by V.N. Gopalakrishnan, Mumbai
Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering of humanity on the earth and a unique event that blends religious and social features of Indian society. Kumbh Mela at Allahabad is the biggest spectacle of faith wherein different cultures, religions, schools of thoughts come together and share information and knowledge. It is like an open university on religion.
According to Indian astrology, it takes place when the planet Jupiter enters Aquarius and the Sun enters Aries. Kumbha Mela is a riverside religious fair held four times every 12 years, rotating between Haridwar on the Ganges, Ujjain on the Sipra, Nasik on the Godavari and Allahabad which lies at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati river. People assemble here to bathe in the holy rivers daily and on specified bathing days known as Snan Parvs. People from different parts of India and from abroad converge at these places to bathe on the auspicious occasion known as Kumbh Snan Yoga. The auspicious bathing dates this year are: January 14, 27, February 6, 10, 15, 17, 18, 25 and March 10.The Kumbh Mela commenced on January 27, 2013 and will end on February 25, 2013. The next Kumbha Mela will be in 2025.
Bathing in these rivers during the Kumbha Mela is seen as an act of great merit, cleansing body and soul. Each twelve-year cycle includes the Maha Kumbha Mela at Prayag. It comes after 12 Purna Kumbh Melas which is after every 144 years and is held at Allahabad. The last Maha Kumbh Mela held in 2001 was attended by around 60 million people, making it the largest gathering anywhere in the world!
Haridwar, the venue for the Kumbha Mela is one of the seven holiest places to Hindus and is considered to be blessed by Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. Situated on the foothills of Shivaliks, Haridwar is the first place where the Holy Ganges meets the plains, after coming down from the Himalayas. It has the largest number of temples and is considered to be the gateway to the abode of Gods, as it provides the entry point to the Char Dham (four main centres of pilgrimage) in Uttarakhand, viz. Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. Worshippers bathe early in the morning at the ghats and participate in the spectacular Ganga Arti (worship of the River Ganges with lamps) in the evenings.
Mythological legends say that at the beginning of creation, all the Gods were under a curse that made them weak and cowardly. Lord Brahma, the creator, advised them to retrieve the Kumbh containing Amrit, the nectar of immortality. The gods sought help from the demons, and together they churned the primordial ocean to bring up the nectar. Kumbha Mela derives its name from the immortal Pot of Nectar described in Vedic scriptures. Kumbha in Sanskrit means 'pot’ or ‘pitcher’ and Mela means festival. Hence Kumbha Mela means festival of the pot. The observance of Kumbh Mela dates back to the Vedic period when the river festivals first started. The Samudra Manthan episode finds its mention in the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, Mahabharata and Ramayana.
According to the Puranas, the gods and the demons fought over the Kumbha of Amrit, the elixir that rose up from their joint churning of the milky ocean. For the task of churning the milky ocean, the Mandara Mountain was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, became the rope for churning. As the churning began, the Mandara Mountain began to sink deep into the ocean, at which time Lord Vishnu incarnated as a Kurma (tortoise) and supported the mountain on His back. With the demigods at Vasuki’s tail and the demons at his head, they churned the milky ocean for one thousand years!
On the main bathing dates, there will be a magnificent procession of saints on chariots and elephants at sunrise. As the saints pass by, they impart blessings of divine grace to all the people. Then the saints take their dip in the Ganges followed by sadhus in groups in a particular sequence. After all these groups have bathed, other people will take their turn. Har-ki-Pauri is the main bathing ghat and it is believed that by bathing here all sins are cleansed. During Kumbh Mela, millions of devotees live in a tent city. Stories and scenes from Hindu religious texts are staged in different places. Many devotees live in camps and ashrams for the whole duration of the Mela and are called Kalpavasis, who undergo the Kalpavasa Vrata. Most of them stay in thatched huts, sleep on sandy river beds, listen to discourses, assimilate the essence of Dharma, and give alms. Some of them bathe in the holy river thrice daily and eat only once. The idea is to get away from the everyday mundane existence and observe and absorb the true meaning of life.
The Chinese Buddhist traveller Huan Tsang (602 - 664 A.D.) recorded a visit to the Allahabad Kumbha Mela in the 7th century in the company of Emperor Harshavardhana. In the 8th century, Sankaracharya, the Advaita philosopher established four monasteries in the north, south, east and west of India and exhorted the sadhus to meet at the Kumbha Mela for exchange of views. The informal assembly of ascetics and yogis that took place at the Melas served as a ‘Parliament of Hinduism’ for the discussion of religious doctrine and possible reform and has remained a major attraction for the pilgrims. According to The Imperial Gazateer of India, an outbreak of cholera occurred at the 1892 Mela at Haridwar, which led to the rapid improvement of arrangements by the authorities and the formation of the Haridwar Improvement Society.
Mark Twain wrote about the Kumbha Mela of 1895 as follows: “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 repenting. 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”.
Skanda Purana explains the significance of a bath in the Sipra River as follows: “The holy bath of the Kumbh equals in piety to thousands of Kartik Snans, hundred Magh Snans and crores of Narmada Snans during the month of Vaishakh. The fruits of Kumbh Snan are equal to the fruits of thousands of Ashvamedh Yajna and lakhs of journeys around the earth”.
(Author is Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting, a PR consulting firm. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)
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