Age of Aquarius: The Kumbh Mela

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Famous for its rituals and popularity, the Kumbh Mela Festival is one of the greatest living traditions in the world. It is called the festival where no one is invited and everyone attends. What makes them come is a mystery that dates to antiquity. How it became a significant festival, offers a fascinating look into India’s spiritual and cultural integration.

 An Indian Festival Like No Other

Attended by tens of millions, The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in India. The locations for the festival rotate between four pilgrimage sites on the banks of the holy rivers. 

According to the BBC, the 2019 Kumbh Mela drew over 100 million Hindus and others to Prayagraj. Unsurprisingly, the festival is the world’s largest assembly of religious pilgrims. This massive peaceful gathering is on UNESCO’s Representative List of Humanity’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

The Kumbh in Kumbh Mela means ‘pitcher, jar, pot’ in Sanskrit. In Vedic astrology, it is the sign of Aquarius. Mela means ‘unite, meet, move together, assembly, junction’ in Sanskrit in the context of fairs and community celebrations.

In this Kumbh Mela, Hindus come together to bathe in the sacred rivers of India to wash away past sins. Millions of devotees gather from across India and around the globe. A ritual dip in the water is the highlight of the festival. Kumbh Mela has numerous fairs that celebrate community and trade.  They include exhibitions, religious discourses by saints, mass congregations of monks, and even entertainment.

The 7th-century Chinese Buddhist traveler Hsuan Tsang mentions King Harsha and his capital, Prayag. He recounts a sacred Hindu city with hundreds of ‘deva temples’ and two Buddhist institutions. He also describes Hindu bathing rituals at the junction of the rivers. Scholars cite this as the earliest written account of Kumbh Mela, which took place in present-day Prayag in 644 CE.

Four Drops of Immortal Nectar

According to the ancient Vedic scriptures known as the Puranas, Kumbh derives its name from the immortal Pot of Nectar. From this Vedic legend, the tradition has evolved into the Kumbh Mela. The legend tells the story of when the demigods and the demons produced the nectar of immortality.  The task was too difficult for either party to accomplish alone. The demigods agreed with the demons to complete the task and share the nectar. The demons and demigods met on the shore of the milk ocean way out in the cosmos.

They used the Mandara Mountain as a churning rod to churn the vast milk ocean. Vasuki, the king of serpents, became the rope to turn the churning rod. After a thousand years, Dhanwantari, a physician and an avatar of Vishnu, had the immortal nectar in his grasp. Fearful of the demons’ ill intent, the demigods went on the offensive and forcibly seized the pot.

The agreement broke, the demons chased the demigods for twelve days and twelve nights. Wherever the demigods fled with the pot of nectar, fierce skirmishes broke out.  As a result four drops of nectar spilled from the Kumbh and fell to earth. The four places where the drops landed acquired mystic powers. The Kumbh Mela is celebrated at these four places once every twelve years because twelve days for Gods are equivalent to twelve years for humans.  These places are the banks of River Godavari in Nasik, River Kshipra in Ujjain, River Ganges in Haridwar, and the Sangam of Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati in Allahabad.

Each location has its version of Mela with differing traditions and rituals:

Haridwar

Haridwar is a holy city for Hindu devotees. The Ganges begins its descent from the Himalayan foothills. It flows through Haridwar, increasing the importance of the town for pilgrims.

The Kumbh Mela of Haridwar, considered the original Kumbh Mela, is held under the astrological sign of “Kumbh” or (Aquarius) because there are historical references to a 12-year cycle where the devotees gather near the banks of the Ganges. This event commences when Jupiter is in Aquarius, and the sun enters Aries. The devotees enjoy a holy dip in the river water to wash away their sins and move one step closer to attaining moksha or enlightenment.

Haridwar, India – 13 April, 2010: Pilgrims at Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar, Har Ki Paur Ghat. Kumbh Mela is a big massive pilgrimage that take place every 3 years

 Prayagraj

Prayagraj, now known as Allahabad, is a holy city for Hindu devotees and is believed to be where Lord Brahma first offered his sacrifice after the creation of the earth. The Magh Mela of Prayag is the oldest among the four modern-day Kumbh Melas. It dates from the early centuries CE and is recorded in several early Puranas.

Kumbh Mela in Allahabad is where three sacred Indian rivers, The Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati meet. Here is where Hindu devotees hold Kumbh, during the auspicious conjunction of Jupiter in Taurus and the sun and the moon in Capricorn.

Ujjain

The Kumbh Mela at Ujjain began in the 18th century when the Maratha ruler Ranoji Shinde invited ascetics from Nashik to Ujjain for a local festival. Kumbh, known as Ujjain Simhastha, commences when Jupiter is in Leo. The devotees accumulate near the Kshipra River and take a dip in the water. They believe that this Snan (bath) washes away all sins, cleanses the soul, and brings the devotee closer to attaining moksha.

Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, India – April 22, 2016 : Devotees took bath at kshripra river.

Nashik

Nashik is an ancient city of 8 million people on the bank of India’s second-longest river, the Godavari. The town holds significant cultural and religious importance for Hindus. One reason is the Simhastha celebration. Kumbh Mela in Nashik, or Nashik-Trimbakeshwar Simhastha, is an optimistic fair held when Jupiter, the Sun, and the Moon are in Cancer in a lunar conjunction. During this time, devotees dip in the holy water of the Godavari River at the Trimbakeshwar Shiva Temple and RamKund in Nashik with the hope of attaining moksha.

 Cultural and Historical Significance

People come to Kumbh Mela in overwhelming numbers and with immense faith. They come by bus, cars, ox-drawn carts, horseback, camels, and even elephants; some come by planes, and the less affluent come by walking while carrying their belonging in bundles on their heads. People travel not only from India but from around the world. They believe bathing in the holy river frees one from past sins and attains liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth.

A city within a city pops up in no time to accommodate such a multitude, visiting and taking baths daily. Existing only for the event—an entire town rises, flourishes, fades, and disappears in less than five months.

One prominent feature of Kumbh Mela is the camps (akharas) and processions of the sadhus (monks). These akharas have roots in the Hindu Naga (naked) monk tradition; these naked sadhus were traditionally renowned for carrying weapons and once functioned as a militia to protect Hindus from their Mughal rulers. Today, their heritage often finds expression in wrestling and martial arts. Until the advent of East India Company Rule, various monastic groups managed the Kumbh Melas. 

During the 17th century, the Akharas fought over rights and priorities, such as who gets to bathe first, which led to many violent clashes. A contemporary record inscribed on a copper plate claims that 12,000 ascetics died in a conflict between Shaivite and Vaishnavite sects at the 1789 Nashik Kumbh Mela. The dispute started over the bathing order, which indicated the status of the akharas. These clashes attracted intervention from the British, who laid out the camps and trading spaces and established a bathing protocol for each akhara. British administration of the Kumbh Mela lasted for many years.

The festival’s major event is bathing in the river waters, with a prayer. This central ritual is the attraction of the Kumbh Mela for all pilgrims. Traditionally, on Amavasya – the most sacred day for bathing – the Hindu pilgrims welcome and wait for the thirteen sadhu akharas to bathe first. This event – called shahi snan or raj yogi snan – is marked by a processional march, with banners, flags, elephants, horses, and musicians along with the naked or scantily clad monks, some smeared with bhasma (ashes).

The sadhus are seen wearing saffron sheets with Vibhuti (ashes) dabbed on their skin, following an ancient tradition. Some, called Naga sanyasis (saints), may not wear any clothes even in severe winter. The right to be naga, or naked, is a sign of detachment from the material world. There are other sadhus like Urdhwavahurs who believe in putting the body through severe austerities, such as the Parivrajakas, who have taken a vow of silence, and the Shirshasins, who can stand still for 24 hours or meditate for hours standing on their heads.

Some pilgrims walk considerable lengths, arriving barefoot as part of their devotions. Typically, they stay for a day or two. Still, others remain for the entire festival month, living a simple and basic life. They attend spiritual discourses, fast, and pray over the month, and these Kumbh pilgrims are called Kalpavasis.

In Hinduism, sadhu, or shadhu is a common term for a mystic, an ascetic, practitioner of yoga (yogi) and/or wandering monks. The sadhu is solely dedicated to achieving the fourth and final Hindu goal of life, moksha (liberation), through meditation and contemplation of Brahman. Sadhus often wear ochre-colored clothing, symbolizing renunciation.

The festival site is strictly vegetarian, as violence against animals is unacceptable. These ritual practices are celebratory feeds where many people sit in rows and share a community meal, mahaprasada, prepared by volunteers from charitable contributions. Other activities at the Mela comprise religious conversations, devotional singing, yoga, and religious assemblies where philosophies are debated and formalized. The festival grounds also feature various attractions over the month of celebrations. These include kalagram or cultural centers of Indian arts, where laser light shows, classical dance, and musical performances from different parts of India enthrall audiences.

One of the most beautiful rituals of the Kumbh Mela is Aarti. The whole riverbank comes alive with glittering lamps and flickering diyas during this holy ceremony. The priests chant soothing prayers and hymns. Attended by huge crowds, this divine aarti ritual brings the five elements of nature (fire, water, air, earth, and space) together in one place.

Two groups participating in the Kumbh Mela are the Sadhus and the pilgrims. Pilgrims travel to the Kumbh Mela to participate in the event’s religious and worldly aspects. Through their yogic practices, the Sadhus enunciate the transitory part of life. Darshan, or viewing, is an integral part of the Kumbh Mela. Sadhus travel to the Kumbh Mela to make themselves available to the Hindu public.

The Sadhus encourage the public to interact with them and to take “darshan.” They can look for advice or instruction in their spiritual lives. Darshan concentrates on the visual exchange, where there is an interaction with a religious deity, and the worshiper can ‘drink the divine power.’ So central is the concept of Darshan to the spirit of Khumbh Mela that access to the Sadhus is limited, and worshipers often leave tokens at their feet.

 

Who Are the Naga Sadhus?

For many, a visit to Kumbh Mela is not complete without experiencing the mystical aura of the Naga Sadhus. The Naga Sadhus have taken a vow of celibacy and surrendered all material pleasures and desires to lead a holy ascetic life. They don’t believe in wearing clothing and walk naked in the Kumbh Mela. Seeing their ash-covered bodies and matted dreadlocks can be terrifying and fascinating for many visitors and offer a glimpse into a life without lust or desire. The Naga Sadhus are Shaivites (the followers of Lord Shiva) and live in the Himalayas.

The Kumbh Mela is the only time of the year they come down to the plains, and it is, therefore, an occasion of great significance to them. It is the one time during the year when it’s possible to become a Naga Sadhu. This initiation rite occurs during the Kumbh Mela, and people of various ages come to see it. To become a Naga Sadhu, one has to renounce all desires for material comfort, both in body and mind; only after gaining complete conquest over one’s emotions, particularly lust, can one become a Naga Sadhu.

A Naga Sadhu can only eat once daily and must only eat whatever he receives. He can beg for food in seven houses, after which he must starve for the day if he has not received any. Having attained enlightenment, the Naga Sadhus are honored by taking the first holy dip in the sacred waters during the Kumbh Mela. They are famous for carrying weapons and being fierce warriors.

A sadhu also spelled saddhu, is a religious ascetic, mendicant (monk) or any holy person in Hinduism and Jainism who has renounced the worldly life.

Different types of Naga Sadhus have unique qualities, such as the long-haired Naga Sadhu, the long-nailed Naga Sadhu, and the money-maker Sadhus, who offer their blessings for some money. One can also see the numerous female Naga Sadhus taking holy dips during the Kumbh Mela. The female Naga Sadhus lead the same life of austerity as their male counterparts. The female Naga Sadhus shave their heads during their initiation ceremony and bathe in the river. The respect given to the female Naga Sadhus is equal to that given to the male Naga Sadhus. The only difference between them is that female Naga Sadhus cover themselves with yellow cloth when taking dips in the river.

The Naga Sadhus are notoriously famous for death-defying stunts and painful acts to prove their devotion to God and the strength of their minds and souls. Some of the most popular actions performed by the Naga Sadhus are standing straight for more than twelve hours with heavy objects attached to their most sensitive body parts and burying themselves underground for days, among others. The rumor has it that they possess supernatural powers.

 

The Next Celebration

As of this writing, the next Kumbh Mela will occur from January 25th, 2024, to March 8th, 2024, at the Triveni Sangam in Prayagraj. Everyone is welcome!

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