Bollywood movies often satirically refer to Kumbh Mela as a place where the character lost his/her twin brother/sister. The most common script line being in Hindi “Hum bachpan main kumbh ke mele main bichad gaye the” which means We got lost when we were children in the Kumbh Mela. The Kumbh Mela is the “Festival of the Urn” that pours out the nectar of immortality. Kumbha is a sanskrit word for ‘pitcher’. It is also a zodiac sign in Indian astrology for Aquarius, the sign under which the festival is celebrated. ‘Mela’ means ‘a gathering’ or ‘a meet’, or simply a fair. Kumbh Mela (especially the Maha Kumbh Mela) is the most sacred of all the pilgrimages in Hinduism attended by millions of people on a single day.
It is a mammoth fair where saints and devotees gather. It is held by turns in four different cities in India: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. It is celebrated at these four places depending on the positions of planets and stars. The Ardh (half) Kumbh fair is celebrated every six years at Haridwar and Allahabad, while the Purna (complete) Kumbh fair always takes place at Allahabad every twelve years. The observance of the fair dates back many centuries ago in ancient India, to the Vedic period, where the river festivals first started getting organised.
In ancient Hindu mythology, it is believed that the gods and demons were churning the ocean of milk called Ksheera Sagara with the intention of sharing the ‘amrit’. Amrit was the exilir of life which gave immortality to anyone who drank it. When a kumbha or pot containing this amrit appeared from the churning the demons decided to steal it and were closely chased by the gods. For twelve days and twelve nights the gods fought with the demons over this pot. It is believed that during the battle, Garuda the celestial bird and vehicle of Lord Vishnu flew away with the pot and spilled drops of amrit at four places. The Purna Kumbh Mela, the biggest and the most auspicious fair, occurs every twelve years and is organised in rotation among the four places where drops of the sacred nectar spilled over: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik.
A mass pilgrimage for the Hindu community of India, the fair is rumoured to be one of the largest congregation of sages, yogis, ascetics, mendicants, men, women and children on the planet. Around 60 million people is said to attend the Purna Kumbh Mela, making it the largest gathering anywhere in the world. But the greatest is the Maha Kumbh Mela which periodically falls every 144 years or after 12 Purna Melas, at Allahabad. But every sixth year after a Purna Mela sees an Ardh Mela taking place. The ‘Ardh Kumbh Mela’ is called so because it is held at the sixth year and marks the halfway stage between the celebration of the Purna Melas every 12 years. During this period, a tent city comes up for over a month by the banks of the river, of the spot where the fair is held, to provide shelter to thousands of pilgrims. The myth of the ‘Amrita-Kumbha’ is performed as a dramatic performance which is lapped up by the assembled devotees. It draws innumerable crowds who believe in the Hindu Puranas and come in the quest of purifying their soul before entering the realm of God..
The major event of the festival is bathing in the banks of the rivers of each town. It is believed that by bathing in the rivers their sins of this life are forgiven. The mela plays host to holy men and women. The main features among these holy men are the digambars or nanga sanyasis. The reason they gain so much of attention is due to their extreme lifestyles. They are always naked without any clothes even in extreme cold weathers. The mela is also filled with sadhus smeared with ash all over their face and body. They are always dressed in saffron robes as is the custom in hinduism.
For 45 days there is devotional singing, dancing, feeding of holy men or sadhus, religious discussions and charity. The Kumbh Mela is the most widely attended spiritual event in the world. Today, it is observed at specific sites at four sacred rivers: Haridwar along the Ganges River, Ujjain by the Kshipra River, Nasik by the Godavari River and Allahabad near the confluence of three rivers, the Ganges, Yamuna, and the mystical Saraswati. The next Purna Kumbh Mela will be held in 2010 in Haridwar.