If you have not been to a festival named ‘overflowing pitcher of nectar bestowing immortality,’ or the famous Kumbh Mela, where millions of spiritual pilgrims travel to bathe in four sacred places each twelve-year cycle, then you haven’t really seen India. Kumbh means pot or pitcher in Sanskrit and mela means to meet or gather. The Kumbh Mela translates very literally to mean the gathering of spiritual bathers. You could call the Kumbh Mela a fair of sorts, but it is of such grandiose proportions, it cannot be understood fully unless attended in person. Like the experience of meditation, it can only be known through a hand’s on familiarity, but hopefully the following explanation will at least whet your appetite for this colorful and bustling carnival of sights, smells, and sounds.
There are half or ardha melas as well, but the Kumbh festival takes place in sacred cities which mark the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, Kspira and Saraswati rivers. At Uttar Pradesh, near Allahabad, followed by Hardiwar in the state of Uttaranchal Pradesh and then on to Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and finally in Nasik in Maharashtra on the banks of the Godavari river, Hindu pilgrims bathe in the sacred waters of the rivers hoping to be cleansed and purified.
2013 Kumbh Mela Dates The 2013 Kumbh Mela will take place from Jan. 27th, 2013 to May 21st, 2013 with different main bathing dates (also called royal bathing days) spread across these months.
Allahabad, the first of the four sacred locations, is where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet. The Ganges has incredible significance to most Hindus. It runs from the Himalayas, over 1500 miles, to the Bay of Bengal. The river is alive to Indians. It is not simply a stream of water, but signifies the mother energy. The river is even called ‘Ganga Ma’ or Mother Ganges and there is a very well known story of how she came to exist. She poured herself from the clouds of heaven into the land and her waters are thought to cleanse even the most heinous of their sins.
People will offer fresh flowers, seeds, food and lit oil lamps to the Goddess of the river, as a means to obtain her blessings. Some simply stand on the banks of the river, facing the sun and offer her prayers. Others bathe in the water itself, wanting to be cleansed from head to toe.
Curative Waters or Breeding Ground for Disease?
The only problem with the Kumbh is that it draws so many people, that the rivers once considered curative, are now often polluted with the congestion of so many beggars, merchants, guides, holy men, tourists, ascetics, the crippled, young and old, and any person wishing to be healed of a number of ailments from arthritis to cancer. Take into account that these rivers are also the daily provider of washed pans and clothing for households living on less than the US minimum wage, and you have a breeding ground for waterborn diseases like dysentery, hepatitis, and even cholera. The Indian government and several other organizations are making efforts; however, to clean the holy rivers, especially prior and during melas such as this one.
It seems confounding that a festival meant to heal the sick and infirm, can actually also cause the spread of disease. Try telling that to the approximated 30 to 75 million who are said to visit these rivers during Kumbh Mela each year, a tradition that has been gathering steam since at least the 600s A.D., when the Chinese traveler Huan Tsang (Xuanzang) visited the India during Harshavardhana’s reign as king. Others say the Kumbh has been happening for centuries.
The Highest Holy Day in Allahabad The most important festival of the Kumbh is held in the city of Allahabad (in Persian, Allahabad means ‘the City of God’), where the Ganges, Saraswati and Yamuna rivers, called the Tirveni Sangam, converge and is called Prayag. The festival is held here because local wisdom states that the city is where Brahma offered his first sacrifice once he created the world. Though only one of the four sacred sites of the pilgrimage that Hindu’s visit during the festival dates, it is considered extremely auspicious.
The Kumbh Mela is based on particular planetary alignments, as well, so this year’s festival will fall exactly 12 years post the 2001 festival:
From the 27th of January to the 25th of February is Purna Kumbh Mela in Allahabad where the ‘royal bathing days’ are called the ‘Shahi Snans:’
- February 6, 2013 is called the Ekadashi Snan
- February 10, 2013 is called Mauni Amavasya Snan
Each bathing date has its own significance and rich cultural history. Other important dates for royal bathing include:
- January 14, 2013 Makar Sankarnti
- January 27, 2013 Parush Purnima
- February 15, 2013 Basant Panchami Snan (Fifth day of the new moon.)
- February 17, 2013 Rath Saptami Snan
- February 18, 2013 Bhisma Ashtami
- February 25, 2013 Maghi Purnima
The Atmosphere of the Kumbh Mela
Don’t expect a ‘saintly’ or reverent atmosphere during these dates. It resembles more of a circus, with holy men dipped in ash bathing in murky waters, sans a stitch of clothing. There are women in full, brightly colored saris, pouring water over their heads from metal pots while standing hip-deep in the water. There will be grown men who are shirtless, and young boys and girls who take the word ‘bathe’ very literally. There will be hordes of people as you may have never experienced in any other type of gathering in your life. It is very much a monumental experience. Many people leave the Kumbh Mela feeling changed, whether it is from the joint consciousness of thousands of people bathing their sins away, or the effects of the healing waters themselves.
You can also visit the Patalpuri Temple or Akshaya Vat if you are traveling to Allahabad, and once you’ve had your fill of the healing waters.
If you still want to try to make the 2013 Kumb Festival, you can fly into Varanasi or Allahabad, with most flights being directed through either Mumbai or Delhi. There are trains, which travel to these sites also, but this is not a trek for the faint-hearted, as the railways are usually already very overcrowded in India, let alone during a large festival such as this. Make haste, though, this holy festival attracts millions from around the world, but the energy is ecstatic and, thankfully, catching.