In the thick of the World’s largest gathering – Kumbh Mela

posted in: Asia, Culture, Heritage, India, Uttar Pradesh | 50

You might get lost if we get to the Kumbh Mela. There are just too many people“. These were the words of a harried mom when I was a child expressing a wish to see this rare festival. In fact, she repeated the same when I told her that I was going to the Kumbh Mela 2019. She wasn’t the only one for this festival is associated with the fact that people do lose each other. And naturally so – it is the World’s Largest Gathering of People!

The swelling crowd of the World's largest gathering

The Kumbh Mela has been taking place for centuries now. It has always fascinated me in terms of its origin, the divine show of faith by lakhs of pilgrims, the rare sightings of holy men (sadhus), the cultural associations and the fact that it did not take place every year. So far, I had to be content with seeing it through the eyes of other writers and journalists. However, as luck had it, I finally got my chance to experience it first-hand. Not only did I learn much more about the Kumbh Mela but enjoyed the kaleidoscope of colors & emotions it brought with it.

Why is Kumbh Mela celebrated?

“Kumbh” refers to 2 things in Sanskrit as well as Hindi. For one, it represents the zodiac sign Kumbha or Aquarius. The other meaning is that of a pitcher. Both these words have a significance w.r.t to the “Pitcher Fair” or the Kumbh Mela. Most of you might have heard the mythological story of the churning of the ocean by the Gods and Demons to get Amrit or Nectar. The legend of this festival is associated with this tale of Samudra Manthan.

Woman carrying a Kumbh at the Mela 2019

They say that when the ocean was churned and the pot (Kumbh) of nectar appeared, the demons snatched it. Lord Vishnu took the avatar of Mohini to lure the demons and retrieve the pot. A war broke out between the Gods and Demons which raged for around 12 heavenly days (equivalent to one earth year).  Somewhere, while transporting the Pot to safety, Lord Vishnu spilled 4 drops of it. These fell at four places on earth – which thus, became the 4 sacred sites for the Kumbh Mela.

The sacred confluence for the Holy dip at Kumbh Mela

Since Jupiter – the Guru of the Gods assisted their triumph, his planetary position is given a significance. Hence, when he enters the constellation of Kumbha (Aquarius), once in every 12 years (the duration of the war), the Maha Kumbh is celebrated at the sacred site. It is considered to be auspicious to take a dip in the river during that period for they believe that the Amrit fallen there cleanses one of their sins.

Kumbh Mela - a heritage that goes back to times immemorial.

The tradition has been going on since times immemorial, though the first mention of it appears in the text by a Chinese traveler – Xuanzang in the year 644 C.E. He refers this as a riverside festival in present day Allahabad as promoted by the then ruler – King Harsha. Even then the Kumbh Mela impressed him as it continues to in the present day! So much that it has been added to the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Where does the Kumbh Mela take place?

The Kumbh Mela 2019 at Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh

The four designated sites for the Kumbh Mela include

  • Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh – at the confluence of River Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. This is considered to be the holiest of all the Kumbh Sites owing to the Sangam (Confluence) of these sacred rivers. This is where I visited for the current 2019 Kumbh.
  • Haridwar – by the River Ganga
  • Trimbakeshwar in Nashik – along the River Godavari. This is incidentally where you find one of the key Jyotirlingas of Maharashtra. 
  • Ujjain – by the River Shipra

Significant dates for the bathing rituals

The Kumbh Melas are actually classified into 3 types –

  • Kumbh Mela that takes place every three years at Ujjain and Nashik
  • Ardh Kumbh Mela that takes place in Haridwar and Prayagraj every 6 years. The current Kumbh Mela Prayagraj 2019 is the Ardh Kumbh.
  • Maha Kumbh or the Purna Kumbh that takes place every 12 years at one of these places, based on the Hindu Calendar, The last Maha Kumbh was in Prayagraj in the year 2013.

While these are the key Kumbh Classification, even within the Mela period, there are auspicious bathing dates. These dates are when the Shahi Snan (Royal Bathing) is done. The Saints and Sadhus who camp at the Kumbh Mela have their ritualistic dips in the river on these dates. This not random but follows a certain method. There are norms and ceremonies attached to them.

Holy Dip at the dawn of Mauni Amavasya - one of the auspicious days.

This year, there were 3 such dates – first being Makar Sankranti (15th January 2019), 2nd being Mauni Amavasya (4th February 2019) and the final one being Basant Panchami (10th February 2019). I was lucky to have been there to see the mass devotion on the day of Mauni Amavasya – all of which you will experience through this virtual journey.

Heading to Kumbha Mela 2019 in Prayagraj

Pontoon Bridges of the Kumbh Mela

Though one can land directly in Prayagraj by rail or air, we drove in from Varanasi. Owing to the festival traffic, our 3 and half hour journey took a little over 7 hours to cross over the Rivers and catch the first sight of the Kumbh camp. It was quite an overwhelming feeling to see endless rows of tents and the long pontoon bridges connecting the two banks of the water body. It was truly then, that I realized the size of this temporary Kumbh city.

As the crowd awaits the opening of Bridge 19 to cross over to Kumbh

After a good night’s rest in our luxury tents, we boarded the e-rickshaws designated to take us to the nearest point of the Kumbh. From there, it was all about walking. The designated Pontoon no. 19 was where we had to cross over to the main Kumbh area by foot. The exit – again by foot, was along Bridge no. 18, after which we could again avail the e-rickshaw ride back to our accommodation. The other option was to hire a boat but that would not be available till later in the day.

Boats to take you to Triveni Sangam at Kumbh Mela

It all seemed pretty daunting when I saw the map of over 6 to 8 km from the Bridge no.19. However, it was not too bad when I was on it. The sights and the stories along the way made my journey less arduous. In fact, so much so that I was ready for round 2 later that night. It is hard to put down all that you can witness here – for there are just tons. However, you definitely can catch these things to see at the Kumbh Mela.

The facilities at Kumbha Mela

Mobile ATMs at Kumbh Mela

Think of any small city and its many utilities that make it comfortable. From water to electricity to roads, sanitary systems, security, merchant outlets, entertainment centers – this temporary site had it all. The homes here were in the form of tents. There were over one lakh mobile toilets. A temporary street was laid out for people to walk. There were street hawkers and small tents operating as shops for essential wares. Mobile ATMs could be found at various corners and then, there were helpful signboards indicating where you were and a direction to the key sites like the Triveni Sangam bathing area.

Cleanliness at Kumbh Mela

Mobile toilets at Kumbh Mela 2019

What I was most impressed about was the cleanliness. With dustbins at regular intervals and cleaning staff continuously on the go, the Kumbh Mela Prayagraj definitely put some of the key cities of India to shame. The makeshift toilets with planned sanitation made the whole area stench free.

Heroes of Kumbh Mela - the ones who help keep it clean
Barricades to stop the offerings from floating too far.

The bathing area, especially during the Mauni Amavasya had a barricade that served dual uses. For one, it indicated the safe swimming area and the other- it prevented the offerings by the devotees – flowers, coconuts and floating lamps from entering the main rivers. I noticed that there were people on the barricades, fishing these out at regular intervals.

Security at Kumbh Mela

Police station at Kumbh Mela

When it came to security, there were CCTV cameras within the area. Guards manned various gateways to ensure that discipline was maintained. I even, saw police stations are various points. In fact, there were lost and found counters with a Public Announcement System that helped people who were lost.

One interesting facet was the entertainment centers. There were stations like the Kalagram that showcased the local art. From dances to crafts – you could see it all.

Discovering the Akharas of Kumbha Mela

Juna Akhara at Kumbh Mela 2019

One of the key features of a Kumbh Mela are the presence of Akharas. These can be described as religious sects, that is rumored to have been started by the great sage – Adi Shankaracharya. He created these to ensure that there was peace among the various saints – each of who placed their faith in a different deity. Largely, these are of three major types

  • Shaivites –  Worshippers of Lord Shiva
  • Vaishnavites – Worshippers of Lord Vishnu
  • Udaseen – Devoted to the sacred symbol of OM.

These Akharas have a designated level of importance – one that they fall when they head out in a procession (Peshwai) for the Shahi Snan. So far, there were 13 Akharas. However, this year saw the inclusion of the 14th one – the Kinnar Akhara.

Sadhus of an Akhara, Kumbh Mela

The Sadhus of the Akharas are not just Gurus of Religion. They are also, warriors. They follow a strict hierarchy with their heads being designated as Mahamandaleshwars. These Mahamandaleshwars are the ones who lead the Peshwai procession and induct new joinees into the Akharas. The oldest Akhara is called Juna Akhara and this by far, is the largest one. In terms of strength, it is followed by Niranjani Akhara and then, the Mahanirvani Akhara.

I managed to get a short tour of the Juna Akhara – and also, meet the elusive Naga Sadhus residing there and around. Who are they? Well – they are the legendary icons of Kumbh Mela.  🙂

Iconic Naga Sadhus at the Kumbha Melas

Naga Sadhu at the 2019 Kumbh Mela

The wild hair, long beards and ash-smeared bodies – these Naga Sadhus are unmissable when in Kumbh Mela. In fact, as I understand, a lot of people throng to meet them for this is the only time that they can. The Naga Sadhus come out only for their ritualistic dip during the Kumbh Mela. For the rest of the time, they live in the mountainous ridges and caverns of the Himalayas. They have been in existence since times immemorial – in fact, the trait is traced by to the days of Mohenjo-daro

Naga Sadhus - icons of Kumbh Mela

The Naga Sadhus are actually warrior saints who have given up everything that is worldly – even clothes. The only thing they are allowed to wear is flowers, necklaces made of Rudraksha and ash. Some of them wear a langot around their private parts – though that is to make us visitors comfortable. Come rain, sun or ice – this is what their garb is. My guess is that the ash on their body serves as a second skin to them as do their long hair. Incidentally, the long hair is considered to be a source of their power.

The Ash on the body acts as a second skin for the Naga Sadhus

Kumbh Mela is the festival where they not only take the dip but initiate those who want to convert to their way of life. The initiation is not an easy one for once accepted as a disciple, the person has to undergo years of community service or task entrusted by his Guru. He also, has to practice celibacy during the period. At the end of the period, he is given a choice to advance or return back to the world. Should he decide to advance, he needs to undergo his own death ceremony – a symbol that he has left the world.

Another brutal initiation task is weakening his phallus. There is apparently a violent process involved in the same. Once that is done, he is deemed as Naga. Over time, he climbs the hierarchy to become the head of the clan – the Mahamandaleshwar.

Naga Sadhus are easy to spot in a crowd.

Recognizing a Naga Sadhu in the crowd at Kumbh is quite an easy task. They are normally seated with their bodies covered in ash and smoking chillum. A few of them are happy to speak to you while the others studiously avoid your gaze. They all fall into a procession with their weapon of choice – a spear, a sword or a Trishul and follow their Mahamandaleshwar for the Shahi Snan. The procession is quite a sight and their entry into the waters of Triveni quite dramatic. We were to see the same. However, a few last minute changes had us miss it.

Happy to pose for a picture with sunglasses.

We caught a lot of these Naga Sadhus doing penance of their own. One had his hand up for the last 10 years or more. Another one was on his head. I even saw one with a snake covering his neck (live one! – oh Yes). And then, there were some cool ones who were happy to borrow a pair of sunglasses to pose for a picture!

Religious rituals at the Kumbha Melas

Couples performing a Sunrise ritual

While the Naga Sadhus are busy with their own rituals, there are some for the common people around. As I walked the coast of the Triveni Sangam, I saw people praying for the departed souls. There were some that prayed to the Rising Sun and then, there were newlyweds who came for their first auspicious dip as a couple.

Evening Aarti with Swami Chidanand at the Kumbh Mela

If you walk along the camps of the Kumbh, the Akharas and the Ashrams have their own evening schedule. Several gurus address their disciples on lessons of life. A few of them like Guru Chidanand have an evening aarti conducted by the banks of the river. He was kind enough to invite us to witness and be a part of one of these.

Meeting people at Kumbha Melas

People from all walks of life arrive at Kumbh Mela

One of the amazing things about Kumbh Mela was that I got to see people from all walks of life. There were urban families with their kids as well as complete joint families from villages across India. Old people who have waited for 6 years or more to get to Kumbh for a dip. A few of them were visiting for the 2nd or 3rd time.

People of all ages come to Kumbh Mela

It was no unusual to see rural families getting in here with complete provisions – utensils, food and clothes. They generally, set up a make-shift home and live here for the rest of the Kumbh season. Talk to them and they lovingly invite you to their warm meals cooked over a fire.

Pilgrims settle down here for the period

Just watching them too, can be a lot of fun. The kids passing their time with the long forgotten games like hop-scotch. Some of them creating designs in the mud while the others attempting to build a sand castle.

People undertake all hardships for that single dip at the Kumbh Mela

It is actually them that make this Kumbh Mela so divine. Their faith literally permeates the atmosphere here. So much that they are willing to brave any hardships along the way – just to make that single dip.

While this might be the original Kumbh Mela, there are other festivals like the Naropa Festival of Ladakh that are termed as Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas. Based on Buddhism, this one is quite an interesting gathering where you can see the relics of Lord Buddha.  Read all about it right here.

The Mauni Amavasya Dip at the Triveni Sangam

The auspicious dips during Mauni Amavasya at Kumbh Mela

If I ever needed further proof of the faith here, it was there for me to see at the dawn of Mauni Amavasya. Our original plan was to get to the Naga Sadhus Peshwai before dawn. However, with a few last minute changes, our walk to the Kumbh changed to a boat ride at dawn. While we were to head straight to the bathing area of the Nagas, owing to a few unforeseen situations, we could not get there. In retrospect – it was a blessing in disguise for I would not have seen the actual Kumbh dip otherwise.

The Holy dip taken by a devotee at the crack of a chilly dawn morning.

Our boats took us around the Triveni coastline where I saw thousands of regular pilgrims indulge in their dip of faith. It all started before the Sun actually rose and even with that chill, every devotee in water had that content expression on their faces. Nothing seemed to matter to them except the fact that their arduous journey was coming to an end. There was hope in those eyes, there was a strange calm to their faces – especially after they dunked under and got back to the surface to see the dawn of a new day!

This hope and faith could only be seen on the faces of the 3 crore people who made it to this festival. Honestly, this is what is the magic of Kumbh Mela. There is still time to catch the Kumbh Mela Prayagraj. So go on and check it out yourself for the next one will only be three years from now. 😉

How to get to the Kumbh Mela Prayagraj?

  • Prayagraj (formerly known as Allahabad) has its own railway station and airport. There are plenty of flights and trains from the rest of India directly to Prayagraj. In fact, they are running a few specials for the 2019 Kumbh Mela.
  • Buses are yet another way of getting to Prayagraj. You can book them through various websites.
  • Once in Prayagraj, you will need to check the traffic plan on the best approach to the campsite. There are no vehicles allowed at the site – hence, be ready for a long walk.

Where to stay for the Kumbh Mela?

  • There are several tented cities that have been set up near the Kumbh Mela. Based on your budget, you can opt for one of these.
  • We stayed in the Indraprastham Tent City which has luxury tents. These are basically glamps – complete with a comfortable bed, hot water, a proper bathroom and an elaborate restaurant.
  • Prayagraj city itself has a lot of hotels that you can opt for. These hotels in Prayagraj might be a little far from the campsite and owing to the traffic, may not be a great idea.

Travel Tips

  • There is no entry fee to the Kumbh Mela. Also, there is no religious restriction when visiting it.
  • It is quite a crowded affair. Ensure that you are well prepared to walk through the crowds. Keep your mobile fully charged and handy. Agree on a meeting point  – in case you are separated from your group. A buddy system works the best so that you have someone with you all the time. Though there are enough Public Announcement Systems that help you find your friends, it is always better to have your own system.
  • Be mindful when taking photographs of people. It is not always possible to ask for permission, but when you can, please do.
  • The Naga Sadhus can have quite a temper. Some of them are quite happy to pose for your pictures while a lot of them might not like it. They might get angry and charge back at you. Take cues from their behavior before you snap your shutter.
  • There are small provision stores and lots of places that offer you free meals in Kumbh Mela. However, it is best that you carry a few dry snacks of your own. I personally, would leave the free meals for the needy. 🙂
  • There is lots of walking to be done. Hence, please wear comfortable shoes. Layer up your clothes as it can get pretty chilly during the early morning and evening.
  • If you are heading there for a dip, carry a small towel and a change of clothes. There are plenty of changing stations along the banks.
  • There are ATMs at the Kumbh Mela but it is best to carry a little cash. In case the ATMs are out of cash, this will ensure that you are not stuck.
  • It is a good idea to head to the Kumbh in the evening as it is very well lit and is buzzing with activity. However, be mindful of the exit timings as the gates are closed at a certain hour – especially on the important festival dates.
  • The timings and the traffic plan can be sought on the official website of Kumbh Mela. The same website also, gives out advisory and alerts for the day.

P. S: I was invited by UP Tourism and Lonely Planet Magazine to witness the Kumbh Mela 

Disclaimer: This article includes affiliate links. This means that at no cost to you, I will receive a small    commission if you purchase through my link. Thank you for supporting me with this.





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