What are you doing in Kumbh Mela

Bernhard Peter
Hindu festivals with a special rhythm:
Kumbh Mela

What is the Kumbh Mela?
The Kumbh Mela is a pilgrimage festival with a special rhythm. Four cities participate in the rotation system in the organization of the same, there are 5 different types, the festivals take place in a 3-year, 6-year, 12-year or 144-year rhythm. The actual rites are rather unspectacular. The implementation of this festival consists mainly of ritual baths in holy waters, particularly concentrated on certain days that are regarded as particularly auspicious. After that, respect is shown to the holy men, the swamis (ascetics) and the gurus (teachers). What makes the Kumbh Mela special is the incredible number of pilgrims. Smaller Kumbh Melas attract 2-3 million pilgrims, really big ones like the 2001 AD in Allahabad easily 75 million! Above all, the Kumbh Melas are a feast for the eyes, as the proportion of sadhus (ascetics) and other picturesque figures is very high:

  • Nagas: naked sadhus rubbed with ashes
  • Urdhwavahurs: Sadhus who practice particularly strict physical asceticism
  • Parivajakas: Sadhus taking a vow of silence with small bells to draw attention to themselves
  • Shirshasins: Sadhus, who never sit down, but stand 24 hours a day, they also sleep ajar while standing, meditations in the headstand for hours are also cultivated
  • Kalpvasis: Sadhus who spend the whole month meditating and bathing by the river

A Kumbh Mela is a meeting place for swamis and sadhus, philosophers, ascetics and beggars and above all for onlookers who seek darshan, to meet the saints, to see them and to touch them.

The Kumbh Mela is an ancient ritual. The oldest mention goes back to the 7th century AD. She has served the religious association of India for at least 1300 years.

Mythological background:
The legend behind it is as follows: Once upon a time, Asuras (demons) and Devas (gods) fought each other. Indra temporarily lost his power while the demon Bali rose. This was done through a curse with which Durwas Rishi placed the god Indra because he was annoyed that Indra did not accept a gift from him. And not only Indra, but also the other gods lost power. On the advice of Vishnu, Indra had to get the nectar Amrita (drink of immortality) in order to regain his old position and regain his power. But the gods were too weak to do it alone. Actually, gods and demons should and wanted to work together to obtain this nectar. Demons (Asuras) are indeed the arch enemies of the gods, but against the promise to get a portion of Amrita, they agreed to help. Together they whisked the ocean of milk (Samudra Manthana) in order to gain the divine nectar. Dhan Vantari rose from the sea, holding a vessel (kumbha) in his hands, which was filled with nectar. However, the Asuras did not stick to the agreement and wanted the nectar for themselves. Demons and gods then quarreled over possession of the vessel until Garuda, Vishnu's mount, flew away with the divine drink. Four drops of the precious content fell on those four cities in which the festival is celebrated. For 12 days demons and gods quarreled over the possession of the Amrita. The gods stayed on Mrutylok (earth) for 12 days. 12 days of the gods correspond to 12 human years, so it comes to the 12 rhythm. According to another version, a bird (crow) snatched the drink from the demons and flew away with it, resting in the four places. It takes him 12 days to get from the milk ocean to heaven.

Kumbh Mela locations:
Held four times in 12 years, i.e. every three years, rotating in one of the four holy cities, consequently every 12 years in the same city:

  • Nasik (Nashik) / Trimbakeshvar / Ramkund (in Maharashtra, northeast of Mumbai, on the banks of the Godavari River),
  • Ujjain (in Madhya Pradesh, west of Bhopal, on the bank of the Ksipra River),
  • Haridwar (Hardwar, in Uttaranchal, where the Ganges flows from the Himalayas into the plain) or
  • Allahabad / Prayag (in Uttar Pradesh west of Benares, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet and the mythical Saraswati river is said to have its source)

Of all the places, Allahabad is considered to be specially selected and sacred.

To name the individual Kumbh Melas:

  • The Purna Kumbh Mela is the 12-year Kumbh Mela in Allahabad and Haridwar, the last one in Allahabad was in 1989 AD, the next one will be in 2013. It is replaced by the Maha Kumbh Mela every 144 years. The term Maha Kumbh Mela is often used synonymously. "Purna" means "whole, full" and means that this is the larger festival that takes place every 12 years, in contrast to the Ardha Kumbha Mela (see below).
  • The Simhastha Kumbh Mela will be the 12-year Kumbh Mela in Ujjain and Nasik, the last one in Ujjain was in 2004 AD, the next one will be in Nasik in 2007. The type of it is a Purna Kumbh Mela. The term Maha Kumbh Mela is often used synonymously. Simhastha is derived from Simha Rasi and means that a heavenly body enters the Simha Rasi, so it marks the time of the festival.
  • The real one Maha Kumbh Mela is the completion of 12 Purna Kumbh Melas in Allahabad, it only takes place every 144 years in Allahabad (12x 12 years). The last one was in January 2001 AD. The Maha Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in India, with around 75 million pilgrims in 2001 AD. In Prayag, at the point where the Ganges and Yamuna meet, these incredible crowds of pilgrims come together to take the holy bath at the Sangam (confluence).
  • 6 years after a Purna Kumbh Mela or Maha Kumbh Mela is an additional one Ardha Kumbha, so always at "half-time" of the "full" Kumbh Mela, and that applies to each of the four cities. "Ardha" means "half".
  • There is also an annual event in Allahabad Magh Mela, a kind of mini-mela. It only fails in years of a Purna or Ardha Kumbh Mela. It “only” attracts 2-3 million believers.

Kumbh Mela - a clock of the universe:
The exact time of the respective Kumbh Mela depends on the position of the sun and Jupiter or their entry into a certain rasis; the favorable bathing days in addition to the moon. In times without precise clocks, the sky was the clock - due to the constellation of planets and other celestial bodies, one knew exactly when to go to which place on the pilgrimage. For the astrological constellations, I refer to the information provided by Dr. N. Rathnasree, Director of the Nehru Planetariums in New Delhi.

  • Simhastha Kumbh Mela in Nasik: Jupiter in Leo (Simha Rasi), sun in Cancer (approx.Shravana or July-August)
  • Simhastha Kumbh Mela in Ujjain: Jupiter in Scorpio (Vrischika Rasi), sun in Libra (approx. Vaisakha / May)
  • Purna Kumbh Mela in Haridwar: Sun in Aries (Mesha Rasi), Jupiter in Aquarius (Phalguna / Chaitra, Mar./Apr.)
  • Purna Kumbh Mela in Allahabad / Prayag: Jupiter in Taurus (Vrishabha Rasi) and sun in Capricornus (Makara Rasi), i.e. in the month of Magha (Jan./Feb.).

Every 144 years the conjunction is perfect, which gives rise to the greatest mela ever.

Because Jupiter plays an important role in determining the dates, the 12-year rhythm comes about, because its orbit around the sun (Jupiter year) is 11,862 years (sidereal period).

Dates for the Kumbh Mela:

  • Dates for the Kumbh Mela, which takes place every 12 years:
    • Nasik: 2007 and 2019 AD
    • Ujjain: 5.4.-5.5.2004, 2016 AD
    • Haridwar: 1998, 2010 AD
    • Allahabad / Prayag: 1989, 9.1.-21.2.2001, 2013 AD
  • Dates for the Ardha Kumbh Mela taking place in between:
    • Nasik: 2013 AD
    • Ujjain: 2010 AD
    • Haridwar: February 18-13, 2004 AD
    • Allahabad / Prayag: January 2007 AD

To explain the technical terms:
Amrita: divine nectar, drink of immortality
Amrita Kumbh: vessel filled with amrita
Ardha: half
Darshan: the encounter with the saints. It is blessing to see or touch a holy man.
Guru: Jupiter
Kumbh, Kumbha: vessel
Magh: a month in the Hindu lunar calendar
Maha: Great
Mela: gathering for the feast
Purna: Completely, entirely
Rasi = part of the ecliptic. The earth's orbit around the sun is divided into 12 rasis, each rasi covers 30 degrees. Corresponds to a zodiac sign. The name of the Rasis is: Mesha (Aries), Vrisha (Taurus), Mithuna (Gemini), Karkata (Cancer), Simha (Leo), Kanya (Virgo), Tula (Libra), Vrischika (Scorpio), Dhanus (Sagittarius) , Makara (Capricorn), Kumbha (Aquarius), Mina (Pisces). A rasi coincides with the solar months and overlaps with the lunar months.
Rishi: Wise men from Vedic times
Samakranti, Sankranti, Samkranti = first entry of the sun into a rasi. So there are 12 Samkranti in a year. A samkranti can theoretically occur at any time of the day or night.
Samudra Manthana: The whisking of the ocean of milk
Sangam: confluence
Sidereal year: time between two successive passages of a celestial body (planets, sun) in relation to the fixed stars
Simhastha: derived from Simha Rasi, i.e. an event that takes place at the time of the entry of celestial bodies into Simha Rasi (Leo)

Festivals of India - Introduction
Feasts of Islam - Annual Overview
Baha'i Festivals - Annual Overview
Festivals of the Sikh - annual overview
Festivals of the Hindus - Annual Overview
Festivals of Rajasthan - annual overview
India: National Holidays
India: Festivals with a special rhythm: Kumbh Mela

other festivals, Festival literature
other country essays

© Text, graphics and photos: Bernhard Peter 2005