What is the Kumbh Mela? Everything you need to know about one of the world’s largest religious gatherings held in India

During the festival, crowds gather to dip themselves in the country’s sacred rivers to cleanse themselves of their sins

A Sadhu wearing a facemask takes a holy dip in the Ganges river during the ongoing religious Kumbh Mela festival in Haridwar on April 12, 2021. / AFP / Xavier GALIANA
Powered by automated translation

The Kumbh Mela, one of the most sacred pilgrimages of Hinduism, is currently in full swing.

The months-long Indian festival features colourful processions and prayers, with devotees travelling from across the world to dip themselves in holy rivers to absolve themselves of their sins.

The festival is held at four riverbank pilgrimage sites – Prayagraj (at the confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and the mythical Sarasvati), Haridwar (along the river Ganges), Nashik (along the river Godavari) and Ujjain (along the river Shipra) – over the course of a 12-year cycle.

That means the festival takes place at one of the four locations approximately every three years, although the dates vary and are based on the Hindu calendar and the Zodiac position of the planet Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon.

In 2019, 240 million people visited Allahabad during the 49-day Kumbh Mela, making this one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. These visitors come from across India as well as abroad. The Kumbh Mela in 2019 welcomed approximately 1.03 million foreign tourists.

The festival usually goes on over a period of months, beginning in January. It revolves around certain dates that are considered more auspicious for the Shahi Snan, or main bathing ritual. This year, the first Shahi Snan, which translates to royal bath, was on March 11, followed by April 12. The next will take place on Wednesday, April 14 and on April 27.

Here’s everything you need to know about the festival, which has been inscribed on Unesco’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

History and origin of Kumbh Mela

The word “kumbh” is derived from “Kumbha” or pitcher in Sanskrit, while Mela stands for fair or festival, literally making this the festival of the pitcher or pitcher festival.

According to Hindu legend, the festival gets its name from the pitcher of amrita, or nectar of immortality, that was produced by the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) together.

However, when the gods and demons started fighting over the kumbha with the elixir of immortality, the battle went on for 12 years. During the ensuing fight, four drops of the elixir were spilled on to the Kumbh Mela’s four sites, and that is where devotees now gather to cleanse themselves of their sins and pay tribute to the gods.

There are four types of Kumbh Mela that take place. The traditional Kumbh Mela takes place once every three years, alternating between locations in Nashik, Ujjain, Haridwar and Prayagraj.

The Ardha Kumbh Mela takes place once every six years and only at Haridwar and Prayagraj.

The Purna Kumbh Mela is organised every 12 years. The last one was in 2010 in Haridwar.

Finally, the Maha Kumbh Mela takes place every 144 years, or after every 12 cycles.

What happens during the Kumbh Mela?

A Sadhu (Hindu holy man) prays on the banks of the Ganges River on the day of Shahi Snan (Royal Bath) during the ongoing religious Kumbh Mela festival, in Haridwar on April 12, 2021. / AFP / Money SHARMA
A man prays on the banks of the Ganges River during the ongoing Kumbh Mela in Haridwar on April 12, 2021. AFP

One of the most significant aspects of the Kumbh Mela is the bathing rituals in the holy waters on significant days known as “Shahi Snan”.

Led by sadhus or holy men, devotees attend day-long rituals that take place on the embankment of the rivers. Devotional prayers knowns as aartis are sung and drums are beaten.

The religious bathing takes place every day, but the most auspicious time is the night of the full Moon. Devotees believe that bathing in the river on this day helps a person achieve “moksha” or salvation.

What’s different this year?

epa09130135 An Indian holi man or Naga Sadhu at the during the Kumbh Mela royal bath m(Sacred Hindu Pilgrimage) at Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India, 12 April 2021.Thousands of pilgrims are gathering and taking holy dip in Kumbh Mela that is a mass Hindu pilgrimage which occurs after every twelve years and rotates among four locations Prayag (Allahabad) at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna and mythical Saraswati river, Haridwar along the Ganga river, Ujjain along the Kshipra river and Nashik along the Godavari river.  EPA/IDREES MOHAMMED
An Indian man during the Kumbh Mela royal bath. EPA

This year, the Kumbh Mela has already begun on an unusual note. While the festival usually starts in January and takes place over a period of roughly 49 days or three months, this year, Covid-19 regulations have been put in place to curtail it to just a month.

The Uttarakhand high court has mandated that those visiting carry negative PCR test reports while other safety precautions include thermal screening checkpoints and limiting the time for bathing.

However, local reports have noted that authorities are struggling to contain crowds, with more than 2.8 million devotees turning up for the second shahi snan on April 12, and as many as 102 attendees testing positive for Covid-19.

This comes at a time when India is facing a Covid-19 spike, having overtaken Brazil as the world’s second worst-hit country on April 12.