Kumbh Mela

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Kumbh Mela
Third Shahi Snan in Hari Ki Pauri.jpg
DomainsReligious pilgrimage, rituals, social practices and festive events
RegionAsia and the Pacific
Inscription history
Inscription2017 (12th session)
Unesco Cultural Heritage logo.svg
Held alternately among Allahabad (Prayagraj), Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain every three years.

Kumbh Mela(/ˌkʊmb ˈmlə/) is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred or holy river. Traditionally, four fairs are widely recognized as the Kumbh Melas: the Prayagraj Kumbh Mela, Haridwar Kumbh Mela, the Nashik-Trimbakeshwar Simhastha, and Ujjain Simhastha. These four fairs are held periodically at one of the following places by rotation: Allahabad (Prayagraj), Haridwar, Nashik district (Nashik and Trimbak), and Ujjain. The main festival site is located on the banks of a river: the Ganges (Ganga) at Haridwar; the confluence (Sangam) of the Ganges and the Yamuna and the invisible Sarasvati at Allahabad; the Godavari at Nashik; and the Shipra at Ujjain. Bathing in these rivers is thought to cleanse a person of all their sins.[1]

At any given place, the Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years. There is a difference of around 3 years between the Kumbh Melas at Haridwar and Nashik; the fairs at Nashik and Ujjain are celebrated in the same year or one year apart. The exact date is determined, following the Vikram Samvat calendar and the principles of Jyotisha, according to a combination of zodiac positions of Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon. At Nashik and Ujjain, the Mela may be held while a planet is in Leo (Simha in Hindu astrology); in this case, it is also known as Simhastha. At Haridwar and Allahabad, a Maha ("Great") Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years, with an Ardha ("Half") Kumbh Mela six years later.[2] The priests at other places consider their local fairs to be Kumbh Melas; for example, the Mahamaham festival at Kumbakonam, held every 12 years, is described as a Kumbh Mela.[3] Other places where fairs have been called Kumbh Mela include Kurukshetra[4][5] and Sonipat.[6]

The exact age of the festival is uncertain. According to medieval Hinduism, Lord Vishnu spilled drops of Amrita (the drink of immortality) at four places, while transporting it in a kumbha (pot). These four places are identified as the present-day sites of the Kumbh Mela. The name "Kumbh Mela" literally means "kumbha fair". It is known as "Kumbh" in Hindi (due to schwa deletion); in Sanskrit and some other Indian languages; it is more often known by its original name "Kumbha".[7]

The festival is the largest peaceful gathering in the world, and considered as the "world's largest congregation of religious pilgrims".[8] There is no precise method of ascertaining the number of pilgrims, and the estimates of the number of pilgrims bathing on the most auspicious day may vary. An estimated 120 million people visited Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 in Allahabad over a two-month period,[9] including over 30 million on a single day, on 10 February 2013 (the day of Mauni Amavasya).[10][11] It has been inscribed on the UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.[12]

Etymology and mythological origin[edit]

Samudra manthan or churning of the milk ocean

Kumbha Mela derives its name from both the original festival being held according to the astrological sign "Kumbha" (Aquarius), and from the associated Hindu legend in which the gods and demons fought over a pot, or “kumbh,” of nectar that would give them immortality.[13][14] A later day addition to the legend which says that after taking the pot one of the gods spilled drops of nectar near four places where Kumbha Mela is presently held,[13][14] is not found in the earliest mentions of the original legend of samudra manthan (churning of the ocean) as described in various ancient Hindu texts collectively known as the Puranas (orig. 3rd century CE to 10th century CE).[15][16]

The legend of samudra manthan tells of a battle between the Devas (benevolent deities) and Asuras (malevolent demigods) for amrita, the nectar drink of immortality. During samudra manthan, amrita was produced and placed in a Kumbha (pot). To prevent the asuras from seizing the amrita, a divine carrier flew away with the pot. In one of the most popular versions added to the original legend later, the carrier of the kumbha is the divine physician Dhanavantari, who stops at four places where the Kumbh Mela is celebrated. In other later addition to the legend,[clarification needed] the carrier is Garuda, Indra or Mohini, who spills the amrita at four places.[17]

While several ancient texts, including the various Puranas, mention the samudra manthan legend, none of them mentions spilling of the amrita at four places.[17] Neither do these texts mention the Kumbh Mela. Therefore, multiple scholars, including R. B. Bhattacharya, D. P. Dubey and Kama Maclean believe that the samudra manthan legend has been applied to the Kumbh Mela relatively recently, in order to show scriptural authority for it.[15]


Evolution of earlier melas to Kumbh Melas[edit]

There are several references to river-side festivals in ancient Indian texts, including at the places where present day Kumbh Melas are held, but the exact age of the Kumbh Mela is uncertain. The Chinese traveler Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) describes a ritual organized by Emperor Shiladitya (identified with Harsha) at the confluence of two rivers, in the kingdom of Po-lo-ye-kia (identified with Prayaga). He also mentions that many hundreds took a bath at the confluence, to wash away their sins.[18] According to some scholars, this is the earliest surviving historical account of the Kumbh Mela, which took place in present-day Prayag in 644 CE.[19][20][21] However, Australian researcher Kama Maclean notes that the Xuanzang reference is about an event that happened every 5 years (and not 12 years), and might have been a Buddhist celebration (since, according to Xuanzang, Harsha was a Buddhist emperor).[22]

The Kumbh Mela of Haridwar appears to be the original Kumbh Mela, since it is held according to the astrological sign "Kumbha" (Aquarius), and because there are several references to a 12-year cycle for it.[22] The earliest extant texts that contain the name "Kumbha Mela" are Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh (1695 CE) and Chahar Gulshan (1759 CE). Both these texts use the term "Kumbh Mela" to describe only Haridwar's fair, although they mention the similar fairs held in Prayag and Nashik district.[23] The Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh lists the following melas: an annual mela and a Kumbh Mela every 12 years at Haridwar; a mela held at Trimbak when Jupiter enters Leo (that is, once in 12 years); and an annual mela held at Prayag in Magh.[24] The Magh Mela of Prayag is probably the oldest among these, dating from the early centuries CE, and has been mentioned in several Puranas.[23] However, its association with the Kumbha myth and the 12-year old cycle is relatively recent, probably dating back to the mid-19th century. D. P. Dubey notes that none of the ancient Hindu texts mention the Prayag fair as a "Kumbh Mela". Kama Maclean states that even early British records do not mention the name "Kumbh Mela" or the 12-year cycle for the Prayag fair. The first British reference to the Kumbh Mela in Prayag occurs only in an 1868 report, which mentions the need for increased pilgrimage and sanitation controls at the "Coomb fair" to be held in January 1870. According to Maclean, the Prayagwal Brahmin priests of Prayag adapted their annual Magh Mela to Kumbh legend, in order to increase the importance of their tirtha.[17]

The Kumbh Mela at Ujjain began in the 18th century, when the Maratha ruler Ranoji Shinde invited ascetics from Nashik to Ujjain for a local festival.[23] Like the priests at Prayag, the pandits of Nashik and Ujjain, competing with other places for a sacred status, may have adopted the Kumbh tradition for their pre-existing melas.[17][22]

Role of Akharas[edit]

Haridwar Kumbh Mela by the English painter J. M. W. Turner. Steel engraving, c. 1850s.

Until the East India Company rule, the Kumbh Melas were managed by the akharas (sects) of religious ascetics known as the sadhus. They collected taxes, and also carried out policing and judicial duties. The sadhus were heavily militarized, and also participated in trade.[25] A common conception advocated by the religious groups known as the akharas is that Adi Shankara started the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad in the 8th century to facilitate meeting of holy ascetics (sadhus) from different regions, but academics doubt this claim.[26]

Historically, the Melas were a scene of sectarian politics, which sometimes turned violent and led to numerous deaths.[25][27][28] The Chahar Gulshan states that the local sanyasis at Haridwar attacked the fakirs of Prayagraj who came to attend the Kumbh Mela there.[29] At the 1760 Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, a clash broke out between Shaivite Gosains and Vaishnavite Bairagis (ascetics), resulting in hundreds of deaths, with Vaishnavite forming most of the victims. A copper plate inscription of the Maratha Peshwa claims that 12,000 ascetics died in a clash between Shaivite sanyasis and Vaishnavite bairagis at the 1789 Nashik Kumbh Mela. The dispute started over the bathing order, which indicated status of the akharas.[27] At the 1796 Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, the Shaivites attacked and injured the Udasis for erecting a camp without their permission. In response, the Khalsa Sikhs accompanying the Udasis killed around 500 Gosains; the Sikhs lost around 20 men in the clash.[30][28] The clashes subsided after the Company administration severely limited the trader-warrior role of the sadhus, who were increasingly reduced to begging.[31]

Past significance and impact[edit]

Besides their religious significance, historically the Kumbh Melas were also major commercial events. Baptist missionary John Chamberlain, who visited the 1824 Ardh Kumbh Mela at Haridwar, stated that a large number of visitors came there for trade. He noted that the fair was attended by "multitudes of every religious order", including a large number of Sikhs.[32] According to an 1858 account of the Haridwar Kumbh Mela by the British civil servant Robert Montgomery Martin, the visitors at the fair included people from a number of races and religions. Besides priests, soldiers, and religious mendicants, the fair was attended by several merchants, including horse traders from Bukhara, Kabul, Turkistan, Arabia and Persia. Several Hindu rajas, Sikh rulers and Muslim Nawabs visited the fair. A few Christian missionaries also preached at the Mela.[33]

The Kumbh Melas played an important role in spread of the cholera outbreaks and pandemics.[34] According to The Imperial Gazetteer of India, an outbreak of cholera occurred at the 1892 Mela at Haridwar leading to the rapid improvement of arrangements by the authorities and to the formation of Haridwar Improvement Society.[35] The British administrators made several attempts to improve the sanitary conditions at the Melas, but thousands of people died of cholera at these fairs until the mid-20th century.[34][36]

Several stampedes have occurred at the Kumbh Melas. After an 1820 stampede at Haridwar that killed 485 people, the Company government took extensive infrastructure projects, including construction of new ghats and road widening, to prevent further stampedes.[37] Since then Haridwar has experienced fewer deaths in stampedes: the next big stampede occurred in 1986, when 50 people were killed.[38] Allahabad has also experienced major stampedes, in 1840, 1906, 1954, 1986 and 2013. The deadliest of these was the 1954 stampede, which left 800 people dead.[39][40]

Rising attendance and scale[edit]

Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, c. 2001.

Maha Kumbh at Allahabad is the largest in the world, the attendance and scale of preparation of which keeps rising with each successive celebration. For the 2019 Ardh Kumbh at Prayagraj, the preparations include a 42,000 million (US$610 million or €540 million) temporary city over 2,500 hectares with 122,000 temporary toilets and range of accommodation from simple dormitory tents to 5-star tents, 800 special trains by the Indian Railway, artificially intelligent video surveillance and analytics by IBM, disease surveillance, river transport management by Inland Waterways Authority of India, and an app to help the visitors.[41]

In 1903, 400,000 pilgrims were recorded as attending the fair at Allahabad.[35]

On 14 April 1998, 10 million pilgrims attended the Kumb Mela at Haridwar on the busiest single day.[40]

In 2001, 70 million pilgrims attended the 55 days long Kumbh Mela at Allahabad,[42][43][44] including more than 40 million on the busiest single day.[45]

In 2007, 70 million pilgrims attended the 45-day long Ardha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad.[46]

In 2013, 120 million pilgrims attended the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad.[11]

Nasik has registered maximum visitors to 75 million.[1]

Types of Kumbh Melas[edit]

Triveni Sangam during Allahabad Kumbh Mela, c. 2013.

The Kumbh Mela, which follow the Hindu calendar, are classified as:[47]

  • The Maha Kumbh occurs after 12 Purna Kumbh Melas i.e. every 144 years.
  • The Kumbh Mela (sometimes specifically called Purna Kumbh or "full Kumbha"), occurs every 12 years at a given site. Kumbh Mela at Allahabad is celebrated approximately 3 years after Kumbh at Haridwar and 3 years before Kumbh at Nashik and Ujjain (both of which are celebrated in the same year or one year apart).[48]
  • Ardh Kumbh ("Half Kumbh") Mela occurs every 6 years between the two Purna Kumbha Melas at Allahabad and Haridwar.[47] For the 2019 Allahabad Kumbh Mela, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath announced that the Ardh Kumbh Mela (organised every 6 years) will simply be known as "Kumbh Mela", and the Kumbh Mela (organizsed every 12 years) will be known as "Maha Kumbh Mela" ("Great Kumbh Mela").[49]


Kumbh Mela at Haridwar.
Nashik Pilgrims gather for the Shahi Snan (royal bath) in Ramkund in Dakshin Ganga River, c. 1991.

Numerous sites and fairs lay claim to be the Kumbh Melas,[50] among these the following four sites are traditionally considered most recognized as Kumbh Melas: Allahabad, Haridwar, Trimbak-Nashik and Ujjain.[51][47] Among these, the Kumb mela at Allahabad is the oldest, most prominent and most attended, and it holds the special signifiance due to several unique factors such as being the only confluence of 3 holiest rivers (Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati), the observance of kalpvas (spending the entire magha month in prayers at Sangam) being held only at Allahabad, being a place of abode of Lord Rama at the ashram of Bharadwaja rishi, being a place conquered by the Yayati (ancestor of Kuru and Pandavas) who became the ancestors of five Rigveda tribes and Rigveda also mentions Allahabad as holy place.[52]

The Kumbh Mela in the Nashik district was originally held at Trimbak, but after a 1789 clash between Vaishnavites and Saivites over precedence of bathing, the Maratha Peshwa shifted the Vaishnavites' bathing place to Ramkund in Nashik city.[23] The Shaivites continue to regard Trimbak as the proper location.[53]

Priests at other places have also attempted to boost the status of their tirtha by adapting the Kumbh legends, examples of these claims include Varanasi, Vrindavan, Tirumakudal Narsipur, Kumbakonam (Mahamaham), Rajim (Rajim Kumbh) and even Tibet.[50][3] historic locations of Kurukshetra[54][55][56][57] and Sonipat[6] also host the Kumbh melas specially during the solar eclipse.


Criteria for determining dates[edit]

A 2019 stamp dedicated to Kumbh Mela

Each site's celebration dates are calculated in advance according to a special combination of zodiacal positions of Bṛhaspati (Jupiter), Surya (the Sun) and Chandra (the Moon).

Place River Zodiac[48] Month Note
Haridwar Ganga Jupiter in Aquarius, Sun in Aries Chaitra (March–April)
Allahabad (Prayagraj) Ganga and Yamuna Jupiter in Scorpio, Sun and Moon in Capricorn; or Jupiter in Taurus and Sun in Capricorn Magha (January–February) "Magh Mela", called the "Mini Kumbh Mela", is held annually
Trimbak-Nashik Godavari Jupiter in Leo; or Jupiter, Sun and Moon in Cancer on lunar conjunction (Amavasya) Bhadrapada (August–September) Also known as Simhastha / Sinhastha, when Leo is involved
Ujjain Shipra Jupiter in Leo, Sun in Aries; or Jupiter, Sun, and Moon in Libra on Kartik Amavasya Vaisakha (April–May) Also known as Simhastha / Sinhastha, when Leo is involved

Past dates[edit]

Year Prayagraj (Allahabad) Haridwar Trimbak (Nashik) Ujjain
1980 Kumbh Mela Kumbh Mela
1984 Ardh Kumbh Mela
1986 Kumbh Mela
1989 Kumbh Mela
1992 Ardh Kumbh Mela Kumbh Mela Kumbh Mela
1995 Ardh Kumbh Mela
1998 Kumbh Mela
2001 Kumbh Mela
2003 Kumbh Mela
2004 Ardh Kumbh Mela Kumbh Mela
2007 Ardh Kumbh Mela
2010 Kumbh Mela
2013 Kumbh Mela
2015 Kumbh Mela
2016 Ardh Kumbh Mela Kumbh Mela
2019 Ardh Kumbh Mela
2021[58] Kumbh Mela


Bathing processions[edit]

Naga sadhu procession at Kumbh Mela, c. 1998.
A sadhu at Maha Kumbh, c. 2013.

Kumbh Mela is the most sacred of all the pilgrimages.[citation needed] Thousands of holy men and women attend, and the auspiciousness of the festival is in part attributable to this.[1]

One of the major events of Kumbh Mela is the Peshwai Procession, which marks the arrival of the members of an akhara or sect of sadhus at the Kumbh Mela.[59] The order of entering the water for bathing is fixed, with the Juna, the Niranjani and Mahanirvani akharas preceding.[60] The major event of the festival is ritual bathing at the banks of the river in whichever town Kumbh Mela being held: Ganga in Haridwar, Godavari in Nasik, Kshipra in Ujjain and Sangam (confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati) in Allahabad (Prayagraj).

Feasts, festivities and food for thoughts[edit]

Other activities at the mela include religious discussions (pravachan), devotional singing (kirtan), holy feast (mahaprasada) of holy men and women and the poor, and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated and standardised (shastrartha).[1] The sadhus are seen clad in saffron sheets with Vibhuti ashes dabbed on their skin as per the requirements of ancient traditions. Some, called naga sanyasis, may not wear any clothes even in severe winter.[citation needed] The right to be naga, or naked, is considered a sign of separation from the material world.[1]

After visiting the Kumbh Mela of 1895, Mark Twain wrote:


Darshan, or respectful visual exchange, is an important part of the Kumbh Mela. People make the pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela specifically to observe and experience both the religious and secular aspects of the event. Two major groups that participate in the Kumbh Mela include the Sadhus (Hindu holy men) and pilgrims. Through their continual yogic practices the Sadhus articulate the transitory aspect of life. Sadhus travel to the Kumbh Mela to make themselves available to much of the Hindu public. This allows members of the Hindu public to interact with the Sadhus and to take "darshan." They are able to "seek instruction or advice in their spiritual lives." Darshan focuses on the visual exchange, where there is interaction with a religious deity and the worshiper is able to visually "'drink' divine power." The Kumbh Mela is arranged in camps that give Hindu worshipers access to the Sadhus. The darshan is important to the experience of the Kumbh Mela and because of this worshipers must be careful so as to not displease religious deities. Seeing of the Sadhus is carefully managed and worshipers often leave tokens at their feet.[1]

Kumbh Mela in the media[edit]

Pictographic world map comparing the largest periodic human migration events [62]

Kumbh Mela has received extensive media coverage, with several documentaries and films based on it. Kumbh Mela has been theme for many a documentaries, including Kings with Straw Mats (1998) directed by Ira Cohen, Kumbh Mela: The Greatest Show on Earth (2001) directed by Graham Day,[63] Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela (2004) directed by Nick Day and produced by "Maurizio Benazzo",[64] Kumbh Mela: Songs of the River (2004) by Nadeem Uddin,[65] Invocation, Kumbh Mela (2008), Kumbh Mela: Walking with the Nagas (2011), Amrit: Nectar of Immortality (2012) directed by Jonas Scheu and Philipp Eyer,[66] Inside the Mahakumbh (2013) by the National Geographic Channel and Kumbh Mela 2013: Living with Mahatiagi (2013) by the Ukrainian Religious Studies Project Ahamot.[67]

Indian and foreign news media have covered the Kumbh Mela regularly. On 18 April 2010, a popular American morning show CBS News Sunday Morning extensively covered Haridwar's Kumbh Mela, calling it "The Largest Pilgrimage on Earth". On 28 April 2010, BBC reported an audio and a video report on Kumbh Mela, titled "Kumbh Mela 'greatest show on earth."

Young siblings getting separated at the Kumbh Mela were once a recurring theme in Hindi movies.[68] Amrita Kumbher Sandhane, a 1982 Bengali feature film directed by Dilip Roy, also documents the Kumbh Mela. On 30 September 2010, the Kumbh Mela featured in the second episode of the Sky One TV series "An Idiot Abroad" with Karl Pilkington visiting the festival.

Ashish Avikunthak’s Bengali-language feature length fiction film Kalkimanthakatha (2015), was shot in the Allahabad Kumbh Mela in 2013. In this film, two characters search for the tenth avatar and the final avtar of Lord VishnuKalki, in the lines of Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot.[69][70]

In 2015, the Nashik Kumbha Mela became a technology savvy festival due to a collaboration of the city government with MIT Media Lab and Kumbhathon Foundation in Nashik.[71] This received significant media coverage in Wall Street Journal[72], BBC[73] and Guardian[74]. The Nashik Kumbh Mela was considered one of the most peaceful and successful as there were no stampedes, no epidemic or separated families reported[75]. Well known photographer John Werner captured the Kumbh Mela and released the photographs under creative commons.[76][77].

Threat of terrorism[edit]

In November 2018, Islamic terrorist organisation ISIS threatened to attack the Hindu pilgrims who visit the Kumbh at Allahabad in 2019. The 10 minute audio clip warned of a 2017 Las Vegas style attacks to be carried out by lone wolf attackers.[78] The clip also called on the Mujahideen to use different tactics like poisoning the food, use trucks or at least try to derail a train. The terrorists had threatened to poison the water of river Ganga.[79]


See also[edit]


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