“It is wonderful, 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. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”—Mark Twain, after visiting the Kumbh Mela of 1895
Mark very rightly attributes the Kumbh Mela by ‘Power of Faith.’ Indeed it shall always remain an emotion untouched for many of those who never thought of venturing in the incredible ritual. The experience that faith can bring upon us is way beyond any impulse or fear.
Country gears up for 2019 Ardh Kumbh at Prayag, the preparations include a 42,000 million temporary city that shall span over 2,500 hectares with 122,000 temporary toilets and range of accommodation from simple dormitory tents to 5-star tents, 800 special trains by the Indian Railway, artificially intelligent video surveillance and analytics by IBM, disease surveillance, river transport management by Inland Waterways Authority of India, and an app to help the visitors.
The festival carries big significance as it happens on the land of Prayag. The place carries abundant cherries which embolden the Mela even more.
Prayag as Name
Prayag is located on the sacred ‘Triveni Sangam’, that is, the place where the three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati, congregate in Uttar Pradesh. Ganga and Yamuna are visible; but Saraswati is invisible. The sacred convergence has given the place the name as referred to as ‘Prayagraj’ or ‘Tirtharaj’. The word ‘Prayag’
comes from ‘Pra’ as a prefix and the root ‘Yaj’. Its meaning is – to hold a big Yajna (Havan fire). In the Skandapurana it is mentioned that for all types of Yajna, Prayag is the best place; therefore, it is
Significance of Prayag
- Prajapatikshetra : After receiving the four Vedas that had been lost, Prajapati performed a huge Yajna here; hence, Prayag is also called ‘Prajapatikshetra’.
- Madhyavedi of the five Yajnavedis: Of the five Yajna-vedis (Pits where Yajna is performed) – Kurukshetra, Gaya, Viraj, Pushkar and Prayag, Prayag is the madhyavedi (The vedi [Pit for Yajna] in the centre).
- One of the three pilgrimage places: Prayag, one of the three pilgrimage places of Kashi, Prayag and Gaya, is unique from Dharmic perspective.
- Safe place during Pralaya: Prayag is ‘Akshaya Kshetra’. The entire world will be submerged in the massive floods during the Pralaya (Dissolution of the world); but not Prayag. At the end of Pralaya, Shrivishnu will sleep on the Akshayavata in Prayag in the form of a child. Similarly, all the Gods, Sages and spiritually evolved individuals will reside here and protect the place. This is the significance of the place.
Significance described in various scriptures Rigveda:
सितासिते सरिते यत्र सङ्गते तत्राप्लुतासो दिवमुत्पतन्ति ।
ये वै तन्वं विसृजन्ति धीरास्ते जनासो अमृतत्वं भजन्ते॥ – Rigveda, Khilsukta
Meaning: He who bathes at the Sangam (confluence) of Ganga and Yamuna Rivers attains Heaven, and courageous individuals who sacrifice their body in this confluence attain Moksha (Final Liberation).
ग्रहाणां च यथा सूर्यो नक्षत्राणां यथा शशी।
तीथार्नामुत्तमं तीर्थं प्रयागाख्यमनुत्तमम्॥
Meaning: Just as the sun is supreme among all celestial bodies (As per astrology), the moon in the constellation (As per astrology), Prayagraj is supreme among all pilgrimage places.
Kurmapurana: Prayag is the superior most pilgrimage place in all the three Lokas.
याग: सर्वतीर्थेभ्य: प्रभवत्यधिकं विभो॥
श्रवणात् तस्य तीर्थस्य नामसंकीर्तनादपि।
मृत्तिकालम्भनाद्वापि नर: पापात् प्रमुच्यते॥
– Mahabharat, Parva 3, Adhyaya 83, Shloka 74, 75
Meaning: O King! Prayag is the superior most among all pilgrimage places. If its greatness is heard, its Name is chanted or if its soil is smeared on the body, man will be liberated from all sins.
Rites at pilgrimage
While on pilgrimage to Prayagraj, the essential rites to be performed are worshipping the Triveni Sangam, tonsuring, taking a Holy dip in the River Ganga, Pitrushraddha, and offering of hair by married women and darshan of the Deities.
Sthandarshan (Visiting the place)
A shloka on darshan of places in Prayag says:
त्रिवेणीं माधवं सोमं भरद्वाजं च वासुकिम् ।
वन्देऽक्षयवटं शेषं प्रयागं तीर्थनायकम् ॥
Meaning: I pay obeisance to Triveni (Sangam), Venimadhav, Someshwar, Bhardwaj, Vasuki serpent, Akshayavat, Shesha (Baldev) and king of pilgrimage places, Prayag.
The Significant Visiting Places
Triveni Sangam: The flows of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati merge into each other like the 3 strands in a hair plait.
Madhav: This is Madhavakshetra (Place of Madhav) and there are 12 Madhavas; for example, Venimadhav (Principal Madhav), Shankhamadhav, Manoharamadhav etc. Someshwar (Deity Shiva): This Shiva Temple is near Bindumadhav at Arail village on the other side of River Yamuna.
Bhardwaj and Shesha: The Ashram of Sage Bharadwaj is situated here. The Shivalinga in this Ashram is called ‘Bharadwajeshwar’. There is an Idol of Shesha serpent with one thousand hoods in this temple.
Vasukishwar (King of the serpents): The Vasuki Temple is on the banks of the River Ganga here (In Bakshi Peth).
Akshayavat : This is the ancient and sacred banyan tree and is situated on the banks of Yamuna in Prayag. The roots of Akshayavat (which is an abode for all Deities) go deep down till Patal (Hell region). The Puranas (The eighteen sacred Holy texts compiled by Sage Vyas) of Vayu, Matsya, Kurma, Padma, Agni and Skanda say that one attains Moksha (Final liberation) by sacrificing the body near the Akshayavat.
Akbar and his son Jahangir destroyed the Akshayavat and built a fort with the intention to thwart the effort of Hindus to attain Moksha: In the beginning of the 17th Century, under the pretext of building a fort to protect the banks of Yamuna at Prayag, the Mughal emperor Akbar destroyed Akshayavat and the adjoining temples. He built ‘Ranimahal’ where the Akshayavat existed. After some time, the Akshayavat grew again in the fort. Akbar’s son Jahangir tried to burn it many times. He even placed a hot iron plate to destroy the tree from the roots; but the Akshayavat kept sprouting every time and again it acquired the form of a giant tree. The Holy text ‘Khulasat Utvarikha’ of 1693 testifies that Akshayavat sprouted again despite Jahangir chopping it off.
Even today, the ancient tree stands with pride in Akbar’s fort on the banks of Yamuna. To prevent Hindus from attaining Moksha, the Mughal emperors banned its darshan. Later, the English rulers continued with the ban. After Independence, the security of the place was increased since it housed the weapons depot of the Indian army. Permission was granted for darshan once a year during the Magh Mela and Kumbh Mela. At other times of the year, devotees were permitted to see the tree’s trunk from a distance. During the Kumbh Mela in 2013, the Indian Army took initiative and convinced the Defence Ministry to allow Hindus to have darshan of the Akshayavat. As a result, now it has become possible for the Hindus to go to the fort every day and have darshan of the Patalpuri Temple, Saraswati Well and the Akshayavat.
The Kumbha Mela
Every 12 years, a Kumbh Mela is held at the Triveni Sangam of Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati in Prayag. It is called ‘Mahakumbha Mela’. This Kumbh Parva comprises three Parvakals (Auspicious time) – Makar Sankranti, Maghi (Mouni) Amavasya and Vasant Panchami. The Maghi (Mouni) Amavasya is the principal Parva and is referred to as ‘Purnakumbha’. The Magh Pournima is also considered as a Parva (Auspicious) time. A Holy dip in the Ganga has special significance on the days of all the four Parvas. The Kumbh Mela comes every 12 years; every 6 years, the Kumbh Mela organised is called the ‘Ardha Kumbh Mela’.
A pilgrimage is held every year in the month of Magh on the sacred Triveni Sangam, which is called ‘Magh Mela’. Ascetics come here for a Holy bath on the new moon day in the month of Magh. According to the Padmapurana, it is extremely rare to have the privilege of a Holy bath in Prayag in the month of Magh. According to Agnipurana a Holy bath every day at Prayag is equivalent to the benefit obtained by donating millions of cows; according to the Brahmapurana it is equal to performing Ashwamedha Yajna and according to Matsyapurana, it is equal to the pilgrimage to more than 100 crore shrines. Mahabharata says that Brahma Himself was unable to describe the benefits obtained by donations and a Holy bath on Makar Sankranti at Prayag.
Kalpavas – Spiritual practice during the Kumbh
From Pousha Shukla Ekadashi to Magh Shukla Pournima, many Ascetics and devotees reside on the banks of Ganga in the month of Magh near the Triveni Sangam at Prayag. This is called ‘Kalpavas’. The residents during Kalpavas donate even their huts while returning home after the Magh month. The Puranas say that Kalpavas is Holy since it satisfies our ancestors, destroys sins and liberates us from the bondage of life and death. The scriptures say that Kalpavas in Prayag with deep faith and performing rituals is important and its benefits are imperishable. The scriptures say that people in Kalpavas should sleep on the ground, fast, bathe thrice a day, renounce worldly pleasures, control their senses and worship Shrivishnu. It is believed that the Kalpavas washes away all the sins. The Kalpavas devotees perform the ritual of tonsuring during the Kumbh Parva with a bhav (Spiritual emotion) of surrendering the intellect and mind to God.
Prayagwal – Priests who perform rituals in the Kumbh Parva
These priests have the right to collect the offerings on the Triveni stairs and water, performing rituals of worship and arranging the Kumbh Melas. They make residential arrangements for the Kalpavas
devotees. This is an ancient tradition and it finds a mention in the Matsyapurana. These priests also perform the ritual of worship at the time of immersing bones of dead bodies.
Kumbh Mela in Pop Culture
Kumbh Mela has received far-reaching media coverage, with several documentaries and films based on it. Few famous documentaries include Kings with Straw Mats (1998) directed by Ira Cohen, Kumbh Mela: The Greatest Show on Earth (2001) directed by Graham Day, Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela (2004) directed by Nick Day and produced by "Maurizio Benazzo", Kumbh Mela: Songs of the River (2004) by Nadeem Uddin, Invocation, Kumbh Mela (2008), Kumbh Mela: Walking with the Nagas (2011), Amrit: Nectar of Immortality (2012) directed by Jonas Scheu and Philipp Eyer, Inside the Mahakumbh (2013) by the National Geographic Channel and Kumbh Mela 2013: living with Mahatiagi (2013) by the Ukrainian Religious Studies Project Ahamot. On 18 April 2010, a popular American morning show CBS News Sunday Morning extensively covered Haridwar's Kumbh Mela, calling it "The Largest Pilgrimage on Earth". On 28 April 2010, BBC reported an audio and a video report on Kumbh Mela, titled "Kumbh Mela 'greatest show on earth."
Young siblings getting separated at the Kumbh Mela were once a recurring theme in Hindi movies. Amrita Kumbher Sandhane, a 1982 Bengali feature film directed by Dilip Roy, also documents the Kumbh Mela. On 30 September 2010, the Kumbh Mela featured in the second episode of the Sky One TV series "An Idiot Abroad" with Karl Pilkington visiting the festival. In 2015, the Nashik Kumbh Mela became a technology savvy festival due to a collaboration of the city government with MIT Media Lab and Kumbhathon Foundation in Nashik. This received significant media coverage in Wall Street Journal, BBC and Guardian. Well known photographer John Werner captured the Kumbh Mela and released the photographs under creative commons.
The long living settlement
The character of Kumbh Mela has indeed sufficed every requisite of a settlement. While it showcases the width of the Hindu Faith, it also happens to become a congregation of a big family. Most of Ascetics arrive here to feel further happy to see each other after long. Once the Kumbh Mela is over, they again settle away in various corners of the Jambudwipa. It is certainly tough to decipher exact time period when it came into being but one thing is
certain that it is one of the longest living settlement of its own type. It is an emblem of the great Santana Civilisation.