Kaushal Kishore | April 9, 2010
On the banks of the Ganga takes place the largest gathering of people from around the world. This huge gathering is called Kumbh Mela, where ‘Kumbh’ means ‘pitcher or urn’ and ‘Mela’ stands for ‘fair or gathering’. Here, people come by the millions! Many of them arrive on overcrowded trains carrying five times their normal capacity. Many others come by bus, car, bullock-carts besides horses, camels and even elephants. The affluent charter private planes and helicopters, while the hoi polloi come on foot carrying their bed rolls and camping equipment in heavy bundles on their heads.
All such people congregate here without any invitation, and the centuries-old tradition still continues. Faith is the most important driving force for the pilgrims at Kumbh Mela. With an unflinching trust in something sublime and spiritual, these pilgrims come from all walks of life as well as from all over the world. Despite several hardships like sleeping in the open air in near freezing weather, rain and unbearable tropical heat of the Indian summer, the devotees flock here solely for one purpose—to have a bath in the sacred river during the Kumbh Mela. The pilgrims form a veritable ocean of humanity that flows onto the banks of the river and celebrate the greatest spiritual festival ever held in the history of the world. The huge gatherings of Kumbh have gained international fame as the world’s most imposing display of faith and devotion.
Mark Twain was an eye witness to the last Kumbh of the nineteenth century that was held on the banks of the Ganga in Allahabad. Even though Mark Twain was an atheist himself, his remarks present an interesting insight into the spiritual festival of India. He said:
It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.
The festival of Kumbh is celebrated at four different places—Allahabad (Prayag), Hardwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Each Maha Kumbh occurs after a cycle of twelve years. Thus the gathering occurs four times every twelve years and rotates among all the four locations. After six years the half Kumbh, known as the Ardha Kumbh Mela, occurs at these holy places. The Ardha Kumbh Mela is believed to have originated at these places to preserve the existence of Hinduism against the onslaught of Islam. The half Kumbh of Prayag is the most popular among all half Kumbhs, which is as crowded as the great Kumbh itself. The half Kumbh Mela of Prayag in 2007 was attended by more than fifty million people, thus making it one of the largest gatherings anywhere in the world. The full Kumbh is popularly known as Maha Kumbh Mela or the great festival of Kumbh.
The Ganga and the Kumbh Mela are closely associated with each other. Hardwar and Prayag, both situated on the banks of the Ganga, are among the chief venues. The other two Kumbh Mela sites, Ujjain and Nashik are situated on the banks of the Shipra and Godavari rivers respectively. There is a special provision of auspicious planetary alignment concerning the Kumbh Mela, and the festival is celebrated at the time of the same astronomical and planetary combination every twelve years. These planetary positions are said to sanctify and medicate the waters of the river and infuse it with the qualities of nectar that bestows immortality. The Hindus believe that the planets and the heavenly bodies at the time of Kumbh, charge the waters of the rivers with extraordinarily positive and healing effects.
At Allahabad, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated in the month of January–February, when Jupiter is in Aquarius and the Sun enters Aries. Aquarius is also known as Kumbh in Sanskrit. The Amavasya or the new moon of the month of Magha is an especially auspicious day when millions bathe in the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna. There are two other important days to take a dip in the holy river when Jupiter conjugates with Aries on Makara Sankranti and the other on Basanta Panchami when the spring heralds. The biggest and the most auspicious among all Maha Kumbh is always at Prayag. This is because Allahabad is situated at the centre of India, and the Sangam, the confluence of rivers like the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, is considered to be particularly holy.
The Hardwar Kumbh is held in between mid–February to mid–April, when the Sun passes to Aries and Jupiter is in Aquarius. At Hardwar, there are three auspicious days for taking bath, the first being on Sivaratri, the second on the new moon day of the month of Chaitra (March), and the third on the first day of Vaishakha when Jupiter lies in Aquarius and the Sun in Aries. According to Naradiya Purana, an auspicious occasion of ritual bathing used to take place at Hardwar every twelfth year, and that sacred time for bathing in the Ganga occurred during a special astronomical conjugation. The traditional belief of nagas further asserts that the Hardwar Kumbh has existed since time immemorial and was rejuvenated by Sankara. Many experts also believe that the festival of Kumbh was originally observed only at Hardwar and it was named after the zodiac sign Aquarius. The festival occurs mainly at the time when Jupiter is in Aquarius, which represents, in astrology, the water carrier. The sacred bath of the gathering takes place at Har-ki-Pauri, where the ghat was constructed by King Vikramaditya in memory of his brother Bhartrihari. It is believed that Bhartrihari came to Hardwar and meditated on the banks of the holy river, and after his death the king constructed a ghat in his name, which later came to be known as Hari-ki-Pauri. The sacred bathing site is also known as Brahmakund.
The bath at Ujjain on the bank of the Shipra is fixed for summer in the month of Vaishakha, when Saturn is in Libra, the Sun and Moon in Aries and Jupiter in Leo. The Kumbh Mela of Ujjain is also called Simhastha Kumbh, signifying the movement of the planets into the zodiac of Leo. The festival of Kumbh is mainly associated with the river Ganga, both in its origin and its character. The Shipra, also known as the Kshipra, is a sub tributary of the Ganga. It rises in the Vindhya range and flows into Central India to join the Chambal river, which is a tributary of the Yamuna. Shipra is believed to be a highly sacred river mostly because after every twelve years the Kumbh Mela takes place on the elaborate ghats of the river.
The holy city of Ujjain, the place of one of the twelve jyotirlingas, is situated on the right bank of Shipra, and it forms the western boundary of Madhya Pradesh.
Literally, Ujjain means a ‘city of victory’. This is the place of Mahakal, and one of the ancient and most revered cities in India. Shipra was a perennial river in the earlier times but now the river stops flowing a couple of months after the monsoon.
During the period of the Kumbh Mela the state authorities stores sufficient water in the river so that the pilgrims can have the ritual holy dip in the river. In 2004, more than thirty million people attended the Simhastha Kumbh Mela, and more than twenty-five million people took a dip in the Shipra river as part of the shahi snan (royal bath) on the auspicious day.
At Nashik, the Kumbh Mela takes place during the rainy days of the month of Shravan (July), when the Sun and Moon are in Cancer and Jupiter is in Scorpio. The holy cities of Nashik and Triyambakeshwar, in the state of Maharashtra, host the huge gatherings of Kumbh on the banks of the Godavari river. According to Naradiya Purana, the Godavari has been identified with the Ganga, and has been named as Daksina Ganga or the South Ganga. The sage Gautama is said to have brought this Ganga in the form of the Godavari, hence it is generally referred to as Gautami as well. It is stated in the Brahma Purana that to the south of the Vindhyas, Ganga is called Gautami. There is a temple on the Rama ghat at Nashik on the banks of the Godavari. In ancient times, people believed that the original water of the Ganga comes from the very temple. The event at Nashik is somewhat a local affair attended by only nagas, saffron clad sadhus, and people from western India—mainly Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The source of the Godavari is located near Trimbak in the northeast of Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra, and the river follows a southeasterly course for 1,400 kilometres to its mouth on the Andhra Pradesh coast. The Godavari river basin area is second in size only to the Ganga. The delta of the river, on the east coast, is also one of the main rice-growing areas of the country. The Ganga of the South discharges moderate quantities of water because of the medium levels of annual rainfall in the area it traverses through.
According to the Shiva Purana and the Varaha Purana, bathing in the Godavari at Nashik is highly meritorious when the Sun and Jupiter are in Leo. The Brahma Purana says that pilgrimage to thirty-five million holy places that exist in the three worlds are equal to a single bath in the Godavari when Jupiter is in Leo. Also, bathing in the Bhagirathi everyday for sixty thousand years confers the same merit as a single bath in the Godavari at that auspicious time.
The history of the Kumbh Mela dates back to the origin of the written history as mentioned in the Hindu scriptures. According to historians, the origin of the Kumbh Mela dates back to over 5,000 years. Naga saints are believed to have made pilgrimages to Prayag as far back as the 3400 BC. Then from 1300 BC, Hindu history asserts that ritual bathing days for pilgrims were selected by the group of holy men headed by astrologers and sages. Various such records have been mentioned in the ancient scriptures and Puranic literature.
In more recent times, the Chinese traveller Huien Tsang recorded his visit to Prayag in the seventh century, during the reign of Harsha Vardhana. He was the first to mention Kumbh Mela in his diary, and he includes an eyewitness report that states that half a million people had gathered on the banks of the Ganga at Allahabad during the month of Magha to observe a ten-week-long celebration.
According to Huien Tsang, the pilgrims assembled along with their king, his ministers, scholars, philosophers and sages. He also reports that the king distributed enormous quantities of gold, silver and jewels in charity for the purpose of acquiring good merit, and thus assuring a place in the heaven. The philosopher-saint Adi Sankara grouped the ascetics into ten sects at Prayag Kumbh in the eighth century. Sankara was one of the most prominent among all Indian philosophers and saints of recorded history. He popularised the visit to the Kumbh Mela among the common people. As a consequence of his efforts, the attendance began to grow to enormous proportions. Sankara placed special importance to the opportunity of Kumbh while looking at it in a wider perspective.
The French traveller Jean de Thevenot reports his encounter with the spiritual festival held in the mid-seventeenth century. He narrates an account of a large bathing festival, during which monks engaged in various forms of self-abnegation and austerity were highly regarded by the lay population for their piety.
The number of pilgrims attending the Kumbh Mela has been steadily increasing. It rose to fifteen million in 1977, and by 1989, the attendance was in the range of twenty-nine million, almost double of the previous record.
The gathering of Kumbh served as an informal assembly of yogis and ascetics, almost like a kind of parliament of Hinduism for discussions on the spiritual doctrine and possible reform and has since remained a major attraction for the pilgrims. All gather in camps along the riverbank, including the naga sadhus who remain naked the year round, ascetics who practice the most severe physical austerities, hermits who leave their isolation for the spiritual gathering and true saints. In ancient times when communication was poor, there was a need of such a huge gathering of people from all walks of life to discuss and share various social, economic and spiritual issues.
The history of the Kumbh Mela in the medieval period is fairly bloodstained. The nagas, sustaining the complex military culture, turned the Kumbh Mela into warfare of soldiers. The regiments of soldier monks have assumed major symbolic importance during the Kumbh. On several occasions, such as 1760 and 1796 in Hardwar, 1789 in Nashik, 1826 and 1850 in Ujjain, and 1954 in Allahabad, the festival has been the site of violent, or near–violent, confrontation between the naga orders over rights to ceremonial precedence during ritual processions.
There are several records of armed fightings of monks with various groups at the Kumbh. The Shaivas appear to have dominated these huge gatherings through much of the medieval times. The Gosains were another powerful group. They retained substantial control over the Hardwar festival, including the right to tax pilgrims, police the gathering, and dispense justice. In 1760 at the Hardwar Kumbh, the Shaiva authority was challenged by the Vaishnavas, which turned into a fierce battle. The former prevailed and inflicted heavy casualties on the latter. The Shaivas and Gosains received challenge from the Vaishnavas and Bairagis at the Nashik Kumbh in 1789 again. As a result of the conflict, both parties suffered but the Vaishnavas were defeated again. At last, a complaint was registered on behalf of the Bairagis in the court of the Peshwa in Pune, which decided, in 1813, to assign separate bathing areas to each order. The Shaivas retained their dominance at Nashik until 1813. Meanwhile, the Shaivas and Gosains would experience a humiliating defeat in 1796 at the Hardwar Kumbh, the site of their overwhelming victory against Vaishnava and Bairagis thirty-six years earlier. Ironically, the instigators and victors in the 1796 conflict were not Vaishnavas but the armed Khalsa, the follower of Nanak better known today as Sikhs and it was believed to be the army of the pure. Later at the 1826 Kumbh in Ujjain, the Shaivas sustained an utter defeat at the hands of the Vaishnavas and Bairagis, who were assisted by the local Marathas. They also plundered the monasteries and temples in the vicinity of the city, and the Vaishnavas and Bairagis dominated the Ujjain Kumbh by 1850. Contemporary nagas, however, now have fewer altercations; an occasional incident happens such as the one at Hardwar in 1998.
Once Indra, the king of gods, came across the sage Durvasa while riding an elephant. The sage offered him a special garland, which Indra accepted but put on the trunk of the elephant. The elephant was irritated by the smell and threw the garland on the ground. This enraged the sage as the garland was a dwelling of fortune and was to be treated as a special gift. Consequently, he cursed him along with all gods to be bereft of all strength, energy and fortune.
Disheartened, the gods visited Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe, who advised them to drink amrita, the drink of immortality. Amrita was stored in the milky ocean, and could only be dug out by churning the ocean. Since, it was a rigorous task to churn the ocean, all gods unanimously decided to include the demons in the process. They promised them to share the nectar of immortality and to divide all precious outcome of churning among them equally. The process of churning the ocean of milk is known as Samudra Manthan, which is one of the most famous episodes in the Puranas and is celebrated in a big way every twelve years during the Kumbh Mela. The story appears in the Srimad Bhagavatam, the Mahabharata, the Vishnu Purana besides numerous other scriptures.
Thus all the demons and gods gathered near the ocean of milk. The mountain of Mandara was used as the churning stick or rod and the mythical snake, Vasuki was used as a rope to move the mountain. The gods held the tail of the snake while the demons held the head. Finally the churning process started and continued for long. However, once the mountain was placed on the ocean, it began to sink. Here, Lord Vishnu came to their rescue in the form of a turtle Kurma, his second reincarnation and supported the mountain on his back. During the process of churning, Halahala, a pot of poison came out of the milky ocean. This terrified the gods and the demons alike because the poison was so toxic that its effects would have wiped out the entire creation. The gods then approached Lord Shiva for help.
Out of compassion for living beings, Lord Shiva drank the poison. However, Parvati, Shiva‘s consort pressed his neck so that the poison did not reach his stomach. Thus, it stayed in his throat neither going up nor down and Shiva remained unharmed. The poison was so potent that it changed the colour of his neck to blue. For this reason, he is also called Neelakantha, the blue-necked one. The festival of Shivaratri is the celebration of this event by which Lord Shiva saved the entire world.
Many mythological items and persons came out of the ocean during the churning which included Laksmi or the goddess of prosperity and wealth, Sura or the goddess of wine, Chandra or the moon, Apsaras or the celestial nymphs, Kaustabha or the precious gem of Vishnu, Uchchaishrava or the divine horse, Parijata or the wishing coral tree of divine flower, Kamdhenu or the wish-fulfilling divine cow, Airavata or the four-tusked white elephant, Panchajanya or the conch, Sharanga or the invincible bow, and amrita. At last Dhanvantri or the doctor appeared with a pitcher full of nectar of immortality.
The amrita became the cause of fierce fighting between the gods and the demons. When the amrita came out Jayant, the son of Indra, grabbed it and ran away, in order to protect the nectar from demons. The demons chased him and a fierce fight ensued between them. In the course of these events, a small amount of amrita dropped out of the pot and fell at twelve places. Eight of these places are in the heaven and the netherworld while four of these are on the earth—Allahabad, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Since then, these places are believed to have acquired mystical powers, and a Kumbh Mela is celebrated at these four locations every twelve years. The ritual to bathe in the Kumbh Mela developed in order to absorb this amrita.
Although the demons eventually got hold of the nectar and started celebrating. Gods were frightened to see that and they appealed to Lord Vishnu, who then took the form of Mohini. As a beautiful and enchanting damsel, Mohini distracted the demons, took the Amrita, and distributed it amongst the gods who drank it. Rahu, one of the demons, disguised himself as a god and drank some of it. Due to the luminous nature, the Sun God and the Moon God, noticed it and informed Mohini. But before the nectar could pass his throat, Mohini cut off his head with the divine discus, the Sudarshana Chakra. The head, due to its contact with the Amrita, remained immortal. It is believed that the immortal head of Rahu swallows the sun or the moon, causing eclipses, and he does so in order to gain revenge on Sun and Moon.
The mythological churning as well as various other aspects of the Kumbh Mela suggest and explain the processes of integral yoga. The grafting of the macrocosmic elements and aspects related to the spiritual gathering, represent the microcosmic elements designed to explain the subtle process of integral yoga since the elements of macrocosm and microcosm correspond to each other. The legendary tale represents the spiritual endeavour of a person to achieve enlightenment through concentration of the mind, withdrawal of senses, control of desires and practice of austerities and asceticism.
The body, mind and vital force taking part in the yoga symbolise the chakras, places, and planets. The brain corresponds to Hardwar, the heart to Prayag, the navel to Nashik, and the Muladhara to Ujjain. The gods and demons represent the positive and negative aspects of human propensity. The participation of both divine and hostile together signifies that when one is seeking bliss through spiritual practice, one has to integrate and harmonise both the positive and negative aspects and use them to work for the common goal.
The ocean of milk signifies the mind or the human consciousness which is like an ocean while the thoughts and emotions are the waves in the ocean. The Mandara Mountain, also referred to as Meru, symbolises concentration, also corresponding with the vibrating vertebral column. The word Mandara is a combination of two words Mana (mind) and Dhara (the flow in a single line) which means holding the mind in one line. This is possible only through concentration. The mountain was upheld by Lord Vishnu in the form of a tortoise called Kurma. The tortoise here symbolises the support of Mandara as the earth chakra; it also corresponds with the withdrawal of the senses into oneself. This resembles the act when a tortoise withdraws its head into its shell, symbolising the practice of mental concentration and meditation. The snake Vasuki symbolises desire that was used as a rope in the churning of the ocean. It denotes that the demons and the demigods had desire to seek immortality and churned the mind with the help of concentration and withdrawal of the senses. Desire, if not controlled, can overpower and destroy an individual.
The Halahala poison symbolises suffering and pain that is the counter-reaction of the mind and body at the beginning of spiritual practice. When the mind is subjected to intense concentration, the first thing that comes out of the process is intense suffering and great inner turmoil. These must be resolved otherwise further progress is not possible. Lord Shiva symbolises the ascetic principle, and his part of the story as the consumer of poison suggests that one can deal with the early problems of spiritual life by cultivating the qualities of Lord Shiva, namely, courage, initiative, willingness, discipline, simplicity, austerity, detachment, compassion, pure love and asceticism. The various precious objects that came out of the ocean during the churning stand for the psychic or spiritual powers which automatically come during the spiritual progress from stage to stage.
The seeker should be careful of these powers as they can hamper the true progress unless used in justified ways. This is the reason why the gods and demons distributed these objects as they did not want to lose sight of their original aim which was to gain immortality.
The heavenly physician Dhanvantari symbolises health and immortality which can be achieved only when the body and the mind are in a perfect state of health. Mohini symbolises delusion of the mind, originating from pride and lust to which the demons succumbed and thus lost sight of their goal. Pride, lust and ego are the last hurdles that have be to overcome in spiritual life before the realisation of truth. The amrita symbolises the ultimate achievement of the goal. Lakshmi represents universal enrichment which comes as a natural by-product of internal enlightenment. Rahu and Ketu denote attachment and hatred, which eclipse the Sun that represents the soul and the Moon that represents the mind. Guru, the spiritual mentor, corresponds to Jupiter. The superstructure of the Kumbh Mela explains the legends that deal with the process of integral yoga.
The saints and monks, especially the nagas, are the major attraction of the Kumbh Mela. The spiritual and cultural congregation includes various akharas, monasteries, ascetics of different moods and attires, spiritual healers, astroscientists, gemologists, palmists, astrologers, believers of different sects and tradition, missionaries of other religions and pilgrims. Besides them there is a massive gathering of foreign and Indian media persons, tourists from India and abroad and merchants from all parts of India. Many holy men and women including monks, saints and sadhus attending the auspicious festival stay in camps for a couple of months.
The sadhus are seen clad in saffron robes with plenty of sandal coloured powder for ornamental purpose on the body. The nagas generally live an extreme lifestyle, and these sanyasins may often be seen without any clothes even in severe winter. Several activities of such nagas tend to attract a lot of attention as it is in stark contrast to a generally conservative social mindset practiced in today‘s society.
Mathas and akharas camp at the Kumbh township for the full period of Kumbh Mela. The Hindu monasteries are called mathas, and they were formed with an objective to impart intellectual, physical and spiritual training to those who were willing to lead the austere life of an ascetic. The word akhara refers to an arena of a wrestling match, but in the context of the Kumbh Mela, it designates the great congregations of sadhus, members of religious communities, mostly celibate, who are called monks in English.
Different sects have been established at different times; they worship their own deity, and stay in different camps.
The astrological configuration of Kumbh is considered to be especially auspicious among such nagas. They believe that the passage from earth to the higher planets is open at that time, thus allowing the soul to easily attain the celestial world and to attain enlightenment. Kumbh Mela is attended by millions of people on a single day of shahi snan (royal bath), a major event of this festival.
Other activities include religious discussions, devotional singing, mass offering of food to the poor and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated and standardised. Kumbh Mela is the most sacred of all the pilgrimages. It is not restricted to any particular religion, caste or creed. It is an occasion that harmonises the Indian culture, spirit, thought, secularism and symbolises the integrity and oneness of India in spite of different traditions and faiths. These are the reasons why the Kumbh Mela has become so popular among all classes of transcendentalists in India.
Struggle among various groups of nagas and stampedes in the huge gathering of the Kumbh Mela is a well known problem. During the 1954 Kumbh Mela, there was a stampede that occurred on the main bathing day on 3 February in Allahabad. More than eight hundred people died and over a thousand were injured. The stampede was caused when the procession of nagas was passing below the bund in the forenoon. More than fifty people died at the festival ground in a stampede at the Hardwar Kumbh Mela of 1986. Police forces, who had been preparing for the festival for years, were overwhelmed by the crowds pushing towards the river in the Nashik Kumbh. Many people died in a stampede on 27 August 2003. More than thirty-three people died and at least seventy-four were injured. Many people died on the last shahi snan on April 14, 2010 at Hardwar in a stampede.
Unfortunately, the state authority reports only a few people died.
Lack of proper management of sanitation and waste is still a major problem of Kumbh Mela. The sites of Kumbh have usually been vulnerable to epidemics in the past. However, after independence the government has endeavoured to provide better administrative arrangement. Still better arrangements and evolution in management in every sector is needed to ensure a peaceful and a truly spiritual Kumbh Mela.
Kaushal Kishore is the author of The Holy Ganga
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