Kumbh Mela 2019 Explained: All About the Hindu Pilgrimage

The much-awaited annual event of Kumbh Mela, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, is slated to be even bigger and better in 2019.

Although it is usually spread over a 20 km radius, the Kumbh Mela – set to begin on 15 January and continue till 4 March – will be sprawled across 45 km this year.

UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath had recently said that it is  because of the government’s endeavour that the mela will be “darshaniye (worth seeing), adbhut (amazing), divya (divine) and bhavya (grand).”

But what exactly is Kumbh Mela and why does it bear such significance on the social, political and cultural moorings of the country?

Here is all you need to know about the historic Hindu pilgrimage in six simple cards.

What is the Kumbh Mela?

The Kumbh Mela is a Hindu pilgrimage that sees saints, sadhus, sadhvis, kalpvasis and pilgrims from all over the country come together at one of the four holy locations near rivers believed to be sacred.

The latest edition of the Kumbh will begin in Prayagraj (Allahabad) on 15 January 2019.

It is the world’s largest public gathering and collective act of faith.

The mela, which extends up to 55 days, draws millions of pilgrims from across the world, who take the holy dip at the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati rivers in Prayagraj.

A Nagasadhu at at the Simhastha Ujjain Kumbh Mela.

“The Kumbh Mela is an event that intrinsically encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, and socio-cultural customs and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge,” according to its official website.

Saints, Naga Sadhus (who practice ‘sadhana’) and thousands of pilgrims visit the Kumbh Mela to pursue a spiritual journey.

When is it and Where is it Held?

The Kumbh, in Hinduism, is celebrated four times over the course of 12 years.

Geographically, the Kumbh Mela is held at one of four locations in India. The venue is selected on a rotational basis among four pilgrimage sites near the rivers considered to be sacred in the Hindu religion:

  • Haridwar in Uttarakhand (Ganga river)
  • Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh (Shipra river)
  • Nashik in Maharashtra (Godavari river)
  • Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh (at the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna, and the mythical river Sarasvati)

After the selection of the venue, the celebrations are determined on the basis of a distinct set of astrological positions of the sun, the moon, and Jupiter.

As per the Kumbh Mela’s official website, “the celebrations occur at the exact moment when these positions are fully occupied, as it is considered to be the holiest time in Hinduism.”

Preparations for the latest iteration of the Kumbh are underway at Prayagraj (Allahabad), with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath personally committing himself to hosting "a great and grand" celebration.

Satellite view of the approximate area allocated for the Kumbh Mela 2019. 

Historical and Mythological Significance

While information about the exact age of Kumbh, its origin and the duration of its earlier editions is uncertain, there are several depictions of river-side celebrations (melas) in ancient Indian scriptures.

Etymologically, ‘Kumbh’ is derived from ‘ kumbhak’, which roughly translates to mean a sacred pitcher containing the elixir of life or immortality.

Kumbh and the ritual of bathing to wash away one’s sins finds a mention in the Rig Veda, while ‘Kumbh prayers’ are expressed in Atharva and Yajur Veda.

Some historical evidence also points towards the rule of King Harshavardhana, an Indian emperor who ruled North India from 606 to 647 CE. Records show that during this time, the mela was held with much fanfare and got widespread recognition across the country.

Famous traveler Hsuan Tsang, who was invited by King Harsha to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad (then Prayag), also mentions the celebrations, and Harsha's generous distribution of gifts to the poor during the Kumbh, the official website says.

Moreover, historical texts also point towards evidence that theologian-philosopher Adi Shankaracharya established 10 Akharas, Ardha Kumbh and the Kumbh Mela.

Experts believe that Shankaracharya had traveled across the country in a bid to revive Hinduism, reported The Times of India. It is said that the Kumbh was his way of ensuring that the common people get to regularly meet and interact with learned Hindu ascetics.

File image of Kumbh Mela celebrations. 

In mythology, the Kumbh Mela can be traced all the way back to the Puranas (compilation of ancient legends). These texts speak about gods and demons fighting to attain control over a ‘sacred pitcher’ (Kumbh) containing Amrit (elixir of immortality) called Ratna of Samudra Manthan.

According to the Kumbh website, it is widely believed that Lord Vishnu whisked away the Kumbh or the elixir from covetous demons who had tried to claim it. It is said that as he took the elixir heavenwards, a few drops fell on the four sites that we now know as Haridwar, Ujjain, Nashik, and Prayagraj.

The entire ordeal, the flight and the following pursuit is said to have lasted 12 days – which is believed to be equivalent to 12 human years. Therefore, the Kumbh Mela is celebrated once every three years at each of the four sacred sites, making it a complete cycle of 12 years.

Kumbh, Through the Years

The Kumbh is traditionally thought to be more than 2,000 years old. It is held every three years in one of four cities along India's sacred rivers, with the ‘full’ Kumbh held after every 12 years.

As per custom, the next ‘full’ Kumbh was due to be held in 2025.

Kumbh schedule as per custom:

  • Ardh Kumbh Mela, 2007
  • Kumbh Mela, 2013
  • Ardh Kumbh Mela, 2019
  • Kumbh Mela, 2025

But with general elections due in May next year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in UP has decided to transform a smaller Ardh or the ‘half’ Kumbh Mela into a full version of the festival.

2013 Kumbh Mela (In Then-Allahabad):

Upwards of 100 million pilgrims and Hindu ascetics had attended the two-month long Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013, often touted as the ‘world’s largest temporary gathering of people.’

It was held 12 years after the 2001 edition. In 2013, a temporary city was set up to house the pilgrims, covering an area larger than Athens.

This particular edition of the mela had made news because of a stampede at a railway station in Allahabad that had killed at least 36 pilgrims, Reuters reported.

The victims included 26 women, nine men and a child.

2001 Kumbh Mela (in then-Allahabad):

The Kumbh Mela held in Allahabad in 2001 was attended by more than 70 million pilgrims, according to a report by the BBC.

The festivities lasted 55 days and as per estimates, more than 40 million people were in attendance on the busiest single day.

This edition had made global headlines because of a photograph of the event captured from space by a high-resolution imaging satellite, a NewScientist report said.

The images highlighted the sheer scale of the Kumbh, so much so that the large congregation was visible from space.

The 2001 Kumbh was visible in a photograph captured from space by a high-resolution imaging satellite.

Rituals of Kumbh

Aarti: During the Kumbh festivities, aartis (Hindu rituals of worship, usually involving oil lamps) are performed on the banks of rivers regularly.

The aartis, held on special festive days in the mornings and the evenings, are attended by lakhs of devotees.

A band of five to seven batuks (priests) chants religious hymns while holding meticulously designed lamps.

Snan: The Prayagraj Kumbh comprises of many rituals, including the bathing ritual, which by far is the most significant ritual performed at the Kumbh. In each iteration of the Kumbh, lakhs of pilgrims take part in ritualistic bathing on the banks of rivers.

The pilgrims believe that performing this ritualistic cleansing in the holy waters purges one of all sins and negative energies.

Devotees take a dip in Ganga river on the first auspicious bathing day of the Kumbh festival.

Kalpavas: The kalpavasis spend their time in Kumbh Mela living an austere and minimalistic life.

According to scriptures, a kalpvasi is someone who adheres to 21 rules through the mind, speech, and action as outlined by Maharshi Dattatreya – such as non-violence, bathing thrice a day, rising before sunrise, etc.

Major Attractions of Kumbh 2019

The traditional procession of Akharas – called the Peshwai – on elephant, horses, and chariots, the shining swords and rituals of Naga sadhus during shahi snaan, and many other cultural activities form part of the major attractions during Kumbh celebrations.

Peshwai: It is the local dialect for the word 'Praveshai’ that denotes the grand procession carried out to mark the beginning of the Kumbh Mela. The procession begins by welcoming visitors from across the world. Following this, the saints arrive along with their groups riding on elephants, horses, and carriages.

Cultural events: For this edition, the UP government has mobilised the state cultural departments to host an array of events to exhibit the diverse cultural heritage of the country. Five cultural pandals will be set up for hosting multiple cultural events, ranging from musical performances to traditional and folk dances on a daily basis.

Tourist walks: The government has also unveiled tourist walks along new routes for the visitors to explore Prayagraj (Allahabad) and its local heritage.

Water routes: The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) has started ferry services on the river Yamuna near the Sangam Ghat. This will now allow tourists to travel from Sujawan Ghat to Rail Bridge (Naini Side), Boat Club Ghat, Saraswati Ghat and the Kila Ghat via the river route.

UP government is making provisions for a laser light and sound show at Kumbh 2019.

Laser light show: Another attraction to enhance the experience of the large influx of pilgrims and tourists at Kumbh Mela 2019 is a laser light and sound show at the venue.

Thematic gates: The 2019 Kumbh Mela will also feature over 25 temporary thematic gates, which have been designed to reflect the local culture and heritage. They will mark the approach roads to the mela.

(Information sourced from the Kumbh official website)

(With inputs from PTI)

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