The world largest gatherings are a series of melas (festivals) held on the Ganges attended by millions of Hindu pilgrims who enter the river in hopes of washing away their sins. There are four major melas: in 1) Allahabad (Prayagraj), 2) in Haridwar, 3) in Nasik, and 4) in Ujjain. Each one is held every 12 years, with one of four held every three years. The one in Allahabad is by far the largest. It attracts over 50 to 100 million people. The others attract about 10 million each.

The Kumbh Mela occurs on the eve of the solar festival Makar Sankranti. Prayagraj is located at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, Haridwar is situated near the source of the Ganges, Ujjain is located on the Shipra river, and Nashik is situated on the bank of the Godavari river. Participants offer prayers to the sun and bathe in the river, a tradition attributed to Adi Shankara. [Source: Wikipedia]

The melas takes place on dates set by astrology when one day of the gods’ time corresponds to a year of human time. The the largest crowds occur at the 12- and 144-year marks, when it's believed that good karma is strongest. The melas are held at confluences of the Ganges with other rivers and last for about 40 or 60 days. Pilgrims come and go, with the greatest numbers arriving and entering the water at the sangam (confluence points) at auspicious times and dates set by Hindu astrologers in accordance with a correct alignment of Jupiter, Saturn, earth and the moon. Because the event is usually held in January and February the water is icy cold.

Kumbh means pot or pitcher. Mela means festival or fair. According to Hindu mythology, the churning of the primordial ocean (‘Samudra Manthan’) threw up Amrit or the nectar of immortality. Both gods and demons were part of the churning process and it was decided that nectar would be shared equally between the two groups. However, a battle broke out between gods and demons for control of the kumbha. During the battle, according to one version of the stor, the celestial bird Garuda flew away with the pot of nectar and spilled drops on the four places the melas are held — Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik — and eight places in heaven. In another version, one god, Vishnu in many stories, spilled the nectar in the four places as he circled the earth with the pitcher for 12 days (12 years in human time. )

Melas are said to wash away sins, cleans the soul and bring good luck in marriages, business and other things. Hindus believe that at the precise moment of the mela, the Ganges turns to heavenly nectar and anyone who bathes in it is freed from the cycle or death, reincarnation and rebirth and is guaranteed eternal salvation. According to Hindu beliefs bathing in the Ganges during one these melas is worth 10 million bathes in the Ganges at a less propitious times.

It is said that the melas date back to the second millennium B.C. If that is true that would make them the oldest continuously-held festivals. According to historical records, including an account in the 7th century by the Chinese traveler Hsuang Tang, the melas were huge gatherings for sadhus, gurus, swamis, and yogis. Mark Twain was among the first Americans to attend a mela. On a gthering he saw in 1896, he wrote: “It is wonderful,” a marvel to "our kind of people, the cold whites...The power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining.”

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Kumbh Mela Pilgrims

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Khumba Mela devotees
Mela pilgrims daub their foreheads with ash or sandlewood, give money to beggars lined on the shores, chant prayers, clasp their hands in prayers and march into the icy cold knee'deep waters. Some women shave their heads. Many men enter the water naked. Some bring buckets to carry the water home.

Describing a pilgrim, who works as an engineer in Agra, John Burns wrote in the New York Times, "Sharma made his way through the dense crowd of worshipers, pressing towards the river. Less than two hours remained to the most propitious moment..."He] stripped to his underwear, plunged into the shallow edge of India's holiest river and raised cupped handfuls of water towards the rising sun."

Explaining why he was there, Sharma said, "Something is there, something which I am not exactly knowing, something which is hidden, something which I may not be able to prove technically, but which I know to be the in my soul."

Some pilgrims have disabilities. Burns met one man, who was paralyzed in both legs and took 20 hours to drag himself 10 miles from his camp so he could enter the Ganges at the most auspicious time.

Tens of thousands of men, women and children have their heads shaved by the thousands of barbers who set up shop under tents near the river. One barber told Reuter, "A haircut here is considered the most auspicious. Every hair removed during the Kumbh is as good as offering a cow to the gods." Hindus believe that shaving their heads during the mela and immersing their hair in holy water is a purifying act. The hair of children is mixed with dough and thrown into the river for good luck. For widows, head shaving is regarded as the end of one life and the beginning of another.

Kumbh Mela Sadhus

Sadhus (Hindu holy men) dominate the melas. They arrive from all over India and set up camps near the Ganges, where they pray, meditate, give blessings, do yoga, chant mantras and engage in discourses on various matters. Not all the sadhus fit the image of stereotypical holy men. Some arrive in fancy, air-conditioned cars. According to Indian newspapers many are fakes who just trying to make a fast buck.

Thirteen akharas (group/ school/institution of sadhus) — including Juna, Nimrohi, Digambar, and Nirvani — participated at the month-long Maha Kumbh Mela held in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh in April and May, 2016, Of these akharas, seven followed Shavism (a Shiva sect), three followed Panchayati and three were Vaishnavite (Vishnu followers). The main types of sadhus at Simhastha were: 1) Naga sadhus, naked sadhus who smear their bodies with ash and have long matted hair; 2) Shirshasinse, who remain standing, sleeping with their heads resting on a vertical poles, and meditating standing on their heads; 3) Kalpvasis, who remain by the river banks and devote their time to meditating, performing rituals, and bathing numerous times a day; 4) Urdhwavahurs, who have emaciated bodies from rigid spiritual practices; and 5) Parivajakas, who who have taken a vow of silence. Constant exposure to the weather makes the Naga sadhus resistant to temperature extremes. Their eyes are bloodshot from constantly smoking charas (marijuana), which they believe aids enlightenment. [Source: Debobrat Ghose, First Post, Apr, 23 2016]

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In a 1991 book on sadhus, Rajesh Bedi wrote, "When the stars were in a particular position, the sadhus simply followed the great river to their confluences and stayed there until others from all directions, joined them. Then they discussed the state of the body politic , the economic condition of the people and the philosophical an theological questions."

The sadhus are organized into monastic orders called akharas , which are led supreme leaders called shankarachrayas . Describing their procession to the Ganges, Burns wrote, they "marched across pontoon bridges to the bath ghats...The crowds tossed garlands of marigolds and shouted, 'We bow to you, oh holy men!' 'We kiss your feet!' and 'Long live Lord Ram!”

Leading the procession into the Ganges are hundreds of naked, ash-covered sadhus with tridents, the symbol of Siva. After them come followers on camels, horses and elephants and millions of pilgrims who approach the sacred site from boats as well as on land by foot. The ashes that cover the naked sadhus comes from dung fires.

"The sadhus and their leaders, many of them carried to the ghats in gaily-colored palanquins shaded from the sun by gold and crimson parasols, waved back regally," Burns wrote. The sadhus "marched to the river in triumph, headed by hundreds of stark naked Nagas sadhus, the warrior-like holy men who constitute a kind of commando force."

Kumbh Mela Infrastructure

The Haridwar Mela in 1998 was organized with the help of the Indian government. Over 100 miles of roads were fixed up, 50 miles of pipes were installed to make sure drinking water reached the pilgrims. To handle the massive crowds the Indian government erected pontoon bridges so that worships could make their way to camps on both side of the Ganges. Main thoroughfares were paved with metal plates and tents cities were erected to help accommodate all the people. The biggest problems are stampedes and people getting lost in the crowds. It is also difficult to provide enough food , drinking water and sanitary facilities.

Allahabad Kumbh Mela in 2013

The government of Uttar Pradesh, the Indian state in which Allahabad is located, runs the Melas there. Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, This is a prestigious posting, and government officials spend years planning the event. On the private side, the most powerful akharas seem to take a lead role organizing the central sectors and deciding the order in which they will proceed to the Sangam on auspicious bathing days. The Kumbh Mela works in a way that most other Indian cities do not in part because everyone is on their best behavior: Civil servants know that their careers will be defined by these few weeks in the national spotlight; members of the public arrive with a sense of purpose and community. [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Rahul Mehrotra of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design told Smithsonian magazine: “When you look at structures like refugee camps, you often see everything planned out in advance, with rows of identical houses built for refugees to just move right into. “But the theory of urban planning for the Kumbh Mela is very different. The authorities provide the infrastructure—roads, water, electricity—and they divvy up the sectors between groups. But each individual organization has to build out their own space, which makes for much more of a community than when you just move people into something you’ve built for them. There’s some rigidity to the Kumbh Mela planning system, with its preordained grid structure and its map of the sectors and their essential resources ahead of time, but there’s also a profound flexibility. Individual communities can shape their spaces to be exactly as they want them to be. And that combination works.”

Maha Kumbh Mela

The Maha Kumbh Mela (literally "Grand Pitcher Festival") is regarded as the largest religious festival and the largest assemblage of people in the world. Held once every twelve years, it attracts tens of millions of Hindu faithful who come to the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna River (as well as the mythical river of Saraswati) in Allahabad for ritual bathing. The most auspicious place to bath was a long spit of land located right where the two rivers meet. Hindus from all castes, classes and sects take part in the ritual which supposed to wash away ones sins. The bathing is followed by spiritual purification and a ceremony which secures the blessings from the gods. [Source: Tony Heiderer, National Geographic May 1990, BBC]

Laura Spinney wrote in National Geographic: “ Every year several million people make the pilgrimage to Allahabad to perform that ritual at a gathering called a mela. Every 12 years, when the alignment of the stars is considered particularly auspicious, the gathering is an order of magnitude larger, and a giant tent city rises out of the Ganges floodplain to host the Maha Kumbh Mela, or Kumbh....The mela has always excited outsiders’ curiosity, mainly for its exotic processions of naked, snarling, ash-smeared holy men. [Source: Laura Spinney, National Geographic, February, 2014]

The Maha Kumbh Mela in 1989 attracted around 50 million people. It was described by the Guinness Book of World Records as "the largest gathering of human beings for a single purpose." The festival in 1989 began in January. The most propitious time to bathe during Kumbhayoun on February 6th

In 2013, more than 110 million people, including naga sadhus, immersed themselves in the Ganges during the six auspicious bathing days during the 55-day festival decided by the alignment of stars. Men bathed in underpants; women in saris and children naked and clothed. The bathing process is initiated from the ghats (bathing areas) by the religious heads of different Hindu monasteries. Some people are carried in silver palanquins accompanied by marching bands. Pilgrims wait behind barricades as the religious heads initiate the bathing.

Maha Kumbh Mela Atmosphere

There is a circus like atmosphere at the melas. Vendors sell everything imaginable; Bollywood movies are shown on the back panels of trucks; and plays with child actors are performed that depict episodes in Hindu mythology. Displays with Christmas-style lights sprouting from the heads mannequins represent the great rivers of India flowing from Shiva's hair. [Source: Tony Heiderer, National Geographic May 1990]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “It's dusk, and the sun's rays succumb to the twinkle of amber streetlights at the sacred confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The day's last bathers, intent on washing away sins and purifying their souls, take a dip in the cold, dirty water and then relax on blankets and launch boats covered in marigolds. This is as close to peace and quiet as it gets at India's Maha Kumbh Mela, a once-in-a-lifetime (well, this lifetime) Woodstock-gone-viral event billed as the world's largest religious festival. How big? It's expected to draw 100 million people over 55 days ending March 10. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2013 ++]

Allahabad at night during Kumbh Mela in 2013

“Part spiritual journey, part commercial circus, the Hindu tradition is a full-frontal assault on senses too often dulled by the debilitating sameness of chain outlets, corporate-sports swooshes and designer coffee. As stragglers head inland, they're greeted by the smoke, dust and noise of this 4,700-acre pop-up megacity — and its 35,000 portable potties. Lost-relative messages spew from loudspeakers, clashing with movie soundtracks, Hindu chants and religious lectures blasting from hundreds of compounds adorned with fluorescent peacocks, flashing goddesses and twirling signs that read, "I love India." "It's all a bit crazy," said Baba Nirbhaya Puri, looking on from his (understated) ashram. "We're here for inner peace, not this stuff." ++

“The masses arrive from dusty villages and bustling cities aboard tractors, jets and rickshaws to this place deep in India's soul where myths breathe and gods with elephant heads and monkey bodies embody the country's rich, textured religious culture. "Wash your sins in the Ganges, not your clothes," a sign entreats as women wring out saris and men shiver in wet skivvies, oblivious to the health risks of dipping in one of the world's most polluted rivers. With 750 million gallons of sewage dumped each day into the 1,500-mile river, any link between cleanliness and godliness is an overwhelming act of faith. There's no shortage of that. "Mother Ganges purifies itself," said Ram Naresh, 70, a farmer. "One drop cleanses the body and the soul." ++

“As morning dawns over flat sandy grounds that stretch as far as the eye can see, thousands of pilgrims emerge from tattered tents, thatched huts and elaborate cupola-adorned ashrams seeking wisdom from legions of sadhus. These holy men — hermits from Himalayan retreats, thoughtful philosophers, eccentric extroverts — are fawned over by star-struck followers celebrating their work in this life and those expected to follow. "I swam five times in the Ganges and cleansed my sins," said Aakor Singh Maharaj, 40, a sadhu sporting a pink shirt, expensive cellphone and movie star sunglasses. "Actually I never had that many."” ++

How Surprisingly Organized the Maha Kumbh Mela Is

Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “I arrived by taxi at the Kumbh at sunset, expecting throngs of cars, cows and human beings blocking all access points. Instead I glided comfortably into my camp, which sat on a hilltop. I looked out over the fleeting city before me: makeshift shelters constructed on the floodplain of a river that was sure to overflow again in a few months. The soundtrack consisted of dissonant chords of shrill songs, snippets of amped-up holy recitations, a distorted line from a dramatic performance of an Indian epic and the constant rumble of millions of people cooking, chatting, snoring and singing. The horizon was dark and smoky red, with colorful flickers of light piercing the haze in orderly, geometric rows that stretched as far as I could see in three directions. [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Kumbh Mela security

“What struck me as soon as I descended into the byways of the Kumbh was something I had not anticipated: It was the cleanest and most orderly Indian city I’d ever seen. Wide boulevards built from metal plates bisected long lines of tents. White splashes dotted the sand where sanitation workers had disposed of waste and then scattered lye. The grounds stretched so far and wide, nearly eight square miles, that there was, at that time, none of the crowding and claustrophobia I’d feared. Clean and orderly streets were inhabited by citizens apparently enjoying an evening of enlightenment from lecturing gurus or entertainment from costumed Ramayana actors. There was little commerce of any kind, save for the occasional street-side snack stand that sold fried potatoes or popcorn, and there was little or no traffic, as vehicles were restricted. Pedestrians seemed to move with purpose, proceeding from mess hall to music performance, from the feet of their gurus to the tiny warming fires they’d lit in front of their tents.

“That night, as I wandered the streets of the Kumbh—housing, lecture halls, open-air cafeterias, meeting areas for sadhus, disciples and pilgrims—I tried to make sense of the layout, a grid of 14 designated sectors. Mehrotra and his co-workers had mapped out the Kumbh’s center, sent around a video van to document the main streets and flown kite cameras high above the crowds to capture the event from yet another perspective.”

Kumbh Mela Pop-Up Megacity

Rahul Mehrotra of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design told Smithsonian magazine: “We call this a pop-up megacity. It’s a real city, but it’s built in just a few weeks to instantly accommodate tens of millions of residents and visitors. It’s fascinating in its own right, of course. But our main interest is in what can we learn from this city that we can then apply to designing and building all kinds of other pop-up megacities like it. Can what we see here teach us something that will help the next time the world has to build refugee camps or emergency settlements? It’s the biggest religious shopping mall in the world. Every kind of different Hindu group you can imagine comes together here to show off their wares, share their knowledge and vie for disciples. You have to get down there and see for yourself.” [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Standing on the main permanent bridge to Allahabad, which offers a good view, of the pop-up city, Mehrotra said: “They create a completely gridded city on top of this shifting floodplain,” said “And the way that they impose this grid on the river is by building 18 small pontoon bridges that crisscross the Ganges and Yamuna, allowing the grid to go on, even across the water.”

Sangam, the holy bathing area where the two large rivers came together, sits on one side of the bridge. During the gathering sandbags fortify the banks; fences in the mid-stream bathing areas keep pilgrims from drifting down the river. “Before 1954 the Sangam area was much, much smaller,” said Mehrotra. “But at the Kumbh Mela that year there was a terrible stampede in which hundreds died. After that the authorities decided to expand the Sangam and reduce the chances of that happening again.”

Sector 4, where the 16 major akharas, Hindu religious organizations, had their headquarters, is situated between the bridge and the bathing area. Across the water, on the other side of the bridge, is a temporary administrative center, with a hospital, portable ATMs, a Kumbh history exhibit and an open-air market for food, clothing, religious goods and souvenirs. Going away from the Sangam, on the other side of the bridge, stretched more and more tent cities. “Think of it as an ordinary city,” Mehrotra told Smithsonian magazine. “Over there is the downtown where the biggest and most important groups reside and where everyone comes together, in this case to bathe in the Ganges. Behind us are the suburbs, more sparsely populated, farther from the action, with all kinds of other, different groups living out there. Some gurus choose to be out there so they can be away from the maelstrom and gather quietly and peacefully with their followers. Others are relegated to the margins because they don’t have the clout to get a place in the center. It works just like any other city. Except that it’s all built, lived in and then dissembled in a matter of a few months.”

An American sadhu told Smithsonian magazine: “This event is almost always described by the Western media as this huge gathering of the superstitious and primitive masses. But I would contend that if you compare the people here to their equivalent in Europe or the United States and assess them with the yardstick of culture, you’d see things very differently. If you look at the number of different kinship terms people use, or the sophisticated storytelling culture they have, then you realize that these are not ignorant people drawn here by blind faith.” He said when he attended his first Kumbh Mela, in 1971, there were no latrines, little running water and only the most basic tents. On how it has modernized, he said: “How do you effectively pass your traditions down through time. You can’t just keep things as they were. Stasis is death. You have to be dynamic to survive.”

On how it all works, Mehrotra said, “There are a few central insights. First, you need flexible infrastructure that can be rapidly deployed for sanitation, transport and electricity. Second, public-private partnerships can work if it’s very clearly understood what each side will do. Here the religious groups knew exactly what they would get from the government and what they would have to fill in for themselves. Third, we can see that when there is a common cultural identity, as there is among the Kumbh Mela attendees, it means that they can much more easily conform to the norms of a new place and live together.”

Sadhu Organization and Guru Infrastructure at the Kumbh Mela

Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “I traveled to the central sector where the 16 major akharas were located. The Juna akhara is the most powerful and influential of these. Inside a large compound, consisting of orange tents arrayed around a massive orange flag hoisted high above the encampment on a pole, the sadhus sat next to fires that their disciples helped keep burning day and night. [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In a country with a reputation for poor infrastructure and checkered garbage collection, the management of this spiritual smorgasbord is impressive. The festival site, administered by the government here in the north-central state of Uttar Pradesh, boasts temporary water pipes, power lines, police stations and 90 miles of makeshift road. "I can't find my guru's place," said Subhash Barot, a physician from Indore. "It's overwhelming." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 7, 2013 ++]

“At the control center, administrator Mani Prasad Mishra is ringed by supplicants seeking better locations, more electricity, new neighbors. Sadhus are allocated specific sites and pay no rent; the limited number of shops allowed into the area pay for the privilege. "It's nothing but complaints," he said with a sigh. "This is definitely the most challenging job of my career." ++

“As the sun ascends, Sri Amar Bharti Baba attracts curiosity-seekers and supplicants eager to see his right arm, held aloft for three decades in a supreme act of denial and willpower. The sadhu's fingers have fused, their curled, blackened nails resembling talons. His left hand reaches for the hashish he chain-smokes to open his spiritual channels. "There's only five or six doing this in the world," said Horst Brutsche, 57, a German devotee of 18 years known as Datta Bharti. "It's definitely not for me." ++

“Tolerance hangs over the fair like the midmorning haze, the best of a Hindu tradition that finds spiritual truth in Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, Buddha as well as its own 330 million gods. "All people are God's children, our brothers," said Naga Baba Bodhi Giri Maharaj, wearing mutton-chop sideburns and little else. "Even Pakistanis." Hindu sects gently elbow for recruits in a nation with a declining interest in asceticism and the growing lure of worldly pleasures, seeking to attract pilgrims through posters, tutorials and food. Naresh, the farmer, has learned when various ashrams ring their dinner bells. "The free food is great," he said. ++

“A late-morning crowd heads for Sri Panchayti Akhara Nirmala's chandelier-adorned compound in search of free tea as Sikh sadhu Nihang Singh voices reservations about all the talk of peace and love. "I'm open to war," he said, dressed in purple robes, a spear and flip-flops. "Sometimes you must beat back evil." Outside, pilgrims in sandals and bare feet sidestep stray dogs scrounging for samosas past a line of naked ascetics known as nagas, many of them sitting cross-legged tending log and cow-dung fires.

Haridwar in 2010

Kumbh Mela Makes You More Healthy?

Spinney wrote in National Geographic: “ Before the start of the 2011 mela a colleague of Stephen Reicher’s, Shruti Tewari of Allahabad University, organized a team of field workers to go out into the countryside and question 416 prospective kalpwasis about their mental and physical health. They did the same for 127 of the kalpwasis’ neighbors, and they returned to administer the same questionnaires to both groups a month after the mela had finished. They also interviewed the kalpwasis during the festival, to record their experiences of it. [Source: Laura Spinney, National Geographic, February, 2014 ^^]

“Their findings....Those who stayed in their villages self-reported no real change over the period of the study. The kalpwasis, on the other hand, reported a 10 percent improvement in their health, including less pain and breathlessness, less anxiety, and higher energy levels—an effect comparable to that of some powerful drugs. Antidepressants, for instance, have been estimated to reduce the public health burden of depression in some populations by about 10 percent. But as Reicher points out, antidepressants treat only depression, whereas the crowd “drug” seemed to have a positive influence on all aspects of the kalpwasis’ health. What’s more, the good effects last long afterward—certainly for weeks, possibly for months. ^^

“The message, then, is love thy neighbor, because thy neighbor will spur thee on to greater things, as Vashisht Narayan Mishra, a 69-year-old retired teacher and kalpwasi, explained to me. I had asked him how he found the courage to take the plunge on a frigid morning. “Seeing people bathe who are more aged than me inspires me,” he said. “Who inspires them?” I asked. “God,” he replied. ^^

Why the Kumbh Mela Makes You More Healthy

Spinney wrote: “Why should belonging to a crowd improve your health? The psychologists think the cornerstone of the effect is shared identity. “You think in terms of ‘we’ rather than ‘I,’” explains Nick Hopkins, a colleague of Reicher’s from the University of Dundee in the U.K., and that in turn alters your relationship to other people: “What happens is a fundamental shift from seeing people as other to seeing them as intimate.” Support is given and received, competition turns to cooperation, and people are able to realize their goals in a way they wouldn’t be able to alone. That elicits positive emotions that make them not only more resilient to hardship but also healthier. [Source: Laura Spinney, National Geographic, February, 2014 ^^]

“Belonging to a crowd—at least the right sort of crowd—might thus benefit the individual in the same ways more personal social connections do. We know that stress-resilience mechanisms can be activated by social interaction, with positive effects on the immune and cardiovascular systems. Very socially connected people tend to have lower levels of molecules associated with inflammation circulating in their blood, for example. They are less likely to die of heart disease and some cancers, and there’s some evidence that they are less vulnerable to age-related cognitive decline. They respond better to vaccinations. Their wounds may even heal faster. ^^

Bathing in the Ganges at Haridwar in 2010

“Reicher makes a critical distinction between a physical and a psychological crowd. A physical crowd—commuters jostling on a subway, for instance—lacks a shared identity. Although being very socially connected isn’t the same as being physically surrounded by other people, it has a lot in common with belonging to a psychological crowd—sharing a group identity. And it isn’t just bodily systems that are altered by the shift from “I” to “we.” “Belonging to the crowd can change the way you see the world,” says Reicher’s colleague, psychologist Mark Levine of the University of Exeter in the U.K. “It can alter your perception.” In interviews kalpwasis often described the noise at the mela as blissful. “It’s God’s name ringing in your ears,” said one. “The noise?” said another. “Oh, this is the real Saraswati.” ^^

Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001

In 2001 more than 40 million people gathered in an area smaller than 20 sq km (7.7 sq mi). Among them were sadhus, or a Hindu holy men, smoking marijuana in chillums on the banks of Ganges River.

The Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 was regarded as the most auspicious in 144 years because of: 1) the way the stars and planets were aligned; 2) it coincided with a lunar eclipse; and 3) it was the first Kumbh Mela of a new millennium. Announcements were made on loudspeaker to prevent everyone from bathing at the same time. One organizer told AFP, "The major concern is that there is a constant inflow with no counter-balancing outflow."

The Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 lasted 43 days from January 9th to February 21th. The most propitious day was January 24th. The best bathing time lasted from 6:00am to 3:30pm. According to some estimates 70 million people, including Madonna, showed up. Around 4.2 million people entered the Ganges on the first day. On the most auspicious day around 30 million people entered the river.

For the most part the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001 went off with relatively few hitches. One organizer told Reuter, "We know it's an awesome task. And we have prepared for any eventuality...We have worked out the crowd movement in such a way that they will not be allowed to swell beyond a limit at any given point." Commercial activity, except for the sale of vegetarian food, was restricted. Some of akharas boycotted the climatic bath because they were denied space at auspicious spots at the most auspicious times.

Kumbh Mela 2001

Kumbh Mela Violence and Filth

Violence sometimes breaks out between rival akharas over gaining access to the best spots on the river at the best time. Burns wrote, "A pitched battle flared between two orders, the Niranjani and the Juna, after members of one of the groups delayed evacuating the most sacred of the ghats. The fighting, involving ceremonial swords, staves and trishuls — trident-like staffs — left more than 100 sadhus and police injured. Several policeman were thrown into the Ganges and several ashrams burned down."

Nehru visited the Kumbh mela in 1954. That year thousands died in a stampede to get to the river. In 1960s free cholera injections were given out to prevent an outbreak of that disease. A stampede at Hardwar in 1986 left 60 people dead.

At the mela in Hardwar in 1998, a special police unit with 30,000 men was brought in to maintain order among the sadhus. The police wore flak jackets and carried automatic weapons. They surrounded the 13 major akharas until hours before the most propitious times.

Tom Downey wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Once the crowds dispersed, the banks of the Ganges were clogged with dams of garbage, including flowers, food, plastic bottles and unidentifiable objects. One guru who spoke to the Harvard group confided that though he would never tell this to his followers, he no longer bathes in the Ganges at the Kumbh Mela. “It is a sacred river,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s pure.” At least one member of the Harvard team contracted bilharzia, a parasitic infection, after bathing in the Ganges. There are efforts to clean up the water, most notably the green Ganga movement headquartered at a camp just opposite the Sangam.” [Source: Tom Downey, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2013]

Allahabad in 2001

1954 Kumbh Mela Stampede

A stampede that occurred in at Kumbha Mela in Allahabad on February 3, 1954 killed around 800 and injured around 2,000. The disaster occurred on the main bathing day of Mauni Amavasya (New Moon).The figures for the tragedy varied according to different sources. The Guardian reported more than 800 people dead and over 100 injured. Time reported "no fewer than 350 people were trampled to death and drowned, 200 were counted missing, and over 2,000 were injured". According to the book Law and Order in India over 500 died. The disaster and the high fatality rate were blamed on crowd control failures and the presence of a large number of politicians. [Source: Wikipedia +]

An estimated 5 million pilgrims took part in the Kumbh Mela, in 1954 the first after India became independence. The occasion was used by politicians to connect with the Indian populace. Another problem was the fact that the Ganges River had changed course and moved in closer to the embankment and the city, reducing the available space for pilgrims and restricting their movements. The tragedy was triggered by a surge of the crowd that broke through the barriers separating them from a procession of sadhus and holy men of various akharas, resulting in a stampede. +

After the stampede, Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru suggested that politicians and VIPs refrain from visiting the melas. Better crowd control measures were put in place. Subsequent Kumbh Melas remained relatively stampede free even as event grew considerably in size.

Kumbh Mela Train Station Stampede in 2013

On February 10 during the 2013 Kumbh Mela, crowds coming from the railway station converged on a small bridge at the edge of the Kumbh grounds and a stampede ensued, killing at least 36 people. What exactly started the stampede and why it got so bad remain a mystery. Sharat Pradhan of Reuters wrote; “A stampede at a railway station in Allahabad killed at least 36 Hindu pilgrims on the busiest day of the Kumbh Mela at which some 30 million had gathered. Twenty-seven of the dead were women, mostly elderly and poor. An eight-year-old girl was also crushed to death. A Reuters witness saw a woman weeping at the train station, surrounded by six bodies dressed in brightly coloured saris. [Source: Sharat Pradhan, Reuters, February 11, 2013]

“Officials gave contradictory versions of what caused the crush. A railway official told Reuters police had been using batons to control the crowd, triggering panic. A state government official said a footbridge handrail collapsed, sending people slipping down the stairs and starting a stampede. A spokesman for Indian railways said authorities had found 36 bodies and 30 people were injured. The injured were being treated at hospitals in Allahabad. “Since there were huge crowds and a lot of panic, it took time before the bodies could be extricated,” said another official, R. M. Srivastava, the top security official in Uttar Pradesh.

Allahabad in 2001

Rahul Mehrotra of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design told Smithsonian magazine: “It’s terrible and regrettable, of course, and there are some crowd management techniques that, if implemented, would almost certainly have prevented that.” Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews wrote that one possible cause for the stampede may have been that the pilgrims no longer formed a psychological crowd. The others around them were no longer part of a larger whole but competitors for seats on a train bound for home. When asked to describe her feelings in the crowd at the station, one pilgrim said, “People think they are more powerful than you, they can push you around.” [Sources: Smithsonian magazine, Laura Spinney, National Geographic, February, 2014 ^^]

Ardh Kumbha Melas

Ard Kumbh Melas (Half Grand Pitcher gatherings) are smaller Kumbha Melas, attracting millions rather than tens of millions. During the 45-day long Ard Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, Naga Sadhuus, or naked Hindu holymen, walk in a religious procession on the confluence of the Gamges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati River during the auspicious day of Mauni Amawasya. Timed to take place during a new moon, millions of devout Hindus immerse themselves in one of the most important events of the weekslong pilgrimage aimed at cleansing believers of their sins. When asked to describe the feeling at mela, one pilgrim said, “People are concerned about you. They treat you in a polite manner: ‘Come, mother, [they say,] and go comfortably.’”

In January 2007, millions of pilgrims endured bitter cold and tough security, to attend the mela in Sangham, Allahabad, 400 kilometers from Delhi. About 50 million people, with 10 million on the most important day, showed up. The 62,000 tents used, many with pennants identifying different Hindu sects, could accommodate 2 million people. More than 50,000 police officers were on hand. The festival grounds were divided into 28 sectors, each under the command of different unit.

pilgrims crowd the temporary bridge at Simhasth in Ujjian in 2016

Yogaindailylife.org reported: “This year's festival is the Ardh (half) Kumbha Mela, but despite of its name it still drew millions of spiritual seekers to the confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers. Hindu belief has it that one’s sins are purified by a dip in these holy waters, thereby liberating him. This is a time of special astrological constellations and the most auspicious bathing times are known as shahi snans or "royal baths" (January 14 - Makar Sankranti, January 19 - Mouni Amavasya, January 23 - Vasant Panchami and February 15 – Mahashivaratri). [Source: yogaindailylife.org]

“The privilege of leading such baths goes to Akharas (Hindu monastic orders) and their Mahamandaleshwars (akhara leaders). The Maha Nirvani Akhara to which His Holiness Mahamandaleshwar Paramhans Swami Maheshwaranandaji belongs as one of its leaders led the first of the royal baths and His Holiness Swamiji took a holy dip accompanied by his western devotees. As over 90 million pilgrims are expected to visit Mela during January 3 until February 16, the event is also a huge logistic and security challenge and organizers along with Indian government have made tremendous efforts to provide adequate transportation, lodging, food and safety.” [Ibid]

Kumbh Mela at Ujjain in 2016

In April and May, 2016, the month-long Maha Kumbh Mela — Simhastha — was held on the banks of River Kshipra at Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. Ujjain is an ancient city situated on the eastern banks of river Kshipra. The the most prominent city on the Malwa plateau and the capital of the ancient Avanti kingdom, it emerged as a political centre of Central India around 600 B.C. Ujjain remained an important centre of political, commercial and cultural activities until the 19th century, when the British decided to develop Indore as an alternative centre for commercial activities. It’s an important pilgrimage site for various sects among Hindus. Historical stalwarts like poet Kalidas, legendary emperor Vikramaditya and king Bindusar, father of Emperor Ashoka were associated with this city.

Debobrat Ghose wrote in First Post, “With the sunrise, the first holy dip in the river Kshipra (Shahi Snan) by nearly one million (10 lakh) devotees from various parts of the world, including 1.25 lakh sadhus (seers), marked the beginning of the Simhastha — the largest congregation of Hindus in the world. Amidst the sound of conches and traditional musical instruments such as Dhol (drum) and Nagada, a large group of Naga sadhus belonging to Juna Akhada jumped into the river for a holy bath followed by others. [Source: Debobrat Ghose, First Post, Apr, 23 2016]

Massive arrangements have been made for the grand event, which attracts many foreign tourists. “Today, we have made arrangements for 400 buses and 100 vans to take pilgrims from their destinations to bathing ghats. Besides this, we have full-fledged medical arrangement to take care of the devotees,” a Simhastha administration official said. In a first, eunuchs and transgenders have participated in this Maha Kumbh under the umbrella of Kinnar Akhara. “This is the first time we are participating in Maha Kumbh and will be a part of various rituals. We also have our programmes to showcase during the Mela,” said Rishi Ajay Das, in-charge of the Kinnar Akhara.

Sadhus waiting their turn to bathe at Shahi Snan at Simhastha Kumbh in Ujjain on April 22, 2004

The Kumbh Mela township is spread across more than 3,000 hectares and is divided into six zones and 22 sectors. The festival is called Simhastha due to celestial configuration. The ‘Simhastha Maha Kumbh’ in Ujjain occurs when the Sun (Surya) is in zodiac sign Aries (Mesh) and Jupiter (Guru) in Leo (Simha). Fourteen 14 bridges and roads worth Rs 362 crore a permanent 450-bed hospital were built. An ambulance with 14 stretchers has been created to carry patients from the Mela site to nearby hospital. Water from the Narmada river has been brought to the Kshipra. Digital displays tell a person from 30 km distance about parking facility and position.

According to MP government estimated 5 crore pilgrims would visit Kumbh Mela from across the world. Budget for the event was earmarked at Rs 3,500 crore but likely to touch around Rs 5,000 crore; this is an increase of more than 10 times in the budget allocation for Simastha 2004. For the first time in the history, Kinnar Akhara or Pari Akhara — a group of about 1000 eunuchs and transgenders from across the country — participated and had their own procession.

Thirteen akharas (group/ school/institution of sadhus) — including Juna, Nimrohi, Digambar, and Nirvani — participated at Maha Kumbh Mela in Ujjain. Of these akharas, seven followed Shavism (a Shiva sect), three followed Panchayati and three were Vaishnavite (Vishnu followers). The main types of sadhus at Simhastha were: 1) Naga sadhus, naked sadhus who smear their bodies with ash and have long matted hair; 2) Shirshasinse, who remain standing, sleeping with their heads resting on a vertical poles, and meditating standing on their heads; 3) Kalpvasis, who remain by the river banks and devote their time to meditating, performing rituals, and bathing numerous times a day; 4) Urdhwavahurs, who have emaciated bodies from rigid spiritual practices; and 5) Parivajakas, who who have taken a vow of silence. Constant exposure to the weather makes the Naga sadhus resistant to temperature extremes. Their eyes are bloodshot from constantly smoking charas (marijuana), which they believe aids enlightenment. [Source: Debobrat Ghose, First Post, Apr, 23 2016]

There are 10 auspicious days for bathing, including three for the ‘Shahi Snan’ (Holy royal bath/dip): April 22, May 9 and May 21). The Ghats for bathing included: Ram Ghat (ancient and holiest ghat), Triveni Ghat (at the confluence of rivers Kshipra, Khan and the invisible Saraswati), Ganga Ghat, Mangalnath Ghat, Gau Ghat, Kabir Ghat, Siddhwat Ghat, etc. In the camps of various Akharas carried out rituals and engaged in different kinds of yogic and tantric practices. All shops at Kumbh Mela accepted credit cards. Seventy ATMs and employees from various banks were deployed.

crowd waiting their turn to bath at the 2016 Simhasth in Ujjian

Melas in 2022 During the Covid-19 Pandemic

In January 2022, tens of thousands of devout Hindus — but not millions — bathed in the waters of in Sangam, the confluence of three rivers — the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati — during the peak of the Magh Mela festival despite rising COVID-19 infections in India. Associated Press reported: Devout Hindus, led by heads of monasteries and ash-smeared ascetics, took a holy dip into the frigid waters of the Ganges River in northern India despite rising COVID-19 infections in the country.

“Hindu pilgrims congregated at the Sangam, the confluence of three rivers — the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati — in Prayagraj city, 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, to participate in the Magh Mela festival, one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism. They bathed in the Ganges waters, a ritual Hindus believe will wash away their sins and free them from the cycle of death and rebirth. A similar gathering at a Hindu festival in 2021 in the Himalayan town of Haridwar, in neighboring Uttarakhand state, helped spread the delta variant that ravaged the country and made India one of the world’s worst-hit countries. Epidemiologists described the festival as a “superspreader event.” [Source: Biswajeet Banerjee, Associated Press, January 14, 2022]

“Millions of Hindus are expected to throng the festival for the next 47 days. Many of them will stay on the banks of the Ganges for a month leading the life of an ascetic, with the belief they will receive salvation. It has raised concerns that pilgrims could get infected and take the virus back to their cities and villages in other parts of the country.

“Already, 77 policemen and 12 cleaning staff deployed for the event have tested positive for the virus. “This is going to be a superspreader. The government should not allow a congregation of people in such a large number because religious congregations in the past two years were found responsible for spreading the deadly virus all across the country,” said Utkarsh Mishra, a lawyer who has filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court asking that the festival be canceled.

“Mishra said only locals and heads of important Hindu monasteries should be allowed to take part in the ritual. Fearing a rise in infections, authorities in neighboring Uttarakhand state have already banned a similar gathering. Health experts earlier appealed for the festival to be canceled in Uttar Pradesh state too, but the government went ahead saying safety rules would be followed.

“Shesh Mani Pandey, a senior official in charge of the event, said only those who have taken two doses of the COVID-19 vaccines and have vaccination certificates would be allowed to join the ritualistic bathing. He said pilgrims will be allowed to enter the festival site after going through thermal scanning at the entry gates. Critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party say the festival has been allowed despite rising infections because the government isn’t willing to anger Hindus — they are the party’s biggest supporters — ahead of crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh. he BJP-ruled state is holding polls on February 10.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia “ edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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