We visit the world's biggest festival - the Kumbh Mela - on our new Explore Beyond trip Kumbh Mela with David Short. These five facts will give you an idea of what you could be experiencing.
The Kumbh Mela is big, very big!
The Kumbh Mela is the largest gathering of people on the planet with millions attending each time the event occurs, roughly every three years. It is estimated that as many as 30 million people will visit the 2016 Kumbh Mela at Ujjain and perhaps as many as 100 million were at the Allahabad festival in 2013. That’s a lot of people!
Lots of weird and wonderful characters attend
A key feature of the Kumbh Mela is the attendance of Sadhus, or holy men. There are several different sects that show their devotion in different ways: Nagas do not wear any clothes and cover their bodies with ash, Urdhwavahurs put their bodies through severe hardship, Parivajakas have taken an oath of silence and use bells to alert others to their presence, Kalpvasis bathe three times a day at very specific times and Shirashasins stand for 24 hours and meditate while standing on their heads.
They travel to the Kumbh Mela to make themselves available to pilgrims, allowing them to take ‘darshan’ or respectful visual exchange, a concept of receiving divine power by being in the presence of the holy men.
The festival is very old
The roots of the festival are ancient with the earliest surviving historical reference dating from 644, although there are also references to river-side festivals in much more ancient Indian texts.
According to mythology, attending the Kumbh Mela can absolve you of your sins
Kumbh is the Sanskrit word for pitcher or jug (and also the name for the zodiac sign Aquarius in Indian astrology) and Mela means gathering, meeting or fair. Legend has it that in ancient times the gods were cursed by the sage ‘Durvas’ and began to lose their power. They turned to Brahma (the creator god) and Vishnu (the preserver) for help. On their advice the gods made a pact with the demons; in return for their assistance in attaining the nectar of immortality, they agreed to share it with them. The demons met their side of the bargain and churned the primordial ocean in order to release the nectar which the gods collected in a pitcher. However, the gods then fought over the nectar and it was spilt.
The places where the nectar fell to earth are the four locations where the Kumbh Mela is celebrated today: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. Hindu pilgrims believe that bathing in the river at these places, on days when the planets are in certain positions, can absolve them of sin, and thereby release them from suffering and the endless cycle of life and death.
Pilgrims and visitors are well looked after
Special facilities are provided for the millions that gather to celebrate the Kumbh Mela. Temporary toilets and hospitals are set up and there are a multitude of doctors on call and police personnel to manage the crowds.