Kumbh Mela is literally like that overflowing pot it means. It is difficult to describe what is inside it. The more you observe, experience and indulge in it, the more you see and the more keeps coming. There are so many lenses through which you can look at, I wonder if there can be an exhaustive list.
There is the known history of Kumbh Mela though no one knows when it began. We can only say the oldest record date was this, which would take it back to at least 3000 years ago.
What is Kumbh Mela?
It is a festival that is held every 12 years at 4 places in India – Haridwar, Prayagraj, Ujjain & Nasik. Haridwar and Prayagraj also have Ardh Kumbh Mela mid-way between two Kumbh Melas. So, a total of 6 Kumbh Melas take place within a span of 12 years.
At Prayagraj, Kumbh Mela happens at the holy confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers called Triveni Sangam, in fact, on the floodplains creates by them. At Haridwar, it happens on the banks of Ganga at Har ki Pauri, in Ujjain on banks of Shipra river and in Nasik on ghats of Godavari river.
Snan or taking a dip in the holy waters of these rivers is an essential part of attending.
For more info read – Kumbha – The Traditionally Modern Mela
Ongoing one at Prayagraj is the Ardh Kumbh Mela.
Kumbh Mela Dates
Prayagraj Kumbh Mela starts on Makar Sankranti which happens on Jan 14th and ends on Mahashivratri. So the 2019 congregation takes place between Jan 14th, 2019 – Mar 04, 2019.
Kumbh Schedule 2019
Important dates are the Shahi Snan days when the Sadhus take a royal dip in the waters of Triveni Sangam. For 2019, these dates are:
Makar Sankranti – Jan 13th
Paush Purnima – 21st Jan
Mauni Amavasya – 4th Feb
Basant Panchami – 10th Feb
Magh Purnima – 19th Feb
Maha Shivratri – 4th Mar
If you plan to travel during Shahi Snan days, remember these are the most crowded days. I planned my trip between two Shahi Snans.
There are legends like Sagar Manthan or the churning of the ocean associated with it. Almost everyone associated with native religions of India has visited a Mela. Having said that, even though the religious beliefs and spirituality is at the core of Kumbh Mela, it is also a festival that connects people who come here. It is a celebration of humanity as a whole, of people who share the common faith and history and people who want to grow together.
No one invites anyone to Kumbh Mela. People and Sadhus know the dates of all the 4 Kumbh Melas as per the Indian calendar. They just show up there. Even during times when there were epidemics, restrictions, wars, emergency, the numbers may have gone down, but Mela happened uninterrupted.
So, don’t wait for an invite, just land up there.
There are no checks or screenings of any kind based on anything. Anyone can visit and participate. The only exception would be if you try to create trouble of any kind.
Not a Managed Tourist Event
It is not a managed event of any kind. Government agencies, do take care of all kinds of arrangements but they are not really the hosts. It is a public event, by the public and for the public.
Kumbh Mela is absolutely free. There is no ticket of any kind for anything once you reach there.
You can even feed yourself for free, you can live there for free if you want.
Video of Kumbh Mela
Watch the glimpses of 2019 congregation at Prayagraj in this video.
Festival of Sadhus and Saints
Kumbh Mela is essentially is a congregation of Sadhus of Hindu Faith. All the Sadhus, belonging to 13 Akhadas, many sampradayas or communities come to the Mela. They set up their temporary homes here and live with fellow Sadhus and devotees.
Sadhus meet each other, debate and discuss issues of the relevance which may include political issues. They induct new Sadhus into their ashrams while others may get promotions. They engage openly with the people through their lectures, Kathas, Kirtans or even cultural programs. I attended a Kavi Sammelan or a poetry session where Baba Ramdev and Swami Shraddhanand participated with the audience and as the audience.
Read More – Naimisharanya – The Tapobhumi of 88,000 Rishis
Some of these saints are not easy to meet or even find. Here they are easily available and accessible. I met the Mahamandleshwar of Maha Nirvani Akhada, the oldest Akhada and I can tell the 30 minutes I spent with him, listening to him are precious.
Meet them but remember to be respectful even if you do not agree with them. If you go like an empty vessel, you will come back filled with the wisdom they share.
Be the Minimalist
Kumbh Mela is a lesson in minimalism. There are Naga Sadhus who wear nothing and are an epitome of minimalism. On the other hand, there are pilgrims who carry everything they have on their heads and keep walking around the Mela grounds. Most people live in a tent accommodation that is provided on the floodplains of Ganga and Yamuna River at Prayagraj.
Kalpavasis, who live here for 30-40 days live on a single meal a day. They spend their day in spiritual pursuits. Most people walk around although the facility of e-rickshaws is there.
It is your opportunity to experiment with how minimal can you go with your living.
Walk & Wander
If you want to truly experience the Mela, you need to walk around or in fact wander around. You never know what you would end up seeing. Like I was amazed to see this young girl balancing herself on the tight rope that I had seen only in films till now. However, what was more amazing was that end of the act, people not just gave money, but they also touched her feet.
Read More – Ganga Aarti
Walk along the river, walk on the streets of the Kumbh Nagari, walk through the Akhadas, walk across the river, walk in the city, walk inside the fort, walk to the temples.
Do Not Expect a Time Table
Kumbh Mela is a strange place, where everything moves, but it moves when it wants to move. There is no time table as such. No wonder, most cultural program banners forgot to mention the time. Even when it is mentioned, the time can vary. Since there is no ticketed event, there is no binding on anyone to follow the time. People are driven more by the joy of doing things than adhering to a strict timeline.
It can be unsettling for the urban traveler on the first day. By the second day, you get used to it. In fact, you start enjoying it with its rhythm that is as predictable as it gets. I had a list of things to see on Day 1. By the second day, I just followed my instinct.
Crowd & Chaos at Kumbha Mela 2019
It is, of course, the most crowded place you can go to. The numbers are mind-boggling, you have to be there to believe it. Crowds that follow no fixed plan are bound to be chaotic. But does that create a problem? A big NO.
No one is in a hurry. Day 1, I was walking around as if I am going to miss something if I do not move fast. Day 2, I knew that no matter how much I am going to run, I would only see a fraction of it. The pace set in, I was moving along with the crowds, randomly. I stopped wherever something or someone caught my fancy. I ate from the pushcarts, from bhandaras, from small shops, and with fellow pilgrims. The conversations would typically give us a peep into each other’s worlds.
Trust comes easily at Kumbh Mela.
From the chaos emerged magic when a procession of Sadhus passed or when ISKCON troupes sang and danced on the streets or a procession of floats goes by.
Where to Stay?
Traditionally, if you are visiting, you are supposed to stay on the banks of the river, the venue of the Mela. Kumbh Nagari is also set up on the floodplains created by the rivers. It is not uncommon to stay with local families or hotels close to the Mela. With the growing size of the Mela, many facilities have been built for visitors.
For the urban traveler, there is a luxury tent city, where one need not worry about anything. For the mid-range traveler, there are city hotels. Although they may be costlier than usual during the Mela times.
For pilgrims, there are all kinds of facilities at Kumbh Nagari. I saw a huge hall with 300 or so beds, where you get a bed and bedding at Rs 100/- per bed per night. There are even free Rain Baseras for those who cannot afford to pay. Akhadas and Ashrams are open to hosting people. Kalpavasis stay at the tents provided by the administration.
There is so much food available that you may be spoilt for choice. An unwritten rule is that all food served is vegetarian.
You can eat for free at Bhandaras run by various ashrams. Although if you can afford, you must pay by donating to the ashram or by contributing to feeding the poor.
There are small shops that sell snacks and basic food. There are pushcart sellers selling desi snacks like roasted grains, bhelpuri, chaats, etc. Tea is literally available anytime anywhere. Even if you sit down to chat with a Sadhu, within minutes, piping hot tea would be offered to you.
At the VIP ghats like Arial Ghat, you have cafes and restaurant like facilities.
Meeting of the Worlds
It is a place where the renunciates come and live with the world and the worldly people come to live like ascetics for a brief time. It is a place where the two worlds meet, a unique Sangam of humanity.
Roam around and meet people unlike you, people whose world is very different from yours. The exchange at a place where 3 rivers meet will enrich you just like the rivers enrich the lands on their banks.
Once you are there, feeling blessed is normal.