After many years waiting, finally I had the chance to attend the “World’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims”. It is an indescribable, overwhelming, experience – something that shook me in every possible level. Here is the photo report, along with the information I could collect on the festival.
Kumbh Mela is, nowadays, the biggest pilgrimage on Earth. It is a religious festival on which millions of Hindu pilgrims come to take a holy dip on a river. The purpose is helping to break the cycle of reincarnations. A simple way to get rid of all “sins” and attain liberation. Some rituals associated with the dip, (like spilling milk on the river and releasing coconuts down current) are also performed for prosperity.
“Kumbh” is the name of the immortal pot of nectar (Amrita) described in the Puranas (ancient Vedic scriptures). dropped in four rivers, by Garuda, after a long fight between gods and demons.
These four locations are Prayagraj (Allahabad), Ujjain, Nashik, and Haridwar.
In Haridwar there is the River Ganges. In Nashik, the Godavari. In Ujjain, there is the Shipra. In Prayagraj, the confluence of the rivers Yamuna (also known as the Jumna or Jamna), the Ganges and the mythologic Saraswati.
“Mela” literally means fair, and so it was, in the previous centuries.
The festival is recorded to happen in Prayagraj on the 7th Century CE as a Buddhist celebration, every 5 years. Modernly, there are records of it happening since the 17th Century in the same city, with the other ones to follow later. Despite its religious meaning, it was also politically important and a landmark for commercial trade.
At any given place, the Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years. The Vikram Samvat (Hindu historical calendar) and the principles of Jyotisha (traditional Hindu astronomy), according to a combination of zodiac positions of Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon, determine the exact date.
In Allahabad, Kumbh Mela is organised by Prayagraj Mela Authority. However, the religious part is under the command of Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad, one of the organisations of Hindu Sants (saints) and Sadhus (ascetics) in India. It is composed by 14 Akharas, which can be very freely translated as religious / monastic orders, or sects. Each Akhara, houses followers of similar religious customs, views and ideologies, who specialise in both scriptures and weaponry. This seems to be the original model of rule, interrupted during the British Occupation when it was taken by the East India Company. Before then, the Akharas collected taxes, participated in trade, and did the policing, justice and military defence. Sometimes, they even engaged in wars between them.
Several stampedes have occurred at the Kumbh Melas. After an 1820 stampede at Haridwar that killed 485 people, the East India Company government took extensive infrastructure projects. Those included the construction of new ghats and road widening, to prevent further stampedes. Since then, Haridwar has experienced fewer deaths in stampedes: the next big stampede occurred in 1986, when 50 people were killed. Allahabad has also experienced major stampedes, in 1840, 1906, 1954, 1986 and 2013. (This last one happened after the railway police charged at the crowd with wooden sticks in order to control the huge rush at the station). It lead to the killing of 42 people in the crush. The deadliest of these was the 1954 stampede, which left 800 people dead.
Crowd management is now a standard, with the streets being opened and closed with fences operated by policeman. These are now in permanent communication with each others, the CCTV system and the watchtowers. Some bridges and streets are only one way traffic during the busiest hours.
It’s impossible to picture how 50 million people look like, at least, from land. Here are some views on how it feels to be surrounded by them:
For most pilgrims, the holy dip, is the reason to go and, on the most auspicious days, there is a procession leading to it. Watch it on the next post about Kumbh 2019.