The numbers are staggering, the breadth and scale of the event astounding but these in isolation do not come close to getting a sense of the Kumbh Mela. The only way to begin to appreciate the magnitude of this religious festival is to be there; to walk amidst the countless millions, to hear the relentless reverberating hum of humanity day and night and to see the raw devotion of the seething Hindu multitude moving as one to and from their ritual bath.
They come as they have always done at this most auspicious of occasions to bathe in the waters to rid themselves of all sin. Although a holy dip is the central focus of virtually all who travel to the Kumbh Mela it is more than just a bathing experience. It is a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey of personal transformation and a divine celebration of the Hindu myth of creation. Every level of society is represented from every corner of India. Many stay for just a day or two while some remain, like the Monastic Orders or Akharas, in their tented encampments, for the whole three months. It is a time for blessing, meditation and prayer, spiritual nourishment and for passing and acquiring knowledge. The Kumbh is a time too when many find a guru and when thousands of shaven headed novices make their own personal commitment and become initiated into the sadhu brotherhood.
The event takes place every three years at one of four sacred sites in the northern half of India which host it in strict rotation. It thus takes twelve years for the Kumbh Mela to return to the same location. This twelve year cycle is related to Jupiter’s journey through the Zodiac and is charted by expert astrologers who, in consultation with heads of the senior Akharas, fix the dates of the main bathing days and the period of the festival itself.
During these special bathing days, or royal baths as they are called, the members of the sanyasi Akharas command precedence over all others and bathe first. As dawn breaks, thousands of these largely naked ash smeared renunciants make their way in joyful procession to the sacred bathing areas. There is something primeval about this spectacle and witnessing it only serves as a reminder of how ancient are the origins of this timeless religious fair.