It is the largest religious confluence of men, women and ascetics alike from all over India. Nearly 100 million followers are expected at this 55-day festival which celebrates the victory of the good over evil – a universal theme across most seminal mythological texts. Amidst the spate of travellers from around the world, the Kumbha has sustained its traditions for centuries.
Every three years, this shared ritual takes place at one of the four spots where India’s holy rivers are found. However, 2013 can be marked as significant since the chosen site of the confluence is at Allahabad. It is only here that the three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna, and Saraswati converge. This is also the year of the Maha Kumbha (on the completion of the 12 year cycle), alligned with an astrological configuration that comes once in 144 years. Overriding the formidable statistics of 30,000 police personnel, 40,000 lost and found persons, and 243 doctors, the central theme of salvation retains its grip over the idea of this festival.
The determined desire to purify oneself by taking a dip in the holy river is believed to restore the virgin state that prevails during birth. The defeat of inner demons is important to prepare one’s mind, body, and soul for a smooth transition into the afterlife in Hindu belief.
However, the symbolic significance behind this mass outdoor camp seems to be intrinsically linked to the cosmological interpretation of water. Originally, it is a celebration of a mythological event – the churning of the ‘ocean of milk‘. This is believed to have generated a nectar of immortality, a few drops of which fell at each location of the Kumbha. The ritualistic importance of water and the significance of the Ganges, in particular, is a common thread binding most Hindu festivals.
Over the years, the Kumbha Mela has been in the news for many reasons, both pleasant and unpleasant. It has changed loyalties, altered faiths, lifestyles and beliefs. And there are some who have even converted themselves under its influence: Sir James Mallinson, Valery Mintsev and Baba Rampuri are three such names worth mentioning in this context.
The philosophical quest to dissolve barriers of understanding human origins is often the most ardent motivation behind these conversions. Baba Rampuri, who has a website to his name, traces his monastic lineage back to Keshav Puri or Multani Baba. “He was a Sufi saint and muslims wearing black sit with Hindus wearing orange at his memorial meetings. So possibly there was an undercurrent of commonness between the faiths that we deny today”, says Baba Rampuri.
Inspite of the political groups like the Juna Akhara council that raise money for the Kumbha and run it, the festival sees an equal participation of the government in the provision of public welfare facilities during this time. This is probably the largest religious pilgrimage in the world where religion seems neither political nor fundamentalist. The motive is to attain moksha or salvation. The sun, and the water from the river are the only mythical elements that function to provide a renewal of the Karmic cycle.