Holi, Diwali, Eid, these festivals are popular all over the mainland India, but if I have to look out for a special festival in Uttar Pradesh, it would be the Kumbh Mela. Its a religious fair-festival which is celebrated in only four areas in India, that is, Haridwar (on the Ganges River), Ujjain (on Shipra) , Nashik (on Godavari) and Prayagraj. Traditionally river confluences are regarded as auspicious places, but in Sangam, which is in Prayag, the significance of the confluence is most pious because, the holy Ganga, Yamuna and theSaraswati meet to become one.
My grandmother is big on telling us stories of different gods in Hinduism. According to the legend, behind the Kumbh Mela, Lord Vishnu was carrying a Kumbh (pot) of amrit (nectar), when a scuffle broke out and four drops were spilled. They fell to earth at the four Tirthas( a pligrimage, especially near a water body) of Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. It is celebrated four times over the course of 12 years, and the site of the observance keeps rotating between these four. The Kumbh Mela supposed to take place only on certain dates, when it is believed, that the water of the sacred rivers is turned into nectar. So, before deciding the dates of Kumbh Mela the positions of Sun, Moon and Jupiter are taken into account and the holiest time occurs at the exact moment when these positions are fully occupied.
My grandmother says that Kumbh mela at the Sangam, also known as the ‘King of Tirthas’, is the greatest and holiest of all. I thought she was just playing favouritism for her own state. But I’ve to admit, even the statistics show that the Kumbh Mela at Prayagattracts much more pilgrims than other sites. In Prayag it is held in the month of Magh, that is January and lasts for a month.
My grandmother, who have attended four Kumbh Mela at Prayag itself and have stayed for one week each time, illustrates a vivid picture of the most auspicious fair celebrated in India. She describes the ‘kalpvaas’ that a devotee who resides in the complex of Mela must undergo. One has to sleep on the floor, in her times only on a sheet that too inside a tent!
Today, there are better arrangements for them, but what is the use of luxury or rest if one has to live like with austerity, it defies the whole purpose says my Gramdma. They have to bath in the Sangam early in the morning and worship the river Ganga. They used to get food only one time, that too a ‘satvik bhojan’ , many survived on fruits all day and most ascetics even fasted during the whole duration. I doubt if people today observed these practices. On the occasion of Mauni amavasya, if it falls in the month of January, Grandma has seen ascetics perform an elaborate and special ‘pooja’ and bathing in the pious water of Sangam before saying even one word. There’s another practice, which is of giving alms to the ascetics that come from long distances. The commencement of this ritual has a story behind it, the myth says that the practice was started by our mythological hero Karna, of Mahabharata. Daan-veer Karna as he’s widely known, was praying at the banks of Sangam when Indra , the God of rain, regent of the heavens, and guardian of the east, came dressed like an ascetic and asked for ‘daan’. Karna, it is said gave everything to him, even his golden body armour. So today people believe that giving alms to these ascetics is equivalent to giving something to Lord Indra.
The attendees at the Kumbh Mela come from all sections of Hindu religious life,an extraordinary array of religious ascetics – sadhus and mahants – enticed from remote hideaways in forests, mountains and caves. The event even witness a large presence of Naga Sadhus or Naga Babas, who cover their naked bodies with ash and wear hair in long dreadlocks.The sadhus, who see themselves as guardians of the faith, approach the confluence at the scheduled time with all the pomp and bravado of a charging army.
The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious congregation in India but lets not forget that it is still a ‘Mela’. My father tells amazing stories of roaming around the ghats of Sangam and enjoying at the Mela till midnight, there are shops of different countries and different states, selling the best and the most popular artefacts of their place. Today the Mela have all kinds of facilities ready for the pilgrimages, who come from across the world.In fact, the Kumbh Mela of 2013 was the largest religious gathering in the world with almost 120 million visitors with was held at Prayag. For the 2013 mela, the government officials set up 14 temporary hospitals, staffed with 243 doctors, more than 40,000 toilets, and stationed 50,000 police officials to maintain order. The mela also creates income opportunities for the organising state and many people are employed during the time. In 2013 the mela created approximately 650,000 jobs and was estimated to earn around Rs 12,000 crore.
The first written evidence of the mela, which most scholars conclude to be the same, can be found in the accounts of the Chinese traveller Xuanzang, who visited India during the reign of King Harshavardhana. Since then it has come a long way and I know for a fact that its going to be continued for generations to come. Whatever the changes it might incorporate with the changing times, the essence of this celebration will never fade away.