Often attracting over 200 million attendees, this Hindu religious festival is the largest festival and gathering of humans in the world.
The legend behind Kumbh Mela (the festival of the sacred Pitcher) is that Hindu gods and demons were fighting over a kumbh (pot or pitcher), carrying amrit, the nectar of immortality, created after the forces of good and evil churned the ocean of creation. The winning god who managed to obtain the kumbh (different sources name different gods as the winner of the pot) stopped at Prayag, Hardwar, Nasik, and Ujjain on his way to paradise. The journey took 12 heavenly days (which are much longer than earthly days), and therefore the mela follows a 12-year cycle.
During this cycle, the site of observance rotates between the four pilgrimage places on four sacred rivers, at Haridwar (Ganges), Ujjain (Shipra), Nashik (Godavari) and Prayag (Ganges-Yamuna-Saraswati confluence). Depending on what position the Sun, Moon, and Jupiter hold in that period in different zodiac signs, the venue for Kumbh Mela is decided, which means it isn’t a simple matter of holding it every three years.
Each festival attracts millions, with the largest gathering at the Prayag Kumbh Mela at Allahabad. The junction of the three rivers at Allahabad is called the sangam and is considered by some the holiest place in India. Haridwar is the second biggest mela and these two mela take place with six-years between them.
To accommodate such a mind-boggling number of people, a vast tent city appears at each mela, with temporary water and power lines. Movies of Hindu gods and heroes are shown from the backs of trucks, and plays recounting Hindu mythology are performed. Merchants lay out all manner of goods.
Millions of pilgrims irrespective of caste, creed or gender gather to bathe in the rivers to wash away the sins of their past lives and pray to escape the cycle of reincarnation. Sadhus, or holy men, carry images of deities to the river for immersion, and the most ascetic sadhus, naked except for loincloths, their faces and bodies smeared with ashes, go in procession to the waters, escorting images borne on palanquins.
In 2017, Kumbh Mela was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
The most recent Kumbh Mela took place at Prayag in 2019. The next scheduled Kumbh Mela will be in 2022 at Haridwar.