This series takes a close look at facets of Vedic India that are alive even today.
This essay outlines the background of the ongoing Kumbh Mela at Haridwar.
Kumbha is a Sanskrit word for Pitcher (actually a roundish pot with no handles), sometimes referred to as the Kalasha, it is also a zodiac sign in Indian astrology for Aquarius, the sign under which the festival is celebrated, while Mela means ‘a gathering’ or ‘a meet’, or simply a fair.
The mystical Kumbh Mela is a religious extravaganza of India – a mass Hindu pilgrimage that has moved around India for more than four thousand years and is attended by millions of people on a single day. Devout Hindus gather in temporary cities erected along the rivers to discuss their faith and spread the teachings of their religion. They bathe in the holy river waters, perform Puja, and listen to the discourses of Sadhus with the belief that it will absolve them and their ancestors of all sins and help them attain freedom from the vicious cycle of birth and death.
The pilgrims come from all walks of life, traveling long distances and tolerating many physical discomforts, such as sleeping in the open air in near freezing weather. Some arrive on overcrowded trains, others come by bus, by car, by ox drawn carts, and yet a few others riding on horses, camels, and even elephants. The rich and famous charter private planes and helicopters, while the less affluent come on foot carrying heavy bundles on their heads. Wave after wave, they form a veritable river of humanity that flows onto the banks of the river.
The Holy Dip – the major ritual performed in Kumbh Mela
The highlight during a Kumbh Mela is the observance of a sacred bath. The main bathing days are referred as Shahi Snans , meaning royal bathing. A sacred dip in the Kumbh is believed to purify one from the sins, thus, leading him on the path of salvation. This is because according to the legend, at the time of the fair, the river waters are charged with amazing medicinal effects due to superior electromagnetic radiation of the Sun, Moon, and the Jupiter. Further, according to astrological calculations, the configuration on Makar Sankranti called Kumbh snan-yoga” is considered to be especially auspicious, as it is said that the passage from Earth to the higher planets is open at that time, thus allowing the soul to easily attain the celestial world.
While many millions of Indians, male and female, young and old, lay person and monk visit the Allahabad Kumbh Mela, the festival is traditionally known as the Mela of ascetics and sadhus.
The procession of the bathers is led by the nagas, India’s famed naked holy men. These holy men engage themselves in renunciation of the world in search of equilibrium. With matted locks of hair, their bodies covered in ashes, and their tridents (the symbol of a follower of Shiva) raised high, they descend upon the bathing area and splash the sacred waters upon each other. Next come the Vaisnava vairagis, the wandering mendicants who live a life of service and complete dedication. Then come the innumerable other sects of ascetics dressed in saffron colored cloth and carrying their staffs of renunciation.
The Kumbh Mela is being held from January 14 2010 (Makarsankranti) to April 28 (Vaisakh Aadhimaas Purnima) at Haridwar. It is being managed by the Uttarakhand Government, which has established a temporary city called “Mela Kshetra” measuring 8X48 kilometers that includes 31 police stations, 36 fire stations and that will have its own administration and traffic rules to monitor the crowd inflow and pressure towards bathing ghats.
Quoting the Haridwar Mela 2010 chief Anand Vardhan, the Times of India reported that a whopping 55 lakh visited the Ganga for the first shahi snan of 2010 Mahakumbh.
History and legends
The Kumbh Mela has attracted interest from visitors across the globe. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang of China, who lived during the seventh century A.D, was the first to mention Kumbh Mela in his diary. He gave an eyewitness report that during the Hindu month of Magha (January-February) half a million people had gathered on the banks of the Ganges at Allahabad to observe a celebration for 75 days. The pilgrims, writes Hiuen Tsiang, assembled along with their king Harsavardhana, his ministers, scholars, philosophers, and sages. He also reports that the king had distributed enormous quantities of gold, silver, and jewels in charity for the purpose of acquiring good merit and thus assuring his place in heaven.
Tradition associates the 9th century philosopher Sankaracharaya with the organization of the Kumbh Mela at Prayaga (Allahabad). Sankaracharaya had established four monasteries in the north, south, east and west of India, and had called upon yogis, sadhus and sages to meet at these sites for an exchange of philosophical views. These sites in the four cardinal directions were separated by great distances however, and therefore the more centrally located site of Prayaga became the meeting place of choice. Indologists speculate that during the 9th to 12th centuries other monks and religious reformers perpetuated this periodic assemblage of sadhus and householders at sacred places on the banks of holy rivers, in order to create an environment of mutual understanding amongst different religious sects. Additionally the festival gave householders the opportunity to benefit from their association with the normally reclusive sages and forest yogis. What was originally a regional festival at Prayaga thus became the pre-eminent pan-Indian pilgrimage site.
By 1977, the number of pilgrims attending Kumbh Mela had risen to 15 million! In 1989, the attendance was in the range of 29 million-nearly double that of the previous record. Over 45 days beginning in January 2007, more than 17 million Hindu pilgrims took part in the Ardh Kumbh Mela at Prayag.
Legend of the Kumbh Mela
The Puranas are full of tales about battles between the Devas (demigods) and Asuras (demons). The Devas always have the upper hand but occasionally due to some curse or misdeeds the Devas lose this upper hand. Lord Indra, the king of Devas, was once cursed by Sage Durvasa and as the result of this curse, the Demons overpowered the Devas. To find a solution the Devas approached Lord Vishnu. Lord Vishnu advised them to obtain Amrut “ the nectar of immortality.
To obtain the Amrut the Devas should churn the ocean. Mandara Mountain agreed to be the churning rod and Vasuki, the serpent agreed, to be the rope. To churn the ocean the Devas needed the help of Asuras as the Devas could only hold one-end of the rope. But the Devas were not willing to share the Amrut with Asuras.
Finally, in the absence of any other choice the Devas agreed to share the Amrut with the Asuras. Churning started and after a thousand years of churning the ocean started to yield divine gifts. Amrut was the last to appear. Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods, appeared with Amrut. The Asuras took the Amrut and started to run away. A fight between the Devas and Asuras ensued. All the myths associated with Kumbh Mela are the same till this point. But the story changes from this point in different myths.
According to the first version that appears In Skanda Purana, it is suggested that Indra s son Jayanta got hold of the Amrut during the fight between the Devas and Asuras. He started to run away with it. The demons started to chase Jayanta around the earth. The chase lasted for 12 days or 12 human years. One day of devas is equal to one human year. During this time, the nectar spilled at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. In the second version of this legend appears in Vishnu Purana, Brahmananda Purana, Padma, and Agni Purana Mahabharata Ramayana. It suggests that as soon as Dhanvantari appeared with Amrut, Lord Vishnu passed it to Garuda “ the mythical bird and vehicle of Lord Vishnu. Asuras chased Garuda for 12 days or 12 human years. And Garuda stopped or the nectar spilled at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain.
Thus the Kumbh Mela is celebrated every twelve years and the places where it is celebrated are the very places where Garuda stopped or the nectar spilled; that is at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain.