The Maha Kumbh Mela held every 12 years in Allahabad is said to be the largest gathering of humanity for a religious occasion. The famous legend of the Kumbh goes thus: gods and demons churned the cosmic ocean in their quest for amrit, the celestial nectar, which would bestow immortality upon those who drank it. When the pot (kumbh) of elixir emerged, a fight broke out between the devas and asuras over its possession. Jayanta, Indra’s son carried the pot of nectar away chased by demons. It is said that Jayanta spilled drops of the nectar at four places: Ujjain, Haridwar, Tryambakeshwar (Nashik) and Prayag (Allahabad), sanctifying them forever for Hindus.
At each of these four sites, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated by turn, roughly once every three years. The mela is held on the banks of the rivers, considered immensely sacred, at each place — the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad; the Ganga at Haridwar; the Shipra at Ujjain and the Godavari at Tryambakeshwar. Taking a dip in the holy rivers is the main purpose of the gathering. The mela dates are not fixed by the Roman calendar since it is celebrated when Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon fall in a particular astrological position in the almanac.
The Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang wrote of the Kumbh Mela that took place in 643 CE, recording the presence of a large gathering of sadhus, saints and beggars. Centuries later, in 1885, Mark Twain described the mela: “Pilgrims plodded for months in the heat to get here, worn, poor and hungry, but sustained by unwavering faith.”
At the Mela
A temporary township comes up at each of these four places when the Kumbh is celebrated. During the Kumbh festival, many religious, cultural, social, voluntary, commercial and even political organisations, besides government departments, set up temporary camps in the mela area. Sadhus from all over the country live in these tents.
The mela is dominated by 13 akharas or sects of sadhus. An akhara can best be described as a group of religious militant-ascetics, who are known for their spiritual powers as well as their inter-sect rivalries. The most fierce and individualistic among them is the Juna Akhara. The most visible, however, are the naked Naga Sadhus who cover their bodies only with ash, and wear their hair in dreadlocks. These akharas set up camp in the Kumbh areas with much fanfare.
As for other devotees, many observe the tradition of ‘Kalpvaas’, where the devout, often comprising entire families, come and stay on the riverbanks for a month, leading a spartan and pious life. They bathe thrice, perform day-long pujas, and eat only once a day.
The Important Days
The main bathing days are known as Shahi Snans, or Royal Bathing Days. These are: Mauni Amavasya (the dark moon), Basant Panchami (the fifth day of the new moon), Maha Sankranti (when the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn). Sadhus lead the order in which a Shahi Snan is performed. About 5 million pilgrims bathed in the Allahabad Mela on Maha Sankranti in the 2001 Kumbh.
An agreement between the government and the akharas, dating back to 1906, lays down the number of processions, their order and the duration of the Shahi Snans. For the holy bath, the members of the akharas are followed by other sadhus and holy men, who in turn are followed by VIPs and then lay folk. A surge of humanity rushes towards the bathing places with chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev!’ renting the air. The akharas leave the mela after the last Shahi Snan on Basant Panchami, which marks the beginning of the end of the mela.
Administering the Kumbh
In Allahabad, the Kumbh area is divided into three parts to create the required infrastructure. The first one is around the Sangam area, where there is a huge tract of open land, including an Army Parade Ground; the second is across the river Ganga; and the third, across the Yamuna, towards the industrial township of Naini, known as Arail. Since river waters separate these areas, floating pontoon bridges are made on them.
Some interesting statistics: During the 2001 Maha Kumbh, the water authority had to construct 350 km of pipelines and set up 15,000 water taps. For the drainage of wastewater, kuccha drains had to be dug below every tap. On the trunk supply line, provision was made for 1,100 fire hydrants. To quench the pilgrims’ thirst, 12,000 drinking water taps were set up along the roads. Electrical sub-stations were installed to maintain a continuous supply of power to the mela township, called Kumbh Nagar, in cold January. The Health Department provided Kumbh Nagar with medical and sanitation facilities and ensured regular cleaning and sweeping of the whole area. Supply of foodgrains, edible oils, firewood, cooking gas, kerosene oil, vegetables and fruits was ensured. Restaurants, tea stalls and sweet shops came up. The township sustained an entire local economy. About 20 kiosks and two cyber cafés were set up, and they were especially handy for the many reporters who came to file their stories.
Staying at the Kumbh
Many ashrams and institutions like the Ramakrishna Mission and Bharat Seva Ashram, to name just two, set up camp here and accommodate pilgrims on prior booking. But the Kumbh now offers luxury tents too. Check websites well before the mela dates.
By Supreet Cheema