Kumbh Mela, the holiest Indian festival

September 17, 2019

Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage to the sacred rivers of Ganges and Yamuna, to wash away your sins. This incredible festival is an event you can't miss.

Indian holy man during ritual

The Kumbh Mela is a great Indian festival that the Times has defined as "the greatest religious gathering in the world". What exactly is it? It is a mass pilgrimage to the sacred rivers, Ganges and Yamuna, to wash away sins and purify oneself.

The Purna Kumbh Mela, the "complete" Kumbh Mela, is celebrated in rotation at Prayag or Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjiain and Nashik every three years. Every six years the Ardh Kumbh Mela is celebrated in Haridwar and Prayag.

The Maha Kumbh Mela, or "great" Kumbh Mela, is celebrated every 12 years in Allahabad.

It is estimated that this recurrence involves 70 to 100 million pilgrims among yogis, sadhus and ordinary people, who come to the river with tractors and ox-drawn carriages, mostly decorated in orange, which is the color of asceticism.

The celebrations last 155 days from January, and include six days of ablutions. To organize a trip and participate in the Kumbh Mela, it is necessary to make arrangements in advance, because finding a place is very difficult.

An Indian holy man
Indian holy man or Sadhu

The history of the greatest religious gathering in the world

This massive religious event, dating back to millennia ago, finds its origins in Hindu mythology. During a battle between demons and deities for the conquest of Kumbh, the pitcher that contained Amrit, the nectar of immortality, four drops of the precious fluid fell on the earth, exactly at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain, which became holy cities, point of connection between Earth and Heaven.

The "Great" Kumbh Mela is celebrated every 12 years because according to the myth, narrated in various versions, the battle between demons and gods lasted 12 days. The Hindus believe that one day for the gods coincides with a year of human life.

Two Indian holy men
Holy men in India

Sadhus, yogis and naga babas

There are the yogis, the masters of yoga, a discipline much more complex than what is commonly known and practiced in the Western world. There are the naga babas, the ascetic warriors who, naked and covered with ashes, hold the trident of Shiva in their hands. And then there are the sadhus, men with a painted face and a long beard, who dedicate their lives to meditation and asceticism, far from everyday worries.

Everyone plunges into the waters of the Ganges or Yamuna rivers, wearing garlands and singing religious hymns. Ordinary people from all over India also take part, and the cities concerned prepare themselves several months before the great event, which involves the construction of camps, the deployment of many police forces, doctors and health facilities. The Kumbh Mela in fact, due to overcrowding and diving in rivers, often involves problems in terms of safety and hygiene, but it remains one of the most evocative events in the world.

India's holy man
A Sadhu preaching on the streets of India

Its effect is well described by the words of the writer Mark Twain, who attended the Kumbh Mela in 1895:

"It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites".