The Kumbh Mela may be one of the most important festivals for Hindus living in India and around the world. It is a unique pilgrimage of faith in which many Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river, perhaps the most popular being the Ganges or the Godavari rivers. It occurs once every twelve years however this varies between regions in India and the date is determined according to a combination of zodiac positions of the Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon. According to the official website, the Kumbh at Prayag is considered to be the most significant of all as it marks the direction of wisdom or light. This is the place where the sun, symbolising wisdom, rises. It is also here the creation of the Universe is supposed to have originated according to Hindu holy scriptures. The Kumbh may be a spiritual and enlightening time for Hindus partaking in traditions associated with the festival.
A large part of the Kumbh Mela involves gathering with other Hindus to bathe in a sacred river, and may be one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. The first written evidence of the Kumbh Mela may be found in the accounts of a Chinese Monk called Hsuan Tsang who visited India in 629-645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana. However, the origins of the festival may also be found in the ancient legend of Samudra Manthan. This legend tells the tale between the Devas and Asuras Gods for ‘amrita’, the drink of immortality. In order to prevent the Asuras from seizing the amrita, a divine carrier flew away with it however some was spilled in four rivers where Kumbh Mela is now celebrated in India. The Ganges may be known by Indians as a sacred river and many believe bathing in the Ganges may provide freedom from karmic reactions as well as liberation.
Besides their religious significance, the Kumbh Melas are also major commercial events. For example, many visitors come to trade and during this time many people sell things on the streets. Other activities during this time include religious discussions, devotional singing, mass feeding of holy men and women, and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated. In addition to this, Darshan or respectful visual exchange may be an important part of the Kumbh Mela. This involves visiting Hindu holy men and seeking instructions from those who engage in yogic practices. It is noted on the Indian government’s website the Kumbh Mela may help Indian’s from different castes to come together and celebrate in harmony. Different traditional dress, types of food and ways of living may be witnessed during the festival as Indians travel from all over the country to participate in ancient Hindu traditions.
During the Kumbh Mela, bathing normally starts around 4am, and an estimated 30 million people bathed together in the Ganges in February 2013.7It is estimated 50 to 100 million devotees may make the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage this year. In addition to this, there were an estimated 50,000 babas (or gurus) who travelled to provide wisdom and assistance to those who needed it. The gurus may be distinguished by the sacred ash on their foreheads, the garlands of marigolds around their necks or the bright orange robes they often wear. At the Darshan camps, daytime activities may include devotional lectures from gurus and nighttime activities may include theatrical performances relating to Hindu legends. For those looking to travel to India for the festival, it may be beneficial to book accommodation well in advance as certain areas may be crowded during this time. Furthermore, it may be advisable to make decisions in advance regarding meal planning, as there are limited restaurants open during the Kumbh Mela.
How might the Indian government help in supporting the Kumbh Mela festival?