In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kumbh Mela

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History
  • Sacred and Mundane Geography
  • Ascetics and Religious Leaders
  • Pilgrims
  • Religious Practices and Beliefs
  • Performance and Media
  • Photography and Video

Hinduism Kumbh Mela
by
Traian Penciuc
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0284

Introduction

Kumbh Mela, the most famous and visited Hindu religious gathering, is held four times every twelve consecutive years on the riversides in Haridwar, Allahabad (Prayag), Nashik, and Ujjain. Pilgrims go primarily to purify their karma through ritual ablutions at auspicious moments, but, as any Hindu religious fair, Kumbh Mela is also an opportunity to receive holy men’s teachings and blessings, or at least to see them and be in their presence. More, pilgrims are involved in various ritual activities: processions, feasts (prasād), sermons (pūjās), religious performances, and so on. The communion of the crowd of pilgrims seeking self-realization, the sadhus’ presence, some of them descending directly from Himalayan retreats, and the specificity of the sites create a unique atmosphere in which the believer can experience the encounter with the sacred. For many, Kumbh Mela has been a turning point toward asceticism in their lives. Several factors confer the sacredness of the four sites: First is the spiritual quality of the water because it is the body of the deified rivers, Godāvarī at Nashik and Viṣṇu’s blood in the Kṣiprā River at Ujjain. Gaṅgā empowers Haridwar and participates in the threefold magical power of Prayag Triveni Sangham (triple confluence) together with Yamunā and Sarasvatī, whose river is invisible. Second, being placed on riverbanks, the four Kumbh Mela sites are tīrtha (fords), exceptional places where prayers are heard, and one’s spirituality is more radiant. Tīrthas are also passages to the spiritual world, part of a large network on the Indian subcontinent. Third, there is a multilayered mythology that supports the sacredness of these pilgrimage sites. There are, as James Lochtefeld in God’s Gateway: Identity and Meaning in a Hindu Pilgrimage Place and Kama McLean in Pilgrimage and Power mention, charter myths specific to each mela, but less known to pilgrims, who are more familiar with the Myth of the Churning the Ocean. According to a latter version of this myth, accepted by all Hindu sects, during the battle between devas and asuras for the vessel (kumbh) with amṛta, four drops of the mixture of immortality fell into the four melas’ sites giving them magical powers.

General Overviews

An author of a book about Kumbh Mela must have an exceptional erudition. He or she must be familiar with Hindu mythology, master Sanskrit literature, understand the traditional social structure and Hindu sects, know ancient history, and be informed about modern and contemporary Indian politics and administrative policies. In a way, Kumbh Mela mirrors many aspects of Hindu spirituality. Perhaps this is why the writing embeds the author’s attitude on this ethos. The vision of the faithful pilgrim who enthusiastically expressed the mystique that fascinated him is imparted in Roy and Indira 1955, the secular nuances in Mehta 1970, the memoirs of a Western sadhu in Rampuri 2010, and the methodical approach in Misra 2019. To these, we can add documented writings on Prayag in Dubey 2001 (cited under Sacred and Mundane Geography) and insightful historical analysis in Lochtefeld 2008 (cited under Ascetics and Religious Leaders).

  • Mehta, Ved. Portrait of India. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.

    Mehta, a novelist and journalist, writes this book on his motherland with lucid affection. He dedicates to Kumbh Mela in Allahabad almost the whole section of his book entitled “The Sacred River of the Hindus.” After he discusses Roy and Devi’s book criticizing its emphasis on the mystical to the detriment of reason, Mehta writes on the history of the Kumbh Mela in the twentieth century dealing with the modernization of the fair in terms of management and legislation, but he also observes its internationalization after 1966.

  • Misra, Nityananda. Kumbha: The Traditionally Modern Mela. New Delhi: Bloomsbury, 2019.

    A guide to modern Kumbh Mela that organizes information thematically: sites and dates, history, organization, pilgrims, New Age Hindu movements, literature, arts and music, commerce, technology, social diversity, and inclusivity. The author also shares his experiences at the Kumbh Melas between 2013 and 2016 and makes predictions for the 2019 Ardh Mela in Haridwar.

  • Nevill, H. R., ed. Allahabad: A Gazetteer. Allahabad, India: Government Press, United Provinces, 1911.

    This is the twnty-third volume of the laborious series edited by H. R. Nevill and published between 1903 and 1936, titled District Gazetteers of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. It is a valuable resource for information about the Prayag Magh Mela (pp. 67–73), including the organization of the pilgrimage and mela, timing and feast dates, monastic orders, and religious observances.

  • Rampuri, Baba. Autobiography of a Sadhu: A Journey into Mystic India. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 2010.

    Memoires of Baba Rampuri, the first Westerner sadhu to attend the mela. Contains recollections of his pilgrimages to the Kumbh Mela.

  • Roy, Dilip Kumar, and Indira Devi. Kumbha; India’s Ageless Festival. Bombay: Khatatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1955.

    Following the visit to Kumbh Mela in 1954 with his “daughter-disciple” Indira Devi, Roy wrote his book with the spirit of the spiritual seeker. He mixes personal experiences with legends, stories, and affirmations of the sadhus to whom he confers the authority of bearers of millennial wisdom. This lack of critical vision makes Roy’s book, though he is not a Hindu, an unfiltered portrait of the beliefs and mystic experiences surrounding Kumbh Mela.

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Kumbh Mela. UNESCO: Intangible Cultural Heritage. 2022. Paris: UNESCO, 2017.

    Web page of UNESCO on the inclusion of the Kumbh Mela in the “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” (ICH). Kumbh Mela was inscribed in 2017.

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