Kumbh Mela: a guide to the world's largest religious gathering in India

Kumbh Mela. India. Festival. Ganges. 'Kumbh Mela / Haridwar' by -.-Paul-.-Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs

This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

Location: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain or Nasik, India

Dates: Vary widely, occurring when Jupiter enters Aquarius and the sun enters Aries. The event lasts for more than one month.

Level of participation: 5 – you’re welcome to bathe in the rivers, though they’re notoriously polluted

The largest religious gathering on earth occurs four times every 12 years, when tens of millions of Hindu pilgrims come together to take a ceremonial dip in the sacred Ganges, Shipra or Godavari Rivers. Locations for the gathering hopscotch across the plains between Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik, cities where drops of the nectar of immortality were spilled from its kumbh (pitcher) during a battle between demi-gods and demons.

Kumbh Mela commemorates this victory for good in the battle for supremacy against evil. Each of the four cities hosts one mela (festival) during the 12-year cycle, with the largest, the Maha (Great) Kumbh Mela, taking place in Allahabad. This is where the holy rivers – the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati – converge, and a spot where all pious Hindus hope to bathe at least once in their lives. During 2013's Maha Kumbh Mela, on one day alone 30 million people are thought to have bathed. (For more on 2013's Maha Kumbh Mela, see here.)

The major purpose of Kumbh Mela is to bathe in the rivers on days that are deemed auspicious. These dates are determined by teams of astrologers, who pinpoint the most favourable moment for the mass bathing to begin.

The story of Kumbh Mela is linked to a tale in the Vedic scriptures in which the demi-gods and the demons together churned the milk ocean to produce the nectar of immortality, agreeing to share the nectar equally. Concerned about what might happen if the demons did get hold of the nectar, the demigods seized the pot and fled with it. During the ensuing fight, the demigods hid the nectar in four places: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik. At each spot a drop of nectar was spilled.

During the Kumbh Mela, it’s said that the waters at the four Location:s turn into the nectar, cleansing the sins of your lifetime as well as those dating back 88 generations, giving you a fair leg-up on the samsara tree. Pilgrims and pilgrimages at Kumbh Mela are as varied as Indian society. Some travel on foot for weeks or months, others fly in on jets or helicopters. The gods make no distinction, for anybody who bathes is blessed equally.

The stars of the Kumbh Mela show are the sadhus, for whom the event is the single social event in a very unsociable existence. Solitary by nature, these holy men come in their thousands to Kumbh Mela, camping in groups representing their different akharas, or orders (Shiva, Rama etc). Other pilgrims seek out sadhus, looking for enlightenment and making offerings (and sometimes just smoking pot). You will be allowed to visit areas of some sadhu camps but not all, so ask around.

Most visitors come to Kumbh Mela to simply witness the mass of humanity, though non-Hindus, who were once barred from bathing, can take to the waters (you should still avoid the holiest of the bathing days). You can also pitch a tent in the vast tent city that arises on the river banks – up to 14 sq km of land is set aside for the tents of pilgrims and visitors.

Essentials: If you want a camp site, try not to arrive immediately preceding the mass bathing

Date: To follow the bathing timetable, keep an eye out for the ‘Holy Dip Schedule’ that astrologers draw up for the event. The best viewing point is from the river bank, though on mass bathing days this can be a dangerous spot to be – people are regularly trampled to death at Kumbh Mela – so consider other vantage points.

Local attractions: If you’re in Haridwar and the spiritual bug bites, nearby Rishikesh is India’s yoga and meditation epicentre. If you can’t be bothered making the journey down the road, Haridwar also has dozens of yoga centres and ashrams. In Allahabad, the Anand Bhavan is a meticulously kept shrine to the Nehru family, India’s modern political dynasty.

More info: www.kumbhmela.net

See more festivals in April here.

This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

This article was first published in August 2008 and was refreshed in March 2013.