Kumbh Mela (1)
Allahabad (2007) Haridwar (2010)
When Jupiter enters Aquarius and the sun enters Aries (January or February, roughly every three years)
The Indian subcontinent hosts more mass religious festivals than anywhere else on the planet, but the Kumbh Mela is the biggest, weirdest and most mind-boggling of them all. It is, in fact, the largest single gathering of humanity on the planet – in January 2001, an estimated seventy million pilgrims gathered to bathe in the Ganges near Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh. From the tip of tropical Kerala to the snow valleys of Kashmir, and the swampy Bengal Delta to the Thar Desert, Hindus converge on the Kumbh Mela for the chance to immerse themselves in river water, which, during a short but highly auspicious alignment of certain stars and planets, is believed to wash away not only the sins of one lifetime, but of 88 previous generations, ensuring liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirth for oneself and one’s ancestors.
Watching the sun rise over a city of pilgrims several times the size of New York is to witness an event whose roots date back more than a thousand years. Historians claim the great mela was founded by the eighth-century philosopher Shankarcharya, who masterminded the triumph of Hinduism over Buddhism in the subcontinent, and called for a celebratory gathering of all ascetics, sadhus, temple priests and monastic orders. According to ancient Sanskrit scriptures, however, its origins lie in a conflict between the demi-gods and demi-demons that arose after the two had joined forces to find an immortality-giving amrit in the Cosmic Ocean. Using Vasuki, the Snake King, as a rope, they churned the primordial depths of Mount Mandara until Dhanavantri, the Divine Healer, surfaced holding a kumbh (pot) of the nectar. A twelve-day chase ensued as the gods attempted to make off with it, during which four drops of amrit fell to earth – the four locations where the Kumbh Mela now takes place.
Comemmorating the triumph of good over evil, the Kumbh Mela is held roughly every three years, rotating among four different riverside locations: Ujjain, a sacred city in Madhya Pradesh; Haridwar, in Uttar Pradesh; Nasik, in Maharashtra; and Prayag, near Allahabad, at the confluence, or Sangam, of the Ganges, the Jamuna and the (mythical) Saraswati rivers. In addition to the Kumbh Mela, there is an Ardh (Half) Mela in Allahabad every six years, and a Maha Kumbh Mela every twelve years, also in Ahallabad. The culmination of the Kumbh Mela takes place when the various sects and monastic orders process at dawn to the waterside, brandishing traditional weapons to protect their revered leaders, seated atop elephants or in gilded chariots. It’s mesmerizing spectacle, but one that in past years has turned sour, as opposing groups, following heated arguments over precedence, get stuck into each other with their tridents, maces and swords. Carnage has also resulted from stampedes sparked off by rampaging elephants, the appearance of rabid dogs and, in the 2003 Kumbh Mela at Nasik, holy men throwing coins into the crowd, causing the death of 39 people. But despite these dangers, inevitable with an event as massive as this, the overwhelming atmosphere at the mela tends to be one of fervent devotion, as millions of worshippers file to and from the river, after days of travel from their homes. No statistics, nor film footage, can hope to convey the sheer scale and intensity of the ritual. To believe it, you have to be there, mingling with the biggest crowd on earth.