Kumbha is the largest religious congregation in the world, held every 12 years by rotation in one of the four cities of India; namely Haridwar, Allahabad or Pragyag, Nasik and Ujjain. Kumbha which is held once in 144 years in Prayag or Allahabad is called the Mahakumbha.
Origin of Kumbha
According to the legend, gods and asuras during the churning of the ocean or Samudra Manthan found a pot of divine nector believed to provide immortality to the drinker. The gods made a divine carrier carry away the pot to prevent asuras from laying hands on it. During the chase, a few drops of amrita fell on Haridwar, Pragyag, Nasik and Ujjain which are the present-day sites of the Kumbh Mela. The puranas or other ancient texts however do not have a mention of kumbha mela.
The available texts and the historical records fail to give an exact picture on the age of Kumbha. Earliest mention is the one in Haridwar followed by Pragyag and Nasik Trimbakeshwar. The mela at Haridwar appears to be the first to be called Kumbha as it is held when Jupiter enters the zodiac sign of Kumbha or Aquarius. The other earliest reference to Kumbh Mela is found in Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh in 1695 CE and Chahar Gulshan in 1759 CE which describes only Haridwar’s fair as Kumbha, though there is a mention of similar fairs being held in Allahabad and Nashik.
The Magh Mela of Allahabad is probably the oldest among the four fairs kinding mention in several Puranas. However, its transition onto Kumbha and the 12-year cycle probably dates back to the mid-19th century. The first British reference to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad occurs in an 1868 report, which mentions the need for increased pilgrimage and sanitation controls at the “Coomb Fair” to be held in January 1870. So in all probability the local community in order to increase the importance of their Tirth adopted the Kumbha tradition of Haridwar with their pre-existing melas.
Origin of Kumbha in Ujjain
Kumbha in Ujjain is supposed to have started in the eighteenth century by the then Maratha ruler Renkoji Shinde of the Scindia dynasty of Gwalior. Renkoji invited ascetics from Nashik to visit a festival Panchkroshi Yatra held by the local community in Ujjain in the month of Vaishakha. As per ancient traditions, a sequential viewing of all 84 Mahadev temples in and around Ujjain is conducted as part of this yatra. Ujjain is home to one of the twelve Jyotrilinga’s in the form of Mahakal – the Lord of all Times, it is a place where according to the legend few drops of divine amrita had fallen and one of the Saptapuris, the seven holy cities of India that grant Moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Realizing the immense religious significance of Ujjain, the sages accepted Renkoji’s invitation. As the Panchkroshi Yatra conveniently fell at the end of Nashik Kumbha, a large number of ascetics started visiting the festival in Ujjain too. This drew ordinary people to the fair as well, increasing its popularity over the time, which probably ultimately led to naming the festival as Simhastha kumbha. The kumbha in Ujjain starts on the full moon day of Hindu month of Chaitra when Jupiter enters the sun sign of Leo or the Simha constellation of zodiac, hence the name Simhastha. The mela continues till the next full moon day of the following month of Vaishakha. Though, the exact date of renaming cannot be traced but as per the records of the British government, it must be somewhere in the late nineteenth century. Earlier the Scindias organized kumbha in Ujjain, however in later years its organization and management slowly changed hands.
Untill the East India Company took over the management and administration of Kumbha, the Melas were managed by the dominant akhadas of that time. These sadhus collected taxes, carried out policing and judicial duties. They also participated in trade and were heavily militarized. These melas have had a history of sectarian politics and a long record of clashes between different participating sects. The bone of contention many times among other reasons was the right to be the first to take a dip in the holy river during shahisnan days. Being organizers some akhadas asserted their first right to shahi snan. This demand gained importance because over the years the sequence in which each Akhada was allowed to enter the waters came to be associated with the rank or status their sect enjoyed among all akhadas. These and many other interests led to violent clashes between different sects of sadhus.
The 1760’s Haridwar Kumbha resulted in hundreds of death due to clashes between Shaivite Gosains and Vaishnavite Bairagis. A copperplate inscription of the Maratha Peshwa claims that twelve thousand ascetics died in a clash at the 1789 Nashik Kumbha. The 1796 Kumbha in Haridwar saw Shaivites attacking and injuring the Udasis for erecting a camp without their permission. The retaliatory response of the Khalsa Sikhs accompanying the Udasis led to many sadhus getting killed from both sides. The East India Company after this incident severely limited the trader-warrior role of the sadhus who were reduced to the status of mere pilgrims. Different measures initiated by the administration in later editions of kumbha led to significantly reduce clashes between different sects of sadhus.
Highlights of Kumbha
Besides the religious significance, historically the Kumbh Melas were also major commercial events. A large number of people of different religions visited the mela. British civil servant Robert Montgomery Martin describes the 1858 Haridwar Kumbh Mela as a congregation of Hindu pilgrims as well as visitors like priests, soldiers, merchants, including horse traders from Bukhara, Kabul, Turkistan, Arabia and Persia. He records the visit of several Hindu and Sikh rulers and Muslim Nawabs visiting the fair as well as some Christian missionaries preaching at the Mela.
One of the highlights of Kumbha Mela even today is the Peshwai Procession, which marks the arrival of the people belonging to a particular akhadas or sect in a grand procession. Each procession sees the chief of the Akhadas mounted atop a beautifully decorated vahan led by his group of disciples dancing to the sound of manjiras, dhols and singing hyms in the praise if the lord. The air is filled with frequent full throated chants of Har Har Mahadev. The path towards the bathing ghats is jam packed with lakhs of people thronging the route to witness the grand procession move towards the ghats of Kshripra. The order of entering the waters is fixed, the Juna’s are the first, followed by the Niranjani then Mahanirvani and then the other akhadas follow. The holy dip starts at an opportune time at sunrise, people offer abulations to the Sun god, pray for atonement for their sins and grant of Moksha from the cycle of life and death. The pilgrims then make way for the darshan of the Mahakal, the Kshetradhipati of Ujjain. There are atleast three to four auspicious days for shahi snan during the month when people in lakhs take part in these rituals.
Another important aspect of Kumbha is the Darshan of the holy men. The pilgrims seek instructions or advice in spirituality from these holy men and leave a token Dakshina at their feet. Darshan is important to the experience of the Kumbh as it is here that the general public gets to see and interact with the ascetics who normally live in their ashrams or in the high altitudes of the Himalayas.
Naga sadhus are the other very famous participants of kumbha. The Nagas call themselves Shaiv Panthis and are the warrior sadhus, carrying a weapon as they lead the procession for Shahisnan. Naga meaning naked is a sign of separation or sanyas from the material world. These ash smeared sadhus remain completely naked even while living in the extremely low temperatures of the Himalayas. The other sadhus wear loose cotton robe of saffron or white colour, smear ash on their bodies and adorn themselves with Rudraksha Mala and garland of flowers. The kumbha is also frequented by the Hat Yogis, who subject themselves to years of hard penance and yoga to achieve unique control over breathing and the other parts of their bodies. Hat yog is a way of physical purification of body to prepare it for higher meditation. Each Hat Yogi displays some unique power or characteristics they have mastered as a result of years of sadhana.
Modern day Kumbha
Being a mega event, kumbha requires participation of various governmental and nongovernmental organizations to make it a success. A city within a city is created for lakhs of visiting pilgrims. Facilities like tents for accommodation, water for drinking and daily use, stalls for food, medicines, traffic control and management, maintaining hygiene and garbage disposal, policing and law and order, building infrastructure to handle a rush of more than 1 crore pilgrims visiting kumbha over the one month period is a major challenge. Crowd management is essentially the most function of the government machinery as various editions of kumbha have seen many mishaps due to presence of sheer number of pilgrims on the days of the shahisnan. Incidents of death due to stampede, overcrowding or collapse of the connecting bridges, unhygienic living conditions in the camps, spread of diseases like cholera, diahorrea, typhoid etc have over shadowed government’s efforts to provide a safe and successful kumbha. Inspite of the numerous difficulties, kumbha attracts large numbers of pilgrims in each of its editions.
The faith of the people attending the kumbha can be summed effectively in the words of Mark Twain who after visiting the 1895 kumbha wrote “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”
Compiled by Vandana Muley