India is a land of festivals. It seems that every day something is being celebrated somewhere. However, nothing compares to a Kumbha Mela for size, intensity and auspiciousness. Kumbha means pot and Mela means festival so the Kumbha Mela is the festival of the pot and, like so many Indian traditions, has its origins in mythology. There are several different versions of the myth but let’s look at a popular one.
Back in ancient times, the gods and demons lived on earth. The gods had become weak and the demons were starting to take control. Brahma, the creator of the Universe advised the gods to churn the milky ocean of consciousness to obtain Amrit, the nectar of immortality. The task proved to much for the gods alone so they enlisted the help of the demons. While the agreement was to divide whatever treasures emerged from the ocean, everyone was most interested in the Amrit. The story is symbolic of the churning of our minds to go deeper into our selves from where all powers and auspicious things arise, eventually leading to liberation or immortality. The first thing to emerge in this churning was a venomous poison which could destroy the whole earth. Lord Shiva drank the poison to save the world, holding it in his throat, which is why he’s often depicted as having a blue throat. Kamdhenu, the wishing giving cow and many precious jewels rose from the ocean, as did the Goddess Lakshmi, who Lord Vishnu took as his consort. Finally Dhanvantri, the Lord of Ayurveda, emerged from the Ocean of Consciousness carrying the pot filled with Amrit.
The demons immediately snatched the Amrit and started arguing amongst themselves as to who should be the first to drink it. Panicking, the gods rushed to Lord Vishnu for help. Vishnu transformed himself into Mohini, a stunningly beautiful woman. The demons, being demons, were immediately distracted from the Amrit, gazing spellbound at Mohini. Vishnu quickly whisked the pot of Amrit from the demons and flew away towards heaven with it. On realizing they had been tricked, the demons gave chase. The flight and the chase lasted twelve Divine days, which is the equivalent of twelve human years. Eventually, Vishnu reached heaven and the gods became immortal and now work to help humans remember their own immortality.
During the chase, four drops of Amrit spilled from the pot and fell on the four places in India now known as Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik and Prayagraj (Allahabad). Therefore, the Mela is celebrated every twelve years at each of these four sacred sites. During the Melas, the corresponding rivers at each location, are believed to turn into Amrit, giving pilgrims the chance to bathe in the essence of purity, auspiciousness, and immortality. The Kumbha Mela at Prayagraj is widely considered as the most significant among all the Kumbh festivals. It is considered as the source of light and knowledge as it is situated at the confluence of the sacred Rivers Ganges and Yamuna and the mythical River Saraswati. An Ardh or half Kumbh is celebrated here every six years and also in Haridwar.
There is a mention of ‘Kumbh’ and the bathing ritual associated with it in the Rig Veda. It speaks of the benefits of bathing during this period for the elimination of negative influences and rejuvenation of mind and soul. Prayers for the ‘Kumbh’ are also found in the Atharva and Yajur Vedas. However, the modern day gathering of millions of pilgrims is attributed to the 8th-century philosopher Adi Shankara , who instituted regular gatherings of learned ascetics for discussion and debate and established the system of Akharas (religious orders). This also traditionally became a time when gifts and donations were distributed to the scholars and Sadhus who had renounced the world.
The Camp Sites
Nowadays the Government has taken responsibility for the external structure of the Kumbh site, which often extends for several miles in each direction. Several months ahead of time, roads are laid out, water, electricity and sanitation systems are installed. The area is divided into thousands of individual camp sites, to be occupied by the various ashrams and gurus. During the Kumbh, medical stations are established and the police and army manage crowd control and security. Compared with the rest of India, Kumbha Melas are surprisingly well organized, clean and efficient.
The Sadhu Society, the governing body of the religious orders, assigns the camp sites to the different ashrams and gurus based on their order of importance. Each ashram then designs and creates a camp most suited to their needs. One of the traditional components of the Kumbh is Karma Yoga, where each ashram provides for the feeding and housing needs of the pilgrims free of charge. Some camps will reflect this while others focus more on spiritual wellbeing, offering sacred rituals or public discourses. Some camps are relatively simple with basic tent structures, while others are magnificent displays of statues, waterfalls, bright lights and vivid colors. Each camp seems to try to outdo the others in noise volume. At the end of the Kumbh everything is dismantled.
Kumbha Mela is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a pure enchantment for the soul. This unique event blends religious and cultural features alike. With the entire atmosphere saturated with the scent of incense and flower fragrance; the chanting of Vedic hymns and sacred mantras. The huge crowds consist of groups in every imaginable costume as well as the naga (naked) sadhus. The two main activities of a Kumbh are Snan, ritual bathing and Darshan, receiving the blessings of the saints and holy men and women.
All aspects of a Kumbha Mela are coordinated with astrological calculations and the alignment of the planets. A Kumbh can last from 4 to 8 weeks and while bathing anytime during that period is beneficial, there are certain auspicious bathing days. Performing this sacred ritual on one of these days is said to purge one of all sins, which releases the bather and his/her ancestors from the cycle of rebirth and leads to the ultimate attainment of Moksha (enlightenment). The auspicious bathing is always preceded by a procession of all the gurus, ashrams and their followers. The order of the procession is organized so that the most important luminaries bathe first. Regular pilgrims only bathe after everyone in the procession, in the belief that they will get the added advantage of the essence of holy deeds and thoughts of the great saints by taking the holy dip after them.
To watch the Kumbha Mela procession is to witness the march of the ages. As the saints and gurus pass by towards the Sacred River, the sounds baffle all description — the shout and cries of ash-smeared sadhus mingle with the neighing of horses, trumpeting of elephants, grunting of camels and bellowing of bulls. Gongs and drums beat, trumpets blare, conch shells blow and bells ring. In the midst of this cacophony, musicians and dancers perform, while the parade of saints continually sends blessings of powerful shakti (energy) to the thousands of people gathered to watch them go by.
Darshan, is an important part of the Kumbh Mela. People make the pilgrimage from all over India and the world to the Kumbh Mela specifically to observe and experience this gathering of luminaries. Two major groups that participate in the Kumbh Mela include the Sadhus (Hindu holy men) and pilgrims. Through their yogic practices many of the Sadhus are said to have reached higher states of consciousness and have special powers. Some practice strict austerities for several years such as holding one arm in the air, remaining standing or observing a vow of silence. Many Sadhus have fairly isolated lives and travel to the Kumbh Mela to make themselves available to the pilgrims. This allows pilgrims to interact with the Sadhus and to receive their darshan or blessings. Pilgrims are able to seek spiritual instruction or guidance in their spiritual lives. It is customary for pilgrims to make donations or gifts of their appreciation to the Sadhus, supporting their simple lives.
Most of the Sadhus are easily available and pilgrims will visit many camps to receive their blessings. Some of the more famous gurus will give discourses to many thousands of people and their blessings are received from hearing their words and being in their presence. The Kumbh is also a time for reconnecting. Sadhus and gurus will visit each other renewing old friendships and pilgrims will travel from afar to see their gurus. Most of the Sadhus will remain for the full duration of the Kumbh, while most pilgrims just visit for a few days as their lives allow.
Over the past twenty years or so, I have had the opportunity to attend several Kumbha Melas, in different locations. I often ask myself why do I keep going to these Melas but when I’m there and feel the intense energy of all those people assembled with the same intention of spiritual enlightenment, I know why I came.
The Maha Kumbh at Prayagraj in 2013 was the largest gathering of humanity in one place that the world has ever known. On the most auspicious bathing day, it was estimated that 30 million people dipped in the Ganges. There’s no way to describe the ocean of people stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction.
Being surrounded by millions of people can be a daunting prospect. I am fortunate that the Shree Satuwa Baba Ashram, that I belong to, has a camp at the Kumbhs, where I am welcomed to stay. My Ashram’s camp caters for pilgrims and wandering Sadhus so its main focus is to provide free food and accommodation. At the Kumbh in Prayagraj in February 2019, the camp was feeding around 10,000 people a day and at busy times, housing 1,000. It’s an amazing service where all is provided free. Many people, of course, make donations of money, food and supplies, to help support everything. Most of the other camps provide similar services.
Some activities go on all night but the noise of the camps waking up, usually begins around 4am, so I use it as my alarm clock. First it’s a bucket bath, hopefully with hot water but, if not, brrrrrr. Then it’s time to meditate. Even though by now, the hundreds of neighboring camps are chanting, ringing bells and blowing conches at full volume, meditation still takes one to that place of inner silence and peace. After a simple breakfast and delicious ashram chai it’s time to meet the Kumbh.
Some days I am content to stay at the Ashram camp, talking with the Guru and other devotees and enjoying the activities and constant coming and going of visiting pilgrims. Sometimes there may be a sacred fire ceremony or puja being performed, a visit from a snake charmer or group of dancers and musicians. Just standing at the camp entrance and watching the world go by can be a fascinating experience. As I am generally the only westerner at the camp I get a lot of extra attention and love. My attempts at helping are usually short lived and I mostly resign myself to offering emotional support.
Other days I’m out and about exploring other camps, meeting their gurus and just mingling with the crowds. There are few westerners at the Kumbhs and most who do visit, tend to stay together in groups, again making me somewhat of an oddity but always welcome. Sometimes my Ashram Guru will take me with him to visit other eminent Gurus and spiritual luminaries. This opportunity to have a private audience and receive their personal blessings is a Divine privilege for which I am extremely grateful.
On parade days, our Ashram decorates a large truck with flower garlands and banners. A special seat is arranged on top for the Guru and everyone else packs in on top or walks alongside. I am usually offered a space to sit on the cab of the truck. While this is a little precarious, it affords the best view of the masses below. Fortunately the procession to the river is a very slow affair with much stopping and starting. Once at the river, we all clamber down from the truck and make our way through the throngs of people going in both directions, those who have just arrived and those who have already bathed and are heading back. The Ashram residents are under strict instructions not to lose me so, after stripping down to my bathing shorts, I’m closely escorted into the water. A quick prayer requesting Mother Ganga’s blessing, before closing the eyes and mouth, holding the nose and dunking three times. Then it’s done and time to make room for the next wave of arriving pilgrims. Bathing at a Kumbha Mela is a wild, crazy and chaotic experience but is also extremely exhilarating and sublime. It’s impossible to describe the feeling of joy and satisfaction I have on the journey back to camp. I doubt all my sins have been washed away yet but something definitely shifts each time.
Even after numerous cups of hot chai, I’m usually ready for bed by 9pm. The noise and celebrations will continue until well past midnight but, with the aid of earplugs, they become a distant memory.
If you decide to attend a Kumbh I wouldn’t recommend trying to navigate the main campsite on your own. Nowadays there are a few westernized camps which act more like hotels and charge people a set rate to stay with them. It’s not really the spirit of the Kumbh but it works for some. There are also tour companies who will arrange for you to stay at hotels in the adjacent towns and visit the Kumbh site on a daily basis. To attend a Kumbh is an amazing experience. There’s nothing else like it on the planet and it’s definitely something you will never forget.