Undisputedly billed as the largest cultural gathering in the world. Tagged as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. For centuries Kumbh Mela has been an attraction for travelers, pilgrims, saints, entrepreneurs, politicians. Altogether it is a largest festival in the world where devotees—saints and householders, rich and poor, old and young, naked and clothed, men and women—gather in droves for a holy dip. Several legends surround the origins of this festival, which have had significant influence in strengthening the socio-cultural foundations of Hinduism. According to Mark Tully a BBC correspondent “Indians are said to be recent converts to the study of history” so the Indian ancient Indian texts have little or no mention of Kumbh Mela, and most of the available information on this significant event is based on oral tradition and hearsay. First known reference to this festival appears to be have been made by Chinese Buddhist Pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang (a seventh-century Traveller) commonly known Xuanzang. He described the Kumbh festival as a large gathering of fifty thousand people at Prayag also known as Allahabad, to take bathe in the holy Ganges. At that time the festival was attended by very famous Emperor Harshwardhan, here it is mentioned the emperor donated his wealth among his vassals. Encouraged the practice of giving and receiving of gifts during the Kumbh Fair.
Why is Kumbh Mela Celebrated ?
The word ‘Kumbh’ means an urn, jar, pitcher and ‘Mela’ means a fair.
This Hindu legend describes the creation of a “pot of amrita (nectar of immortality)” after the forces of good and evil,the devas and asuras churned the ocean of creation. The gods and demons fought a war over this pot, the “kumbh,” of nectar in order to gain immortality. In an extension to the legend, while transporting pot to safety, the nectar of immortality is spilled at four places by the devas, and that is the origin of the four Kumbha Melas. Those four sacred places are Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. The story varies and is inconsistent, with some stating Vishnu as Mohini avatar, others stating Indra spilling the pot.
Thus, Kumbh Mela means an “assembly” around “water or nectar of immortality”. So it is widely believed Kumbh Festival celebrates the win of gods over the demons and gaining of immortality. The win of good over evil.
Adi Shankaracharya and idea of peaceful existence
Festivals alongside rivers were held in India even before Kumbh. Kumbh mela for centuries has been a center for knowledge and exchange of ideas and culture, Saints, sects and people from all over India come here and live peacefully. They debate their thoughts on faith and learn new notions. Historically Adi Shankaracharya is credited to this culture of peace and exchange of knowledge.
Great reformer during 8th Century AD, Adi Shankaracharaya is often credited by historians for the origins of 4 great monasteries in North, East, West and South (Govarhdhan, Puri, Dwarka and Kanchipuram). Adi Shankaracharaya believed in monasticism, nirgun bhakti (without attribute). He is credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism. Revival and spread of Advaita Vedanta.
Adi Shankaracharya and his students started the culture of debate and peace among various sects of Hindu saints who worshipped particular deity. He unified Shivaites, Vaishnavites and other sects. Due to his efforts today members of 13 akharas spend months during Kumbh peacefully and exchange of knowledge takes place in a positive way during this festival of elixir. Kumbh is peaceful and open to exchange of knowledge, even sects like Kabirpanth, Hare Krishna Movement are allowed and can propagate their message and teachings. In ancient and medieval era many sects came to kumbh and lived peacefully with others for the 2 month period.
Kumbhnagar – The city of tents
During this auspicious festival, Thousands of acres of land along the river bank is transformed temporarily into a small city with almost all basic amenities. This small city had 5000 tents ,has 250-km long roads and 22 pontoon bridges. Tube wells are dug for water supply. One hundred and ten miles of water pipes and thirty miles of drainage is laid for accommodating millions. Important offices like police and security headquarters. More than 7000 men are deployed by the state police. The fair has its own post office too. Over one lakh mobile toilets were present in 2019. Many merchant outlets, hawkers, small vendors even mobile ATMs altogether resemble a big colourful bazar. Kumbh mela even has its entertainment centers.
Main Attractions of Kumbh Mela
• Bathing and processions – Traditional dip in sacred waters of the river with a prayer. Traditionally the Hindu pilgrims welcome and wait for the thirteen sadhu akharas to bathe first. The members of Akhara go for the dip in grand processions which are sight to behold saints armed with weapons and some on horses all chanting names of their respective deities .
• Darshan – Darshan, or viewing, is an important part of the Kumbh Mela. People make the pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela specifically to observe and experience both the religious and secular aspects of the event. Two major groups that participate in the Kumbh Mela include the Saints and pilgrims. For the pilgrims the it is an opportunity to interact with the saints and take their spiritual advice. In Hinduism visual experience of a holy place is very important aspect.
• Discussions and Festivities – Millions of people gain spiritual knowledge through religious discussions and debates. Some people stay at the fair for whole month and enjoy devotional songs and vegetarian food and prasad. Many cultural programs take place and showcase Indian arts, classical dance and musical performances from different parts of India, boat rides, tourist walks to historic sites near the river, as well opportunities to visit the monastic camps to watch yoga adepts and spiritual discourses
• Iconic Naga Sadhus – they are the warrior saints who given up all materialistic desires even their clothes that cover the body . They cover their body with ash and live in isolated places. There ultimate goal is to achieve moksha by spiritual penance without giving thinking about materialistic restrictions.They are only drawn out of isolation by events like Kumbh Mela. They follow a life of grave penance.
Influence of Jupiter
Dates of Kumbh Mela are associated with position of Sun, Moon and Jupiter. Jupiter is regarded as the teacher or guru of the Indian gods. It is said when he gave guidance to the devas (Gods) then only they could defeat the asuras ( demons) and win the nectar of immortality.
Triumph of Faith
No other country in the world can provide a spectacle like the Kumbh Mela. It is triumph for the people of India, the administrators who work very hard to organize an event for more than 15 million people. Kumbh Mela is a divine show of faith, which brings millions of people from all walks of life to experience the centuries old tradition of India. Kumbh Mela has stood the test of time. It has seen the Empire of Harshwardhan , The Moghuls, The British Raj and the new India. Still this ancient festival of immortality has not lost its core values and simultaneously incorporated changes with ease. Kumbh Mela has the sin washing power of Ganga, Yamuna symbolizes the life full of activity just like Lord Krishna. Wisdom which one gains through the Festival is symbolized by the unseen river Saraswati. All is present at the festival. Kumbh Mela provides wholesome satisfaction with all its highlights indeed.