Kumbh Mela - The Most Wonderful Sight in India?

Posted by Daniel Ratheiser • Wednesday, March 24. 2010 • Category: People and Places
“What is the most wonderful sight in India – the strangest thing to be seen in all this land, where so much is strange? For my part, I am inclined to doubt whether anything can be witnessed more impressive and picturesque, more pregnant, too, with meaning and significance, than the Kumbh Mela, or great Pilgrim Fair, which is held, once every twelve years, where the waters of the Ganges and Jumna meet, below the wall of Allahabad. Until you have look upon one of these tremendous gatherings of humanity many aspects of Indian life and character must be hidden from you.”
Sydney Low during the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to India (1906)

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

The Kumbh Mela is held in rotation among four holy places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. In 2010, the Kumbh Mela returned to Haridwar, where millions and millions of pilgrims come to participate. The Kumbh Mela draws an incredible spectrum of humanity: yogis from the Himalayas and Sikhs from the Punjab, peasants and businessmen, sannyasis and politicians. In Haridwar, the riverside steps at Har Ki Pauri, where Vishnu left his footprint and the Ganges leaves the Himalayas, provides the setting for the Mela.

Kumbh is an ancient term that is already mentioned in the Vedas, where it refers to a pitcher or vase full of water. The Kumbh is a recurring image on temples, coins, and seals, and is evident on items recovered from the civilisation of the Indus valley. Generally, a Kumbh is used as a symbol of fertility. In ancient river festivals, a Kumbh full of grains was soaked in the waters of a holy river and its contents then put to seed during sowing time.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

Kumbh in the Epics (i.e., the Mahabharata and the Ramayana) and the Puranas refers to the legend of the pot of Amrit (nectar of immortality) that arose from the churning of the Ocean of Milk. The Devas (gods) and Asuras (demons) decided to churn the ocean in order to extract its bounty. The biggest prize was Amrit, which both groups sought in order to become immortal. When they managed to churn the ocean, Dhanvantari, the divine healer, emerged with the Kumbh of Amrit. A fight broke out between the Devas and the Asuras over who would get the Kumbh. After a vicious fight, portrayed in many different incarnations in the various Puranas and Epics, the Devas finally defeated the Asuras.

“The tale is great, one may say enormous. Every twelfth year is held to be a year of peculiar grace; a greatly augmented volume of pilgrims results then. The twelfth year has held this distinction since the remotest of times, it is said.”
Mark Twain during his travels in India at the end of the nineteenth century

Pilgrimage to sacred places is a very ancient practice found almost universally across the world’s religions. But pilgrimage also has an inner path next to the outer path of journeying to a sacred place. Pilgrimage includes the internal voyage to one’s own religion. In the beginning, the performance of Yajnya (sacrificial ritual) was dominating in Hindu religions. Over time, the resource-intensiveness of sacrifices and the exclusion of large parts of the population from performing Yajnya led to the development of substitutes. One expression of this development is the institution of pilgrimage.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

Places of pilgrimage in India are referred to as Tirthas, which is derived from the Sanskrit verb “Tr”, meaning to cross. The term Tirtha occurs eight times in the Rig Vega, all of them associating it with water. In time, the term Tirtha was used more and more exclusively for river banks or confluences of rivers sanctified by the performance of sacrifices and the revelation of mantras.

The formation of Hindu places of pilgrimage was largely shaped through important ritual sacrifices that were performed at a specific location. Because these places were generally next to sources of water (rivers, lakes and the sea), they became the major locations of pilgrimage centres, and remain so today (e.g., Puri, Gaya, Haridwar, and Varanasi). The prominence of water is derived from its many qualities: water is frequently used in sacrifices, is the primeval source of creation, symbolises the flow of life, and is required for purification rituals.

The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore offers a similar rationale behind the locations of Indian pilgrimage places: “India chose her places of pilgrimage where there was in nature some special grandeur or beauty, so that her mind could come out of its world of narrow necessities and realize its place in the infinite.”

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

Further, Tirthayatra (pilgrimage) offers the opportunity to leave the historically and socially structured time of one’s day-to-day life and enter the sacred mythological time of the gods. Even untouchables and widows, who otherwise are generally excluded from most religious rituals, can participate, thus allowing them to break out of the rigid structures of their local communities. At Tirthas, a sacred re-enactment of myths takes place according to the religious beliefs of Hindus. Pilgrims walk on the same ground on which deities and the heroes of the Epics strolled. A whole cosmic event recurs with the pilgrims as participants.

“Although Hinduism does not make pilgrimage obligatory, yet the ordinary Hindu attribute great importance to tirth-yatra where they resort to a host of merit-earning activities like taking a holy dip, darshan (respectful sight of devotion and surrender) of deities, temples, and ascetics, performing worship, listening to religious discourses, hymns and devotional songs in praise of deity, doing charity to Brahman, beggar and ascetics – all these believed [are] believed to earn punya for an individual thereby advancing him to the ultimate goal of moksh.” ("The Tradition of Kumbh", Das and Singh, 1990)

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

“The Fair (…) is run by associations of ascetics, who have their branches all over India. They assume the fakir dress, or want of dress, and go about publicly in rags, with matted hair, their faces and bodies daubed in river clay. Some of them wear no clothes at all, and are regarded on this account with peculiar reverence.”
Sydney Low during the visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales to India (1906)

Around the eighth century CE, Advaita Vedanta-proponent Adi Shankarachrya is believed to have established four Mathas (Hindu monastic establishments) in North, South, East, and West India. These four Mathas later started their own Akharas (gymnastic centres) to train their ascetics in the martial arts. Frequent assertions are made that the first Akharas came into being already during the first millennium CE.

Alternatively, theories abound that the Akharas were founded to defend Hindu temples from the Muslim invaders at the beginning of the second millennium CE. By Mughal Emperor Akbar’s time, there were large numbers of armed ascetics all over India. They did not only come from the Hindu religion. A great many of them were also Muslim ascetics.

During the time of Mughal decline in India, orders of military ascetics became significant players in the quest for power. Some orders had more than 10,000 warriors under their command. They used state-of-the-art weaponry, including musketry and artillery, as well as horses, camels, and elephants. The most famous fighting ascetic Umrao Giri (alias Himmat Bahadur) even ruled his own small kingdom from 1790 to 1802. The Kumbh Melas served as the staging ground for the mobilization, recruitment, and mercenary employment for the Akharas.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

These orders of ascetics were not only mercenaries but were also successful traders. During their annual pilgrimage cycle, they could transport goods freely because of their sacred status. They focused on small, but highly valuable goods in order to maximise their profits. Remnants of this trade can still be found today. Many members of these orders trade in crystals, beads, and hashish.

Militant ascetics made use of their Akharas as banking, marketing, and information networks. In times of conflict, Akharas also served as safe-havens. By 1750, the Shaiva Akharas were the largest property owners in many pilgrimage centres. They were engaged in money lending and used their military apparatus to enforce the repayment of loans.

In contrast to the Shaiva Akharas, the historical reason for the emergence of the Vaishnava Bairagi (dispatched or dispassionate) Akharas can be traced. Bairagi Akharas were created as a reaction to the militant Shaiva Akharas, who were intimidating religious pilgrims, attacking Hindu pilgrimage places, and trying to seize economic control over holy centres.

The rivalries between Vaishnava and Shaiva ascetics were not only based on ideological or religious differences, but also from their historical interactions. They usually fought on opposing sides when hired as mercenaries and struggled for control over important religious centres, since these brought prestige, bases of power, and continuous flows of revenue.

Even today, Vaishnava and Shaiva ascetics camp separately during Kumbh Melas and rarely associate with each other. But, remarkably enough, the Kumbh Mela is one of the very few pilgrimages, where the sectarian itineraries of Sadhus intersect. Strikingly, besides the Vaishnava and Shaiva orders, orders of ascetics that are often considered not to belong to the Hindu religion play a very prominent role in the Kumbh Mela. The Udasis think of the holy book of the Sikh religion, the Granth Sahib, as a very important part of their tradition. The Nirmalas go even further in their syncretism. They proclaim in their prayers that the Puranas and the Quran are one and emphasise the identity of (Hindu deity) Rama and Rahim (one of the 99 names of Allah in Islam).

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

When the various religious orders, especially the Akharas, arrive in the townships that are erected for each Kumbh Mela, they enter in pompous parades called Peshvais (receptions). The monastic heads are adorned like royalty in these parades. They are carried in palanquins or ride on elephants, and wear fine robes and ornate headgear during the Peshvais. Brass bands and traditional musicians accompany them. The faithful line the roadsides to receive their Darshan. The Kumbh Mela is the only place where the Akharas still show the splendor with which they used to travel around the major pilgrimage centres in former times.

During the Kumbh Mela, Sadhus who have not seen each other for years meet again. The brotherhood among groups is reinforced and decisions about promotions and rank are taken. Moreover, each Akhara forms an assembly called the Shambu Panch, in reality, the collective of all assembled members, who elect a lead council of eight Mahants (great leaders). This lead council, called the Shri Panch, controls the affairs of the Akhara by unanimous decisions. The Kumbh Mela is not only a time for coordination within but also between the various religious orders. During religious discussions and conferences, conflicts between the religious orders are solved.

The climax of the Kumbh Mela is the procession of Sadhus leading to the particular bathing sites along the rivers. On the three main bathing dates, the Akharas lead the procession for the Snan (bath), which is then called Shahi (royal) Snan. Interestingly, the Persian, Muslim name for "king" was chosen and not the Hindu variant, Raja. Leading each Akhara regiment in the procession are long spears that are worshipped by the Akhara as their Ishta (gods). The Ishta are bathed first in ceremonial prayer and only thereafter, will the Sadhus enter the water.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

The whole atmosphere of the Kumbh Mela is surcharged with religious zeal. There is a powerful impact when millions of people come together to engage in the collective bathing ritual. Thus a sense of brotherhood among Hindus develops, despite the different sectarian backgrounds, ethnicities, and languages present during the festival.

Please also read about our tours to the 2013 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.

© Enrico Fabian (www.enrico-fabian.com) for "Die Zeit"

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