It has been 144 years in the making, but India’s
Maha Kumbh Mela is finally here.
The Maha Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu
pilgrimage, has been taking place for thousands of years, with its origins in
Hindu mythology. In Hindu creation myths, the gods and demons fought over a kumbh (pitcher) containing the nectar of
immortality, but during the fight four drops of the liquid fell to earth, one
at Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, one at Hardiwar in Uttarakhand, one at Ujjian in
Madhya Pradesh and one at Nashik in Maharashtra.
Today, a Kumbh Mela is held roughly once
every twelve years in Hardiwar, Ujjian and Nashik. The one in Allahabad, which
is also held every twelve years, is the most important and largest, and this is
called a Maha (or great) Kumbh Mela. Thanks to an unusual alignment of the
planets, this year’s event is even more auspicious than normal. In fact, the
last time there was one this important was 144 years ago and the next will not
be until around 2157. Pilgrims believe that by attending the festival and
bathing in the waters of the rivers that run through Allahabad or the other
host cities, they will cleanse away their sins and bring salvation.
When we say the Maha Kumbh Mela is big, we really mean big.
The last Kumbh Mela, held in Hardiwar in 2010, was attended by an estimated 40
to 70 million pilgrims. But for this year’s event, running until 10 March, Allahabad
authorities estimate that some 100 million pilgrims will pour into the city of
1.2 million inhabitants to take a dip at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and
mythical Sarasvati Rivers. Although people bathe every day throughout the
festival, there are three especially holy days when bathing brings even greater
merit. The most auspicious of these is on 10 February, when up to 35 million
people are expected to dip in the sacred waters.
The Kumbh Mela brings together Hindus of
all castes and creeds, but its most famous attendees are the sadhus (wandering Hindu holy men who
have renounced caste, money, possessions and social position). On each of the main
bathing days they lead the dawn charge to the river, but always at the very front
come the nagas (sadhus who have
renounced virtually everything, including clothing).
The Maha Kumbh Mela got off to an awe-inspiring
start on Monday, with the first of the main bathing days seeing an
estimated 10 million taking a dip. However, if you want to attend, you will need
to be quick. The authorities have set up tented camps along the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, but with about 100 million
people attending, demand for accommodation is very high.