Maha Kumbh Mela – a guide to the greatest festival in the world

Destinations | Holiday & Travel Show 2021 | Maha Kumbh Mela, India
Maha Kumbh Mela, India | Destinations presents Travel 2021
Celebrated every 12 years on a rotational basis in the different venues, Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world.
Celebrated every 12 years on a rotational basis in the different venues, Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world.  Over the course of 48 days, devotees bathe themselves in the holy waters of Godavari river in Nashik, the Shipra river in Ujjain, the Ganges river in Haridwar, and confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati rivers in Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh).

The biggest of these Melas is Maha or Prayag Kumbh Mela. It is held every 12 years in Allahabad (or as is formally known Prayagraj) on the banks of Prayag Triveni Sangam (the meeting point of three rivers of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Sarasvati).
 
The origins of Kumbh Mela
If the written account of the Chinese traveller Xuanzang who visited during the reign of king Harshavardhana is to be believed, Kumbh Mela dates back 2000 years.

But the origins of Kumbh Mela derive from a time of Devtas (gods) and demons. The word “Kumbh” means nectar and “mela” means festival or fair. So Kumbh Mela means “festival of the pot”.

Legend has it that a curse had weakened the gods. To get their strength back they were advised to churn out the nectar or immortality with the help of the demons. But when the demons learned that the Devtas didn’t have any intention of sharing this nectar, a battle broke out lasting for 12 years. During this battle, Garuda (a celestial bird) flew away with the pot of nectar and drops of it fell at the four locations that Kumbh Mela is now held. 

Visitors to Kumbh Mela come from a variety of Hindu backgrounds and religious life. The most eye-catching are the Sadhus (Holy men) some of whom remain naked year-round and practice some of the toughest physical disciplines known to man. These are often undertaken for life but more commonly for the 12-year cycle of the Mela. They could include standing (yes, never sitting down), raising one arm or taking a vow of silence.

 

 
A visual feast unlike any other
The atmosphere at the Kumbh Mela is electric and like nothing you will ever experience anywhere else. Throngs of people as far as the eye can see, the air hazy with smoke and dust and giant temporary bridges spanning rivers ferry the crowds around the festival. The main camp is in the centre and is the heartbeat of the festival. A vast sprawling mass of intertwined tents reserved for the Sadhus which is engulfed by smoke and the warm and familiar smell of Charas (a hashish form of cannabis). This is a great place to meet the Holy men that make Kumbh Mela what it is.

With hundreds of different ceremonies, events and blessings taking place there is something happening every minute of the day. This is a place that never sleeps with people bathing in the river day and night. There will be conversations on everything from mantras to childish banter over a cauldron of hot chai. Nothing apart from the here and now seems to have any importance.
 
When to go
The Maha Kumbh Mela takes place from one to three months with the busiest period being a thirty-day window around the most auspicious days for bathing. These most important bathing dates usually take place over a ten-to-fourteen-day period in the middle of the thirty days. Whilst the crowds are larger around these days you will not really notice much difference.

The last full Kumbh Mela was held in 2013 and was the largest religious gathering ever held with an estimated 120 million visitors spread over 32sq km. The next Prayang Kumbh Mela will be held in 2025 and it is expected to attract an even greater number of visitors. The exact dates of the festival vary slightly each cycle as they are based Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon’s zodiac positions.
 
What to see
To fully experience Kumbh Mela plan to visit during one of the key bathing dates. These start early in the morning (3am) but are worth the early alarm clock. You will see thousands of naked Sadhus covered in ash from fire, choked in beads and wearing bright orange flowers whilst brandishing a range of tridents, swords and other weaponry.

All this will be playing out to the background sounds of chanting echoing around camp. As smell of charas grows ever thicker, a mass march commences cumulating in an intoxicating parade to the riverbank to bathe in the first light of the day. The march halts at the riverbank as the sound of chanting become almost deafening. When the order is given, the charge to the water begins and is a sight to behold.
 

Be Prepared before visiting
Visiting the Kumbh Mela might seem daunting. But these days, there are very decent amenities for tourists. Special tourist camps are set up which contain luxury tents with attached bathrooms. You’ll be accompanied with guides and assistance for excursions and tight security will be in place. But this does require advanced planning and booking.

Don’t be surprised to be invited to join random groups for a cup of chai, some dahl and a puff on a charas pipe pretty regularly. Everything about this festival is about peace, love and rejuvenation so the atmosphere and energy is both welcoming and friendly.
 
 This piece was written by Jordan Banks, co-founder of That Wild Idea, National Geographic Cities Photographer of the year 2020 and
co-founder of JRNY Travel Magazine. 


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