Sublime and surreal, the Kumbh Mela festival is an absolute must for anyone earning their graduate degree in festivals. The festival is filled with spiritual lectures, religious performances and the cleansing of sins. The world’s biggest carnival is so large that on its main days it can be seen on space satellites—just imagine what it feels like to be on the ground.
Kumbh Mela – The Nectar of Life
Kumbh Mela has its origins in a mythical battle between Hindu gods and demons over a kumbh (pitcher) filled with the nectar of immortality. The story goes that the pitcher broke in the fight, scattering drops of nectar in four riverside cities: Nashik, Ujjain, Haridwar, and Allahabad. When the planets align in the same position as the original battle (approximately every 3 years), pilgrims flock to these four places, while the larger Maha Kumbh Mela happens every 12 years in Allahabad.
The highlight of the mela (fair) is the most auspicious bathing day (Mauni Amavasya Snan), when bathers wash away their own sins from this lifetime as well as those of their family’s 88 previous generations. This ensures liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirth for oneself and one’s ancestors. The bathing starts at 4am, with the Naga sect of crazy naked men the first ones in. It’s a complete zoo of people, so the Nagas knock people down on their way into the water. An estimated 30 million people bathed together in the Ganges on February 10, 2013.
Relax & Retreat
An estimated 50 to 110 million fervent devotees make the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, so it’s important to have a place to escape when you need a break. The guru camps are where you’ll get respite from the crowds, and while the experience may sound terrifying, you’ll be surprised by how well-organized, clean, comfortable, and, in some cases, spacious the various camps are. You might be cautious about entering a camp as it feels a little like a private compound, but just smile, be gracious, and enter knowing that part of the way these gurus and sects propagate their message is by meeting new people. You may even be offered a free meal.
One fundamental reason devotees flock to the mela is to connect with their clan. They come together to listen to their babas (gurus); at the 2013 mela there were an estimated 50,000 babas, each with their own flock. The most interesting of the pilgrims are the sadhus, Hindu holy men who see their sect as an extension or a replacement of their family. You’ll recognize them by the sacred ash smeared on their foreheads, the garlands of marigolds around their necks, and the bright orange robes they wear (Nagas, however, don more ash, less cloth).
Generally speaking, the daytime activities in the camps and tents are more focused on devotional lectures from gurus, while at night it’s all about theatrical performances relating to great Hindu epics. Throughout the day you’ll see naked ascetics perform miracles, Brahmins provide blessings, marching bands appear out of nowhere, and really inexpensive, gorgeous Indian textiles, jewelry, and other gifts available for sale on the streets.
The experience is profound on many levels, from the cultural anthropology to the physical beauty, and while you may not understand Hindi it’s more than likely you understand love, which is what’s most prevalent at this festival.