holy bath.
A RESEARCH OPPORTUNITY
Understandably for a gathering of this size, the event is wrought with real-time problems. Such unique phenomena drew a team from Harvard University to Allahabad this year to study the event. The trove of information would be a boon for researchers in the growing field of big data and big data analysis, who are tackling the challenges of curating, storing, analysing, and sharing the massive amounts of information generated by companies and governments in the digital age.
ARRANGEMENTS CALL FOR APPRECIATION
In the words of John D. Macomber:
We are witnessing back-of-house success in administration that leads to front-of-house success in the experience for more than a hundred million pilgrims. This event is a big deal for the Republic of India and for the state of Uttar Pradesh and for the city of Allahabad. It needs to go well.
Har Har Gangay!! Har Har Mahadev!!
P.S. The Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage under UNESCO has inscribed ‘Kumbh Mela’ on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during its 12th session held at Jeju, South Korea from December 4th-9th, 2017.
— UNESCO (@UNESCO) December 7, 2017