As the sacred waters of three rivers the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati converge on the ancient city of Prayagraj, so do Hindus descend on India in their tens of millions for the largest and one of the oldest pilgrimage sites in the world. It is called the Maha Kumbha Mela. It is the greatest gathering of Hindus from all over India and the world. Hindus from the vast ancient Hindu sampradayas (spiritual lineage/traditions) and representing the many darshanas (philosophic schools) of Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism) make the journey to gather together in their masses to meet, worship and take a sacred dip into the rivers that have brought enlightenment to the great sages since time immemorial. They bathe their intellect in the waters of time and carry on an ancient religion unbroken till this day.
Sages, seers, yogis and yoginis march towards these sacred grounds where the immortal warriors of the Mahabharata came to pay homage. The same banks of these rivers, upstream, the great Vedic Rishis and Rishikas (female rishis) composed the Vedas and it is here the illustrious Indus-Saraswati Civilisation once flourished. In modern day as they did in the ancient times and even during the last thousand years of India’s history Hindus gather. This is the place where one can meet modern sadhus and yogis who typically practice their ancient Dharma in utmost solitude and meditation. Those sages and sadhus who are never seen until the Kumbh Mela begins. Here the average Hindu can meet and converse with these great sages and where immense spiritual knowledge is once again passed onto posterity.
A Kumbh Mela constitutes a large gathering of all the Hindus around the world descending upon India at one of four locations typically Prayagraj, Ujjain, Nashik or Haridwar. Every twelve years Jupiter makes one revolution around the Sun and so every twelve years a Kumbh Mela is held with tens of millions of Hindus celebrating together. The largest gathering occurs at Prayagraj where the three sacred rivers the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati meet. It is the greatest Hindu pilgrimage on earth attracting a crowd that can be seen from space. The largest gathering place for pilgrimage in the world is not Mecca or Jerusalem it is in the Kumbh Mela and the Maha Kumbha Mela in India.
So what is a Kumbh Mela?
Kumbh Mela means a “gathering/assembly around the waters/nectar of immortality.” The word Mela means “fair” like a bazaar although it obviously means much more than that while Kumbh means a “pot.” This year 2021 the Kumbh Mela will be held at Haridwar, a location where the Ganges flows. Astrological factors determine where the Kumbh Mela is held based on a Hindu lunar-solar calendar. The four locations include Prayagraj, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain. At Prayagraj there is a sangam (confluence) of three sacred rivers known as a Triveni: the Ganges, Saraswati and Yamuna. Prayagraj is located in Uttar Pradesh. When Jupiter is placed in Aries or Taurus and the sun and moon find themselves in Capricorn the Mela is held in Prayagraj. It is also held every 144 years at Prayagraj with the 12 year cyclical alignments of Jupiter. The current Kumbh Mela is in Haridwar on the banks of the holy Ganges in the state of Uttarkhand. This happens when the sun is in Aries and Jupiter is in Aquarius. At Nassik it is located on the banks of the Godavari River in the modern state of Maharastra. Astrologically this takes place when Jupiter is in Leo and the sun and moon in Cancer. The fourth location, Ujjain is in Madhya Pradesh and held near the banks of the sacred Kshipra River when Jupiter is in Leo and the sun is in Aries, or when Jupiter, the sun and moon are all in Libra. Kumbh also means Aquarius signifying the month in which it is held related to Maagha (January).
So what is a Maha Kumbh Mela?
So what’s the difference between a Kumbh Mela and a Maha Kumbh Mela? The Kumbh Mela takes places every 12 years at one of these four locations. However the Maha Kumbh Mela takes place every 144 years after 12 cycles of 12 “regular” Kumbh Melas. The Maha Kumbh Mela is held only at the confluence of the three rivers in Prayagraj. These 12 year Kumbh Melas are referred to as Purna Kumbh Melas. In twelve years the next Purna Kumbh Mela will take place in 2025. There is also a Kumbh Mela taking place every 6 years known as an Ardh Kumbh Mela since Ardh means half. The Ardh takes place at Prayagraj and Haridwar.
At one modern Mela 70 million Hindus had gathered. The last Maha Kumbh Mela happened in 2013 and will not occur again for another 144 years. The large pilgrimage festival is thought to have become more popular with Adi Shankara who consolidated Advaita Vedanta and Hindu beliefs. The Magh Mela has been traced to a celebration going on since the Mahabharata War which occurred at least five thousand years ago. The Mahabharata mentions a bathing pilgrimage site at Prayag while the earliest references date to the Rig Vedic times. These references are found in the Rigveda, Yajurveda, Artharveda and Samveda. Other ancient texts include the Matsya Purana. Yudhisthira after the war feeling despair about the Great War in the Bhagavad Gita is advised to go to Prayag by a sage. The bathing at Prayag is also mentioned in the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas and even within two Islamic texts the Ain-i-Akbari and the Tabaqat-i-Akbari both written by historians in the court of Emperor Akbar. It was during the Islamic era Prayag had its named changed to Allahabad which has recently been reversed to Prayagraj by Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The bath ritual and festival at Prayag was also written about by the Chinese Buddhist traveler Xuanzang in the 7th century who mentioned it and King Harsh of Prayag.
However, the festival is believed to have originated during the Samudra Manthan or churning of the ocean when the Devas and Asuras gathered to churn the ocean using the Mandara Mountain as a churning rod. The Devas and Asuras were churning the ocean in search of the Kumbh or “pot of nectar” which took 12 days and 12 nights. These 12 days of the Gods are equal to 12 years in human time hence the 12 year cyclical celebration. When the poison came out of the churning of the ocean Lord Shiva drank it which is why his throat is blue and he is known as Neelkanth or “blue-throated.” Lord Vishnu at this time took the form of Mohini to protect the nectar or Amrit and while transporting it some had fallen at four spots which became the four locations of the Mela.
Yogis meditating deep in the caverns of the highest mountains and who are never seen descend for the Kumbh Mela including India’s warrior monks the Akharas of the Naga Sadhus tradition. These warrior monks were responsible for organizing the whole event and had grouped themselves into 13 akharas or factions. They protected these pilgrims coming to the event much like the Knights Templars protected the pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. Many formed militias to protect pilgrims from the surrounding Islamic Sultanates including the Mughal Empire. The Turco-Mongol Timur descended into Haridwar and slaughtered many pilgrims in 1399 written about by Alexander Cunningham, founder of India’s ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) and Sharaf Ad Din Ali Yazdi, Timur’s own historian. They comprise ten akharas from Hinduism and 3 from the Sikhs. They also represent different schools of thought including Vaishnavism and Shaivism. These groups are credited to the 8th century sage Adi Shankara who wanted to create such monastic institutions known as maths. This Kumbh Mela area was subject to tax by the East India Company during colonial rule. They collected taxes but provided no services or infrastructure for the pilgrims. However, they managed to share Bibles as reported by the missionary Baptist John Chamberlain. The people of Prayag aggressively opposed the conversions by missionaries and were shelled in encounters with British officials during the 1857 rebellion.
It is said the dip in the sacred waters is a blessing from the abodes of the Gods. Haridwar is translated as the “Gates of Vishnu,” therefore immersion in the sacred rivers of Haridwar places one within the abode of Lord Vishnu. It helps to wash off past adharma (ignorance and ignorant deeds) and allows prayascitta (accepting one’s errors) which leads towards moksha (enlightenment). Many people use the word sin but this is a gross mistranslation of Hindu texts and Sanskrit words. Hinduism has no evil but it does have the concept of adharma (ignorance) and paap, the word that can be used for something akin to a sin. The bathing is done many times through processions as well as individually. The first processions are usually led by the thirteen akhara sadhus who are allowed to bathe first by the pilgrims. Many of the monks are clad in bhasma (ashes). The procession is followed by all the pomp of festivities including music, horns, flags, banners and a lot more. The bath/dip is referred to as a snana. The greatest festival day and gathering of Hindus is held on Amavasya (new moon). The largest akhara is the Juna Akhara traced back to Adi Shanakara representing a diverse amount of Hindu philosophical systems and schools. Yes, it’s the Olympics of Hindu pilgrimages. Prayers are offered with flowers, milk, coconuts, sindhur (vermillion) and reverence is paid to the ancestors. Mantras are recited and priests oversee large yajnas (great offering). People walk considerable distances. They camp out and spend the entire month of Magh (equated to January). The festival is completely vegetarian and compassion towards animals is practiced. Many pilgrims fast sometimes one day or vrata or even longer periods. Other pilgrims share a community meal or mahaprasad. Families can sponsor food for pilgrims or anna dhana (food charity). The classical arts and performances are practiced and held at grounds called kalagram (Indian arts). Religious discussions are held called pravachan. Hindu texts are studied and debated during sastrartha while kirtan (devotional singing) is performed by others. Pilgrims and observers can all take darshan (blessings) form the sadhus present. Simply attending the Kumbh Mela and observing is considered a great duty.
Haridwar itself is a sacred city flanked by the supreme majesty of the Himalayas and home to a plethora of sacred mandirs (temples) and ghats (steps). Some of these sites include Har Ki Pauri/Paudi which are the sacred steps/ghats of Lord Vishnu on the banks of the Ganges. Here you can see where the nectar of immortality fell and visit the footprint of Lord Vishnu. If you want your wishes fulfilled you can visit the Mansa Devi Temple on the Shivalik Hills on the Himalayan range. Another Sidh Peeth (wish-fulfilling temple) is Chanda Devi Temple located as well in the Shivaliks. It known as the Neel Parva Teerth and is one of the Panch Tirth or Five pilgrimage sites in Haridwar. It is named after the Goddess Chandi who rested here and is an incarnation of Parvati. There is also the Bharat Mata Mandir dedicated to the deity Bharat or Mother India herself. Maya Devi Mandir is another place to visit completing the trio of “wish-fulfilling” temples. Maya Devi temple is derived from the Goddess Maya another form of Adi Shakti, Lord Shiva’s wife. The city Haridwar was also named Mayapuri in even more olden times. Architecture comes alive in the Shri Chintamani Parswanath Temple and the Daksha Mahadev Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and named after his first wife Sati also known as Dasha Prajapati. There are many mini and regional Kumbh Melas that take place all over India including in Tamil Nadu and at Kurukshetra, the battlefield of the Bhagavad Gita.
If you think you’ve missed this Kumbh Mela you haven’t. There are more Kumbh Melas taking place every few years however each one goes on for months. The current Mela is held from January to May and started on January 14th coinciding with the Makar Sankranti festival which I have written about see here Makar Sankranti: The Hindu Harvest Festival – Indo Caribbean Diaspora News (icdn.today). It ends sometime on May 26th. It continues through many other Hindu festivals including Makar Sankranti, Mahashivraatri and Ram Navmi which are sights to behold celebrating a Hindu festival within a larger Hindu pilgrimage festival. Tirtha (pilgrimage) is important it will unify and unite Hindus globally and it is important for Caribbean Hindus and others around the world to begin learning more about our pilgrimage sites and our sacred mandirs (temples). See if you can visit them all in one lifetime.