Kumbha Melā

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KUMBHA MELĀ . The Kumbha Melā is a Hindu pilgrimage fair that occurs four times every twelve years, once in each of four locations in North India: at Haridvār, where the Ganges River enters the plains from the Himalayas; at Prayāg, near Allahabad, at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamunā, and "invisible" Sarasvatī rivers; at Ujjain, in Madhya Pradesh, on the banks of the Kiprā River; and at Nāsik, in Maharashtra, on the Godavari River. Each twelve-year cycle includes the Mahā ("great") Kumbha Melā at Prayāg, which is the largest pilgrimage gathering in the world. These melā s ("fairs"), also known as Kumbha Yoga or Kumbha Parva, occur during the conjunctions (Skt., yoga, parva ) of celestial beings who performed important acts in the myth that forms the basis of the observance. In one version of the story, the gods and the antigods had concluded a temporary alliance in order to churn amta (the nectar of immortality, ambrosia) from the milky ocean. Among the "fourteen gems" they churned from the ocean was a pot (kumbha ) of amta. One of the gods, Jayanta, took the pot and ran, chased by the antigods. For twelve divine days and nights (the equivalent of twelve human years) they fought over the amta. The Moon protected it from "flowing forth," the Sun kept the pot from breaking, Jupiter preserved it from the demons, and Saturn protected it from fear of Jayanta. During the battle, drops of amta fell at eight places in the inaccessible worlds of the gods and four places (Haridvār, Prayāg, Ujjain, and Nāsik) on the earth.

The Kumbha Melā is celebrated at the four earthly points where the nectar fell, during the conjunctions of planets (graha ) with astrological houses (rāśī ) that are characters in the storyfor example, at Haridvār when Jupiter (Guru) is in Aquarius (Kumbha) and the Sun (Sūrya) is in Aries (Mea). It is popularly thought that a ritual bath (characteristic in all Hindu pilgrimages) at the Kumbha Melā confers extraordinary merit, not only by cleansing the pilgrim of "sin" (pāpa ), but also by immersing him in waters infused with amta. Major baths are done at different times in each of the four Kumbha Melās, chiefly on new-moon and full-moon days.

The historical origin of the Kumbha Melā is an open and indeed almost uninvestigated question. The authenticity of its purported mention in the Atharvaveda has been challenged, although certain khila verses of unknown date in the gveda demonstrate familiarity with some of the sites and relevant astrological conjunctions. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited Prayāg in the seventh century, but there is no evidence that he witnessed a Kumbha Melā.

Traditions regarding the determination of the time of the Kumbha Melā are not unanimous. This is partly due to the absence of a single, authoritative scripture sanctioning the melā. It is mentioned only in late texts, notably the Skanda Purāa, which has several notoriously inconsistent recensions. Thus there are occasional disagreements between those who say that the Kumbha Melā should be held every twelve years and those who claim that, in exceptional instances, the precise astrological conjunction may occur in the eleventh year. Matters are complicated by the fact that Haridvār and Prayāg have traditions of ardha ("half") Kumbha Melās, which occur six years after the Kumbha Melās. Nevertheless, there is at present a rough consensus of learned opinion regarding the appropriate times of its occurrence.

Kumbha Melās are popularly understood to be not only pilgrimage fairs at which sins can be cleansed and merit gained but also religious assemblies at which doctrine is debated and standardized and Hindu unity affirmed. This is perhaps an apt characterization of present-day Kumbha Melās, but historical evidence indicates that in centuries past they were the scenes of bloody battles, chiefly between the militant sections of rival orders of Hindu monks. The main object of contention in these battles, which occurred as recently as 1807, was the right to bathe in the most auspicious place at the most powerful instant. The conflicts were so fierce that indigenous and British courts finally had to establish and enforce specific bathing orders at the various sites of the Kumbha Melā. The sāī s, processions of monks to the bathing place, are still focal events in the Kumbha Melās.

With the advent of modern transport and communications, contemporary Kumbha Melās are sometimes attended by several million people in a single day. The government of India provides safety, order, sanitation, and preventive inoculations for this multitude, which besides innumerable devout Hindus includes merchants, representatives of religious organizations, casual tourists, groups of monks, and others. Many of those who attend the Kumbha Melā hope to gain some specific "fruit," such as a job, a son, success in studies, and so on. The special power of the Kumbha Melā is often said to be due in part to the presence of large numbers of Hindu monks, and many pilgrims seek the darśan (Skt., darśana ; "auspicious mutual sight") of these holy men. Others listen to religious discourses, participate in devotional singing, engage brahman priests for personal rituals, organize mass feedings of monks or the poor, or merely enjoy the spectacle. Amid this diversity of activities, the ritual bath at the conjunction of time and place is the central event of the Kumbha Melā.

See Also

Pilgrimage, article on Hindu Pilgrimage.


An excellent description of a recent Kumbha Melā is given in Ved Mehta's Portrait of India (New York, 1970), pp. 77111. A more scholarly analysis of the Kumbha Melā, based on Sanskrit sources, is Giorgio Bonazzoli's "Prayāga and Its Kumbha Melā," Purāa 19 (January 1977): 81179. This article also discusses the scriptural glorifications (mahātmya s) of Prayāg at length and contains useful information regarding the history of the Kumbha Melā. A good example of a learned Hindu's ideas concerning the Kumbha Melā is Veirāmaśarma Gau's Kumbhaparva Mahātmya (Varanasi, n.d.) in Hindi. The best general introduction to Hindu pilgrimage is still Agehananda Bharati's "Pilgrimage Sites and Indian Civilization," in Chapters in Indian Civilization, edited by Joseph W. Elder, vol. 1, rev. ed. (Dubuque, 1970), pp. 84126. The author discusses Hindu pilgrimage in general, the Kumbha Melā in particular, and also catalogs numerous pilgrimage places in India. For the significance of parva, see John M. Stanley's excellent article "Special Time, Special Power: The Fluidity of Power in a Popular Hindu Festival," Journal of Asian Studies 37 (November 1977): 2743. This essay contains a clear exposition of Hindu astrological and astronomical ideas relating to melā s.

New Sources

Rai, Subas. Kumbha Mela: History and Religion, Astronomy and Cosmobiology. Varanasi, 1993.

Tully, Mark. No Full Stops in India. New Delhi; New York, 1991.

William S. Sax (1987)

Revised Bibliography