This religious gathering has been taking place in India since times unknown but the first written proof of it can be seen in the works of the Chinese traveller Hsuan Tsang who happened to visit India, during the reign of King Harshvardhana. This spectacle of faith, which often piques the curiosity of foreigners, had its origin very long back, the mention of which can be seen in a number of Hindu scriptures. The Vishnu Purana, Srimad Bhagvatam, Ramayana and Mahabharata all have a mention of an incident known as the “Samudra Manthan” the meaning of which is the churning of the ocean’s milk.
It so happened that all the Gods had lost their power and strength because of a curse given by Durvasa Muni. To regain their vitality they went to Lord Shiva and Brahma to help them find a way and after praying to Lord Vishnu, they were instructed to churn the milk of the ocean. This required the Gods to unite with their arch enemies, the Asuras or demons, in an agreement that the pot of nectar, or the Kumbha would be shared equally between the two parties. When the urn appeared, it was filled with Amrit, which is the nectar for immortality. Once the pitcher was within reach, a fight ensued between the Gods and the demons for 12 nights and days. As per the Hindu testaments, it is to be believed that these days and nights were equivalent to 12 human years. To put an end to this battle, Lord Vishu re-incarnated as Mohini-Murti, and flew away with the pitcher containing the elixir which could make one immortal. During Lord Vinshu’s flight he spilled a few drops of the amrit (elixir), at four different locations, which are the four host cities of the Kumbh Mela. Since then these places have received a very high spot in Hindu theology, they are often flocked by devotees from different parts of India and abroad. The cultural diversities within the same sphere of Hinduism are fascinating. It is interesting to notice Sadhus taking a holy dip in the cold water of the rivers, even during the chilly winter months.
The diversity which can be seen
Since Hinduism is a very old religion, comprising of more than 330 million Gods, goddesses, deities and demi-Gods, cultural diversity is bound to be seen. Different types of sadhus, who practice rigid spiritual practices, are the prime attraction of the Kumbh Mela. The pilgrims and tourists who visit the fair are often found listening to the religious speeches of the sadhus, these speeches are enlightening and have a spiritual connection and a holy feel to it. The preaching given by these Sadhus, help in establishing a religious connect which joins everyone present.
The nagas: they are the cool sadhus, who are regular consumers of charas, or marijuana. They are unclad, because they do not believe in wearing clothes. Most of their bodies are covered with ashes and their hair is long and matted. Since their bare skin is always exposed to the weather they develop a resistance to rigid weather conditions ranging from very hot to very cold. They are the ones who do not hesitate from taking a holy dip into the river water even during the coldest winters. They believe marijuana to act as an aid to enlightenment and thus propagate its consumption. They usually have bloodshot eyes and do look very different. The Nagas do not believe in material possession and that explains their nudity; the fact that the Indian society is fairly conservative, seeing something like this can be quite interesting.
The kalpvasis: these sadhus meditate by the river bank and never seem to leave the city. They sit in a beeline around the sangam and perform rituals. They stay at flimsy tents and eat only once a day during their period of austerity. They perform a number or ritualistic baths, throughout the day to make the most of the Kumbha mela.
The Urdhwavahurs: they believe in very severe living and have emaciated bodies.
The Parivajakas: they are a very interesting kind of Sadhus, because they emit spirituality especially because they do not talk. Yes! They vow to keep silent throughout their lives. None of these sadhus have any kind of speech related problems, they just do not talk because of spiritual reasons.
The Shirshasinse: they are again very interesting because they do not sit, or lie down. Instead they stand 24-hours throughout the day. Yes! They also sleep while standing and resting their heads against a pole.
The kumbh mela is a religious epicentre which dissolves all the caste and class boundaries between Hindus. It boggles the minds to see so much diversity within a limited geographical area.
Rituals and practices
Nirvana is one of the most important aspects of the Hindu religion. It is actually the freedom from the cycle of birth and re-birth and if the scriptures are to be believed then a holy dip in the confluence will help in absolving and submerging all the sins of the person concerned and his or her ancestors, freeing them from their re-birth. There is a huge rush for this event and pilgrims start to line up from the early hours of the morning. You may notice that the sadhus are the first one to take the holy dip, usually the nagas are the ones to lead, it is quite a magical moment full of fanfare and grandeur while different sadhu clans are trying to outdo each other. Once the pilgrims have bathed, they put on new clothes to start their lives afresh, they move around and keenly listen to preaching and discourses.
Even though the government of India leaves no stone unturned to make the Kumbh Mela a successful event, due to the huge number of people which throng the locations, things become a little difficult to handle. Events of mass stampedes have been reported in the past, because handling such a large number of people can sometimes become impossible. On the brighter side, the spirits of the visitors does not seem to dampen because of such mishaps, because every year the number of pilgrims seems to increases. If you are just a traveller, you always look around and absorb all that spirituality and diversity; it will be an experience of a lifetime.
Do not forget to book everything in advance because due to the large number of pilgrims, it is really difficult to find accommodation, just before the mela begins. Be in the pink of your health to enjoy this festival because it will involve a lot of physical acitivity.