Kumbh Mela or Kumbha Mela (/ˌkʊm ˈmeɪlə/ or /ˌkʊm məˈlɑː/) is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred or holy river. Traditionally, four fairs are widely recognized as the Kumbh Melas: the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela, Haridwar Kumbh Mela, the Nashik-Trimbakeshwar Simhastha, and Ujjain Simhastha. These four fairs are held periodically at one of the following places by rotation: Prayagraj (known until 2018 as Allahabad), Haridwar, Nashik district (Nashik and Trimbak), and Ujjain. The main festival site is located on the banks of a river: the Ganges (Ganga) at Haridwar; the confluence (Sangam) of the Ganges and the Yamuna and the invisible Sarasvati at Prayagraj; the Godavari at Nashik; and the Shipra at Ujjain. Bathing in these rivers is thought to cleanse a person of all their sins.
At any given place, the Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years. There is a difference of around 3 years between the Kumbh Melas at Haridwar and Nashik; the fairs at Nashik and Ujjain are celebrated in the same year or one year apart. The exact date is determined, following the Vikram Samvat calendar and the principles of Jyotisha, according to a combination of zodiac positions of the Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon. At Nashik and Ujjain, the Mela may be held while a planet is in Leo (Simha in Hindu astrology); in this case, it is also known as Simhastha. At Haridwar and Prayagraj, a Maha (“Great”) Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years, with an Ardha (“Half”) Kumbh Mela six years later. The priests at other places consider their local fairs to be Kumbh Melas; for example, the Mahamaham festival at Kumbakonam, held every 12 years, is described as a Kumbh Mela. Other places where fairs have been called Kumbh Mela include Kurukshetra and Sonepat The exact age of the festival is uncertain. According to medieval Hinduism, Lord Vishnu dropped drops of Amrita (the drink of immortality) at four places, while transporting it in a kumbha (pot). These four places are identified as the present-day sites of the Kumbh Mela. The name “Kumbh Mela” literally means “kumbha fair”. It is known as “Kumbh” in Hindi (due to schwa deletion); in Sanskrit and some other Indian languages; it is more often known by its original name “Kumbha”.
The festival is the largest peaceful gathering in the world, and considered as the “world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims”. There is no precise method of ascertaining the number of pilgrims, and the estimates of the number of pilgrims bathing on the most auspicious day may vary. An estimated 120 million people visited Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 in Prayagrajover a two-month period, including over 30 million on a single day, on 10 February 2013 (the day of Mauni Amavasya). It has been inscribed on the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity
ETYMOLOGY AND SCRIPTURAL ORIGIN
Samudra manthan or churning of the milk ocean
Kumbha Mela derives its name from both the original festival being held according to the astrological sign “Kumbha” (Aquarius),and from the associated Hindu legend in which the gods and demons fought over a pot, or “kumbh,” of nectar that would give them immortality. A later day addition to the legend which says that after taking the pot one of the gods spilled drops of nectar near four places where Kumbha Mela is presently held, is not found in the earliest mentions of the original legend of samudra manthan (churning of the ocean) as described in various ancient Hindu texts collectively known as the Puranas (orig. 3rd century CE to 10th century CE).
The legend of samudra manthan tells of a battle between the Devas (benevolent deities) and Asuras (malevolent demigods) for amrita, the nectar drink of immortality. During samudra manthan, amrita was produced and placed in a Kumbha (pot). To prevent the asuras from seizing the amrita, a divine carrier flew away with the pot. In one of the most popular version added to the original legend later, the carrier of the kumbha is the divine physician Dhanavantari, who stops at four places where the Kumbh Mela is celebrated. In other later addition to the legend,[clarification needed] the carrier is Garuda, Indra or Mohini, who spills the amrita at four places.
While several ancient texts, including the various Puranas, mention the samudra manthan legend, none of them mentions spilling of the amrita at four places. Neither do these texts mention the Kumbh Mela. Therefore, multiple scholars, including R. B. Bhattacharya, D. P. Dubey and Kama Maclean believe that the samudra manthan legend has been applied to the Kumbh Mela relatively recently, in order to show scriptural authority for it.
EVOLUTION OF EARLIER MELAS TO KUMBH MELAS
There are several references to river-side mela (festivals) in ancient Indian texts including at the places where present day Kumbh Melas are held, both the earliest exact age of those melas and when they came to be called the Kumbh Mela is uncertain. Earliest mention of any type of mela held at the current location of Kumb Mela is by Xuanzang in 644 CE. The earliest extant mention of the name “Kumbha Mela” are Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh (1695 CE) and Chahar Gulshan (1759 CE) which describe the fairs held at Haridwar, Prayagraj and Nashik, among those the magh fair at Prayagraj might be oldest without being called Kumbh Mela at those time and the fair at Haridwar appears to be the original Kumbh Mela which is held according to the astrological sign “Kumbha” (Aquarius), and the renaming of fairs held at other places to Kumbh Mela is more recent.
The earliest mention of the such riverside melas at the current locations of Kumbh Mela, [without mentioning the word Kumbh mela], is by the Chinese traveler Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) who describes a ritual organized by Emperor Shiladitya (identified with Harsha) at the confluence of two rivers, in the kingdom of Po-lo-ye-kia (identified with Prayagraja), where half a million pilgrims of various faiths took a bath at the confluence to wash away their sins. According to some scholars, this is the earliest surviving historical account of a mela held at Prayagraj in 644 CE where the present day Kumbh Mela is also held. However, Australian researcher Kama Maclean notes that the Xuanzang reference is about an event that happened every 5 years (and not 12 years), and might have been a Buddhist celebration (since, according to Xuanzang, Harsha was a Buddhist emperor).
The Kumbh Mela of Haridwar appears to be the original Kumbh Mela, since it is held according to the astrological sign “Kumbha” (Aquarius), and because there are several references to a 12-year cycle for it. The earliest extant texts that contain the name “Kumbha Mela” are Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh (1695 CE) and Chahar Gulshan (1759 CE). Both these texts use the term “Kumbh Mela” to describe only Haridwar’s fair, although they mention the similar fairs held in Prayagraj and Nashik district. The Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh lists the following melas: an annual mela and a Kumbh Mela every 12 years at Haridwar; a mela held at Trimbak when Jupiter enters Leo (that is, once in 12 years); and an annual mela held at Prayagraj in Magh. The Magh Mela of Prayagraj is probably the oldest among these, dating from the early centuries CE, and has been mentioned in several Puranas. However, its association with the Kumbha myth and the 12-year old cycle is relatively recent, probably dating back to the mid-19th century. D. P. Dubey notes that none of the ancient Hindu texts mention the Prayagraj fair as a “Kumbh Mela”. Kama Maclean states that even early British records do not mention the name “Kumbh Mela” or the 12-year cycle for the Prayagraj fair. The first British reference to the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj occurs only in an 1868 report, which mentions the need for increased pilgrimage and sanitation controls at the “Coomb fair” to be held in January 1870. According to Maclean, the Prayagrajwal Brahmin priests of Prayagraj adapted their annual Magh Mela to Kumbh legend, in order to increase the importance of their tirtha.
The Kumbh Mela at Ujjain began in the 18th century, when the Maratha ruler Ranoji Shinde invited ascetics from Nashik to Ujjain for a local festival. Like the priests at Prayagraj, the pandits of Nashik and Ujjain, competing with other places for a sacred status, may have adopted the Kumbh tradition for their pre-existing melas.
ROLE OF AKHARAS
Haridwar Kumbh Mela by the English painter J. M. W. Turner. Steel engraving, c. 1850s.
Akharas, which evolved into the fighting martial akharas likely as a reaction to the harsh and brutal treatment of Hindus by the Muslim Rulers, were recorded in the medieval texts to be present at the Kumbh Mela. Akharas’ act of self-defence of turning into armed monasteries of mystics, also led to the unintended consequence of their sectarian fights among themselves turning into violent armed clashes with disastrous consequence including numerous deaths, which stopped only after the British colonial rulers limited the warrior role of the akharas. A common conception advocated by the akharas, that Adi Shankara started the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj in 8th century to facilitate meeting of holy men from different regions, has been doubted by the academics claim. Until the East India Company rule, the Kumbh Melas were managed by the akharas (sects) of religious ascetics known as the sadhus. They collected taxes, and also carried out policing and judicial duties. The sadhus were heavily militarized, and also participated in trade. The Melas were a scene of sectarian politics, which sometimes turned violent. The Chahar Gulshan states that the local sanyasis at Haridwar attacked the fakirs of Prayagraj who came to attend the Kumbh Mela there. At the 1760 Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, a clash broke out between Shaivite Gosains and Vaishnavite Bairagis (ascetics), resulting in hundreds of deaths, with Vaishnavite forming most of the victims. A copper plate inscription of the Maratha Peshwa claims that 12,000 ascetics died in a clash between Shaivite sanyasis and Vaishnavite bairagis at the 1789 Nashik Kumbh Mela. The dispute started over the bathing order, which indicated status of the akharas. At the 1796 Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, the Shaivites attacked and injured the Udasis for erecting a camp without their permission. In response, the Khalsa Sikhs accompanying the Udasis killed around 500 Gosains; the Sikhs lost around 20 men in the clash. The clashes subsided after the Company administration severely limited the trader-warrior role of the sadhus, who were increasingly reduced to begging
Past significance and impact
Besides their religious significance, historically the Kumbh Melas were also major commercial events. Baptist missionary John Chamberlain, who visited the 1824 Ardh Kumbh Mela at Haridwar, stated that a large number of visitors came there for trade. He noted that the fair was attended by “multitudes of every religious order”, including a large number of Sikhs. According to an 1858 account of the Haridwar Kumbh Mela by the British civil servant Robert Montgomery Martin, the visitors at the fair included people from a number of races and religions. Besides priests, soldiers, and religious mendicants, the fair was attended by several merchants, including horse traders from Bukhara, Kabul, Turkistan, Arabia and Persia. Several Hindu rajas, Sikh rulers and Muslim Nawabs visited the fair. A few Christian missionaries also preached at the Mela.
The Kumbh Melas played an important role in spread of the cholera outbreaks and pandemics. According to The Imperial Gazetteer of India, an outbreak of cholera occurred at the 1892 Mela at Haridwar leading to the rapid improvement of arrangements by the authorities and to the formation of Haridwar Improvement Society. The British administrators made several attempts to improve the sanitary conditions at the Melas, but thousands of people died of cholera at these fairs until the mid-20th century.
Several stampedes have occurred at the Kumbh Melas. After an 1820 stampede at Haridwar that killed 485 people, the Company government took extensive infrastructure projects, including construction of new ghats and road widening, to prevent further stampedes. Since then Haridwar has experienced fewer deaths in stampedes: the next big stampede occurred in 1986, when 50 people were killed. Prayagraj has also experienced major stampedes, in 1840, 1906, 1954, 1986 and 2013. The deadliest of these was the 1954 stampede, which left 800 people dead.
RISING ATTENDANCE AND SCALE
Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj, c. 2001.
Maha Kumbh at Prayagraj is the largest in the world, the attendance and scale of preparation of which keeps rising with each successive celebration. For the 2019 Ardh Kumbh at Prayagraj, the preparations include a ₹42,000 million (US$580 million or €510 million) temporary city over 2,500 hectares with 122,000 temporary toilets and range of accommodation from simple dormitory tents to 5-star tents, 800 special trains by the Indian Railway, artificially intelligent video surveillance and analytics by IBM, disease surveillance, river transport management by Inland Waterways Authority of India, and an app to help the visitors.
In 1903, 400,000 pilgrims were recorded as attending the fair at Prayagraj.
On 14 April 1998, 10 million pilgrims attended the Kumb Mela at Haridwar on the busiest single day.
In 2001, 70 million pilgrims attended the 55 days long Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj, including more than 40 million on the busiest single day.
In 2007, 70 million pilgrims attended the 45-day long Ardha Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj.
In 2013, 120 million pilgrims attended the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj.
Nasik has registered maximum visitors to 75 million.
TYPES OF KUMBH MELAS
Triveni Sangam during Prayagraj Kumbh Mela, c. 2013.
The Kumbh Mela, which follow the Hindu calendar, are classified as:
The Maha Kumbh occurs after 12 Purna Kumbh Melas i.e. every 144 years.
The Kumbh Mela (sometimes specifically called Purna Kumbh or “full Kumbha”), occurs every 12 years at a given site. Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj is celebrated approximately 3 years after Kumbh at Haridwar and 3 years before Kumbh at Nashik and Ujjain (both of which are celebrated in the same year or one year apart).
Ardh Kumbh (“Half Kumbh”) Mela occurs every 6 years between the two Purna Kumbha Melas at Prayagraj and Haridwar.
Kumbh Mela at Haridwar.
Nashik Pilgrims gather for the Shahi Snan (royal bath) in Ramkund in Dakshin Ganga River, c. 1991.
Numerous sites and fairs lay claim to be the Kumbh Melas, among these the following four sites are traditionally considered most recognized as Kumbh Melas: Prayagraj (Prayagraj), Haridwar, Trimbak-Nashik and Ujjain.Among these, the Kumb mela at Prayagraj is the oldest, most prominent and most attended, and it holds the special signifiance due to several unique factors such as being the only confluence of 3 holiest rivers (Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati), the observance of kalpvas (spending the entire magha month in prayers at Sangam) being held only at Prayagraj, being a place of abode of Lord Rama at the ashram of Bharadwaja rishi, being a place conquered by the Yayati (ancestor of Kuru and Pandavas) who became the ancestors of five Rogveda tribes and Rigveda also mentions Prayagraj as holy place.
The Kumbh Mela in the Nashik district was originally held at Trimbak, but after a 1789 clash between Vaishnavites and Saivites over precedence of bathing, the Maratha Peshwa shifted the Vaishnavites’ bathing place to Ramkund in Nashik city. The Shaivites continue to regard Trimbak as the proper location.
Priests at other places have also attempted to boost the status of their tirtha by adapting the Kumbh legends, examples of these claims include Varanasi, Vrindavan, Tirumakudal Narsipur, Kumbhakonam (Mahamaham), Rajim (Rajim Kumbh) and even Tibet. historic locations of Kurukshetra and Sonepat also host the Kumbh melas specially during the solar eclipse.