History of Maha Kumbh Mela

Synopsis : It is called the greatest religious fair and congregation in the world that takes place in Allahabad in India every 12 years. It is also the oldest religious fair that started thousands of years ago during the Vedic period and has grown to the size of millions of pilgrims who all go to bathe in the holy river Ganga to get Nirvana. The blog traces the ancient history of Maha Kumbh mela.

History of Maha Kumbh Mela


Source : Google photo

Kumbh derives its name from the immortal Pot of Nectar, which the Demigods (Devtas) and Demons (Asuras) fought over, described in ancient Vedic scriptures known as the Puranas. It is these Vedic literatures that have stood the test of time, out of which the tradition has evolved into the one that the world now knows as The Kumbh Mela. Legend tells a tale from the bygone days of the universe when the demigods and the demons conjointly produced the nectar of immortality. The demigods, because cursed, were crippled of fear that eventually made them weak. The task being too sturdy for them alone, the demigods made a mutual agreement with the demons to complete it in full and share the nectar of immortality in half. It is said that the demigods and the demons assembled on the shore of the milk ocean that lies in the celestial region. .

For the task of churning the milk ocean, the Mandara Mountain was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, became the rope for churning. With the demigods at Vasuki’s tail and the demons at his head, the churning began. At first, the churning of the milk ocean produced a deadly poison which Lord Shiva drank without being affected. As Lord Shiva drank the poison, a few drops fell from his hands which were licked by scorpions, snakes, and similar other deadly creatures. Also, during the churning, the Mandara Mountain began to sink deep into the ocean, seeing which Lord Vishnu incarnated as a great tortoise and supported the mountain on His back. Finally, many hurdles and 1000 years later, Dhanwantari appeared with the Kumbh of immortal nectar in his hands. The demigods, being fearful of the demons’ ill intent, forcibly seized the pot with its safety entrusted onto the four Gods – Brahaspati, Surya, Shani, and Chandra.

Demons, after learning that their part of the agreement has not been kept, went after the demigods and for 12 days and 12 nights, the chase continued. Wherever the demigods went with the pot of nectar, fierce fighting ensued. It is believed that during this chase, a few drops from the Kumbh fell at four places – Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. There is also a prevalent legend that it was actually the demons that were being chased by the demigods for 12 days and 12 nights, during which the drops of elixir of immortality fell at these four places. These four places are since believed to have acquired mystical powers. Because 12 days of Gods are equivalent to 12 years for humans; the Kumbh Mela is celebrated once every 12 years in each of the four places – banks of river Godavari in Nasik, river Kshipra in Ujjain, river Ganges in Haridwar, and at the Sangam of Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati in Allahabad, where the drops are believed to have fallen. Millions of devout, come together to partake in ritualistic bathing and ceremonies to cleanse themselves of all sins.  ( source : wikipedia)

My home town of Allahabad ( also known as Prayag  during Vedic period ) is where two mighty rivers of India meet . Ganga and Yamuna meet here and become one river called  Ganga because of its religious significance although technically it is not. The confluence is called Sangam and is of tremendous religious significance to all Hindus. They believe that taking a bath at this confluence during the particular day of the Kumbha Mela held here every 12th year sets the soul free and it gets Nirvana or freedom from life and death forever.  It is a belief like so many other beliefs but Hindus take it seriously and come to bathe in the river during the Kumbha Mela from all over the world making it the largest congregation of human beings on earth at one time. The sheer number runs into millions. To accommodate them, a vast tent city is created near the river complete with railway station, airstrip, hospitals, vast security network, shops, offices of various services, charity centers, feeding centers and such.

The  sadhus of various  sects  come from all over India in very large numbers and stay in the open or in tents provided for them because most of all it is a religious festival. A group of sadhus called Nagas assemble here in untold numbers. They are totally naked and believe in total renunciation of everything in life including clothes so they smear ashes on their bodies to ward off the winter chill and take pleasure in smoking pot. Marijuana and other drugs are freely available in India to those who wish to smoke pot but it is not socially acceptable so few other than the Naga sadhus smoke it.

The massacre in 1954 :

I was just a small boy when a terrible stampede happened at the fairgrounds in 1954. It was caused by the crowd of Naga sadhus pushing against a very large crowd that overwhelmed them so they stood their ground. The crowd behind did not know what was happening in the front so they kept on coming resulting in a stampede that killed over 5000 people. There was very poor traffic management by the police that year that caused this tragedy so now the traffic is managed in a very efficient way with one way roads and police towers, hovering helicopters and closed circuit TV monitors placed everywhere.  The emergency services have improved with field hospitals and scores of ambulances always ready for any accident.

This vast city of tents is dismantled after a month long celebration so it disappears like magic. The pilgrims head back home and sadhus disappear into the mountains or wherever they came from. The pontoon bridges are disassembled and stored away and life returns to normal. When the rivers rise during the month of August or September rainy season, the entire river banks of several square kilometers is submerged leaving no trace of the immense city that was set up there a few months ago.

The Kumbha Mela is rotated between four cities as written above but Allahabad is the most important one. Here a king called Harshvardhan used to come in ancient times to donate all his wealth to the poor. When he had completely given away all his money, people still kept coming so he gave his ornaments one by one until he was left with his loin cloth that too was given away so he stood naked until he was given a shawl to cover himself up.

So the spirit of Harshvardhan still lives during such times when poor are fed by the charitable people or organizations everyday and are given other assistance. Some are given woolen blankets to ward off freezing weather and others are given medical help freely if needed.

The government spends millions of dollars on Kumbha Mela as a gift to the nation and invests heavily in the development of infrastructure and personnel. If you have a chance to visit Allahabad during the Kumbha Mela , you will have a life long experience that you will never forget.

I will post here a link to the powerpoint that I have put together to show you the majesty and the grandeur of the fair so that you will have an idea of the immensity of the fair. It is the biggest religious fair in the world.

Link to the powerpoint  Maha Kumbha Mela



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