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What is the Kumbh Mela?

By S. Mithra
Updated May 17, 2024
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During the Hindu festival, Kumbh Mela, millions of people congregate to bathe in the waters of certain rivers on auspicious days to cleanse their souls. Depending on the year of the 12-year cycle, sages, yogis, and devotees gather in temporary cities for a month of music, dancing, prayers, and ceremonies. Based on the ancient doings of gods who consecrated four sites along the banks of rivers with the honey of immortality, Kumbh Mela is the Hindu equivalent of a holy pilgrimage.

As the story goes, there was a pot, the kumbh, full of the elixir or nectar of immortality. Yet the gods fought over who got to carry the pot, and in the process, four drops fell at four different places. These came to be known as Prayag, Hardiwar, Ujjain, and Nasik, and they correspond to the four Kumbh Melas that take place every three years. On astrologically propitious days, determined by the paths of planets, the nectar is said to return to these rivers so that bathing in them will bring peace and purification.

Prayag occurs at the point where the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers meet the fabled Saraswati River. Haridwar brings people to the Ganges, where it flows from the Himalaya Mountains onto the wide valley. Ujjain occurs at the Ksipra River, while the Godavari River is the site of the Kumbh Mela called Nasik. The exact dates of each pilgrimage vary from year to year, depending on when the Sun enters Aries and Jupiter enters Aquarius.

The Kumbh Mela in 2001 attracted as many as 20 million people on a single day. That's perhaps the largest convergence of people in the history of Earth. Both the holy men, including ascetics, sages, sadhus, yogis, and the devout believer, the devotee, meet for weeks of meditations, ritual bathing, and exchanges of wisdom. They occupy a giant, tented city, broken up into marketplaces, ashrams or temples for meditation, and living quarters.

Some days are more holy for bathing than others, according to the stars, and on these days non-Hindus are asked to respectfully stay out of the water. Otherwise, the banks are crowded with throngs of tourists and Hindus alike, praying, playing music on drums, burning incense, saying prayers, and reciting mantras. It is a remarkable ceremony that blends mythology, culture, and deep, spiritual beliefs.

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