India is a land of many different religions, cultures, languages and customs. In fact, it is the diversity in India that makes it so unique and beautiful.
Naturally, with many different sections of society following very different cultures, there is a wide range of customs that are followed in India.
These customs are age old, and have history and values behind them. These customs are celebrated with much fervour by the people who follow them.
Therefore, these customs have a great significance. One such custom is the popular mass Hindu pilgrimage called the Kumbha Mela.
Kumbha Mela is a pilgrimage in which people belonging to the Hindu religion assemble to bathe in holy water and seek blessings.
This has been done since ancient times. According to Hindu religions, one can absolve oneself of sins if he/she bathes in holy water. Holy water is the water of the rivers considered holy by the Hindu religion. River Ganga is one of them.
The Kumbha Mela as a festival and custom is quite old. There is no conclusive evidence as to when it started. According to Hindu mythology, Kumbha Mela conducted to honour the event of the Samudra Manthan.
In Samudra Manthan, because of Amrit Jal or the drink that made one immortal, a confrontation occurred between the Devas and the Asuras.
Samudra Manthan is actually the process of the churning of the oceanic water which resulted in the production of the Amrit Jal. It was produced with the efforts of both the Asuras and the Devas. But, Asuras were greedy and evil beings.
The Devas did not want the Amrit Jal to fall in the hands of the Asuras. Therefore, a godly being took away the container containing the Amrit Jal.
While carrying the Jal, he stopped at four places. These four places became the place where the Kumbha Mela was held. These four places were Nashik, Allahabad, Haridwar and Ujjain.
However, this mythical tale has no mention in the Hindu ancient texts such as the Puranas, Vedas, etc. Therefore, historians can only speculate.
Others suggest that the association of the event of Kumbha Mela to the mythical event of Samudra Manthan is not traditional, but a relatively recent event.
This association was established to show that the Kumbha Mela has the backing of religious scriptures and texts. Thus, nothing can be conclusively proved.
Some texts suggest that the Mela is as old as 644 CE, when it was held in Allahabad and people came from far and wide to wash away their sins and associate it with the reign of the great Hindu king Harsha.
Many accounts seen to suggest that the Kumbha Mela was originally an assembly place for holy men to meet and discuss about religious topics.
Holy men from all throughout India who held a position of respect in the Hindu religion came to discuss and debate about the various aspects related to Hinduism.
With time, this assembly evolved to include the ceremony of bathing in the holy water. Over time, this ceremony was open to common people who wanted to wash away their sins.
There are many evidence that point to the fact that first Kumbha Mela was perhaps the one held in Haridwar.
In fact, the earliest text that contains the name of Kumbha Mela, only refers to the Mela that was held at Haridwar as the Kumbha Mela which was held at an interval of 12 years.
In ancient texts such as the Puranas, there have been references to Melas, such as the Magh Mela of Allahabad, however, the term Kumbha Mela was never used.
Therefore, associating it with Kumbha Mela is dubious. Many historians suggest that usage of the term Kumbha Mela as a once in 12 years practice, is as recent phenomenon, in fact, it is as recent as the 19th century.
Many suggest that the Magh Mela of Allahabad was later named as the Kumbha Mela to give it religious and scriptural backing and make it a huge even that attracted a huge turnout of pilgrims.
Later, in the 18th century, the Maratha ruker Ranoji Shinde started the Kumbha Mela in Ujjain. Thus, the Kumbha Mela of Ujjain is the most recently started Kumbha Mela and the oldest the Haridwar Kumbha Mela.
Therefore, as stated earlier, the Kumbha Mela occurs at four different places at regular intervals and it cannot occur in a place more than once in 12 years.
It occurs in these four places, because these four places have rivers flowing through them that are considered holy by the Hindu religion.
As the main custom involves bathing in sacred water to purify oneself of one’s sins, the main Mela occurs along riversides that are considered holy.
These holy rivers are Godavari River in Nashik, Saraswati River in Allahabad, Ganga River in Haridwar and Shipra River in Ujjain.
Kumbha Mela is an event where people go to wash away the sins that they have committed in the waters of the holy rivers. Traditionally, the event is initiated by the arrival of the Sadhus.
This is called the Peshwai Procession. Many other activities such as religious discussions, distribution of food, singing of devotional songs, prayers, debates and discussions, etc. also occur.
For Hindus, Kumbha Mela is the most important and holy of all pilgrimages. During the Kumbha Mela, the pilgrims are able to meet and have darshan of the ascetic Sadhus.
Thus, Kumbha Mela is a meeting place for the Sadhus and normal people who want to advance towards the path of salvation. Pilgrims attend this event every year in huge numbers.
They come to seek guidance from the ascetic Sadhus on how to attain the ultimate goal of life, that is salvation of the soul.
These days, Kumbha Mela has also become a commercial centre. Many people open up their shops near because people from all over India and the world come to see the Kumbha Mela.
Hotels see a rise in profits and the rooms are booked a year in advance! The city where the event is held earns a lot through tourism.
Kumbha Mela is often described as one of the largest gatherings of people in the world for a religious people. Managing such a huge crowd is not easy, and cannot be handled by the Sadhus alone as in ancient times. The government helps in the administration of the Mela where it is held.
This is done to see that no accident occurs. There is a popular saying in India. “Kumbha ke mele me bichde hue bhai” or the brothers lost in the Mela met each other.
This might be a joke or something used to create drama in movies, but the accidents that have occurred at the Melas are no joke.
Thus, the government does its best that accidents such as stampedes, etc., do not occur. No one wants to see the loss of human lives in a place of religious gathering.
Kumbha Mela is one of the most important festivals of the Hindu religion and whenever it is held; millions of people from not only India but the world come to witness this holy event. Kumbha Mela can be considered as the largest peaceful gathering in the world.
The highest number of people ever recorded for attending the Kumbha Mela is the staggering number of 75 million! Such is the importance of the Kumbha Mela.
The next Kumbha Mela is scheduled to be held in 2019 and will be the Ardha Kumbha Mela at Allahabad. Recently, UNESCO has named the pilgrimage of Kumbha Mela in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Indeed, Kumbha Mela is truly a great event that one must attend during her or his lifetime to witness the grandeur and devotion in the ceremonies that are conducted.
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