As the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati come together to cleanse the sins of the pilgrims, the magnanimous Maha Kumbh Mela in India is much more than a Hindu festival. It is spiritual yet mesmerising. A meeting of mystical minds and a chance to seek blessings from the wandering ascetics, known as sadhus.
Held every 12 years, the next one is going to be held in 2025 in Prayagraj (formerly known as Allahabad). Being the largest gathering of pilgrims in the world, UNESCO included the Kumbh Mela on its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in December 2017.
So, what’s the legend behind this festival?
Kumbh means pot. Mela means festival or fair. As the legend goes, the gods once lost their strength and to get it back, they agreed with the demons to churn the ocean of milk to create the nectar of immortality, which was to be shared equally. However, this led to a battle, and during the battle the celestial bird, Garuda, flew away with the Kumbh that held the nectar. Drops of nectar are believed to have fallen in the places that the Kumbh Mela is now held -- Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain. Hence, the Mela is held in one of these places every 12 years.
This one-month long congregation becomes a massive township with cottages, huts and complete civic facilities that is organised by the government. What makes it extraordinary is the presence of religious ascetics (sadhus) who arrive from far away mountains and forests. Many of the sadhus engage in acts of extreme endurance to bring them closer to the gods. Some stand day and night, non-stop, for a year. Others hold an arm in the air, stand on one leg or perform acts of body mutilation. Ashrams here engage in charity work like providing meals to hundreds of pilgrims.
The highlight here is of the main bathing ritual. As the sun comes up, the different groups of sadhus move in processions towards the river to bathe in set order. The Nagas (naked ascetics) usually lead, while each group tries to outdo the others with more grandeur and fanfare. The moment is magical, and everyone is absorbed in it.
The Maha Kumbh in 2025 will begin on 14th January on Makar Sankranti and end on 26 February 2025 with Maha Shivratri.
Watch sublime sunsets and sunrises here on the ghats, feel the magic of the spiritual air and take in the faith that envelopes the atmosphere. Make a promise to come back again and pray to the river gods that gives one a chance to witness the spectacle of Kumbh Mela at another place, where all the pleasures of a comfortable life are shunned for the time by millions of devotees.