(This concluding piece on the Allahabad-story is an exploration of what makes Sangam special~)
Rituals of riverside bathing find mention in almost all our ancient texts and scriptures. From our parents, specially my father and mother-in-law who had spent much of their childhood in rural Himachal Pradesh, i have heard narrations of many an auspicious occasion when people from surrounding towns and villages would convene around the shores of the River Beas for a mass-bathing in the river waters. However, a dip in the holy Sangam at Prayag has been accorded a special status.…a dip here is said to wash away all sins, wipe out even the bad karma of previous births and free one from the karmic cycle of birth and death. Every year these river banks are host to the Magh-Mela, a fair considered one of the greatest annual religious rituals for devout Hindus. The festival derives its name from the lunar month of Magh during which it is held and which roughly corresponds to the period of mid-Jan to mid-Feb. Hindu mythology considers the origin of the Magh-Mela to date back to the beginning of the universe. Braving the winter chill, lakhs of pilgrims arrive here to participate in one of the six communal ‘holy-dips’. Every 12 years, the Magh-Mela becomes the Kumbh-Mela and Allahabad transforms into the most crowded place on earth!
It is the Kumbh-Mela—said to be “the world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims”— that has made the city and its confluence world famous. They say the numbers have to be seen to be believed. It is perhaps difficult to precisely ascertain the number of people who participate in these rituals but according to some guess-estimates nearly 120 million pilgrims visited Sangam during the 55 days period of the last Maha-Kumbh in 2013. Over 30 million alone are said to have congregated on these river banks to ritually bathe in the sacred waters on “mauni-amavasya”~one of the six auspicious days. That’s like the entire population of a city like Shanghai (or on a more dramatic note one and a half times the population of Australia!!) assembling on a river-shore in one single day! An acquaintance who had “bravely” participated in the holy dip told us that no vehicles can be seen in the vicinity of the river for miles. He and his friends were up at the crack of dawn at 3 am and had to walk for nearly 15 kms jostling along with the crowd of lakhs of pilgrims as they made their way (or were rather ‘propelled’ by the moving mass of humanity!) towards the sangam for their holy dip. A knowing nod from one who had seen a documentary of that day elicited a smiling response ~ “The assault on your senses as you live that experience is impossible to put in words or be captured as a visual!” was all that he said. The logistics of administrative arrangements required for such an exercise are mind-boggling. Successive governments from the days of British rule have consistently worked towards improving infrastructure and making elaborate arrangements for the Kumbh to improve sanitation and prevent stampedes. Civil administration, the army and the police force besides thousands of others, all participate in the Herculean task of making the entire affair incident free.
The event has its own share of detractions. During the British era, the Kumbh was a time for cholera outbreaks and other pandemics. Post Independence there have been cases of stampedes and people dying in the pandemonium. One such incident of the 50s has been recreated vividly by Vikram Seth in his novel A Suitable Boy. In fact there was even a time when the Kumbh-mela was an important part of Bollywood movie plots with siblings getting separated in the milling crowds being a hackneyed theme! One would think that such stories about the ordeals to be endured would act as a disincentive for people. On the contrary the multitude of pilgrims just keeps swelling from one Kumbh to the next! By any stretch of logic it is difficult to explain why innumerable devotees forego normal comforts of life and take a dip at this holy confluence (that appears more polluted than holy during those days!) to purify their soul. Let alone the devout and the curious, the event now even attracts foreigners fascinated by Hindu culture and its mythologies. Where else would they find such a colourful spectacle of faith—a faith neither dampened nor discouraged by the trying demands of the ritual. The spectacle-aspect of the last Kumbh has some great documentaries, in particular BBC’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “World’s Biggest Festival” by National Geographic…both easily available for viewing on YouTube. What i was looking for was an understanding of the belief that draws people to the confluence. What exactly is hard-wired on a subliminal level that makes a billion Hindus of the world (they constitute 1/6ths of the world population!) consider Prayag to be so significant. It is, you soon realise an elusive quest!
To begin with there is just a tradition passed down the centuries, there are no historical records to go by. The exact age of the festival is unknown. Perhaps the earliest surviving historical record is a ritual described by the Chinese traveller Xuanzang (Hieun Tsang), that dates to 644 CE where he mentions how hundreds of people took a bath at the holy-confluence (identified with Prayag) to wash away their sins. Scholars of course are divided over whether this was a Hindu or a Buddhist celebration. What everyone tells you is that the genesis of the festival derives from the myth of the Samudra-Manthan — the churning of the Ocean of Milk to obtain the nectar of immortality. A very popular myth in our scriptures, it has a host of parallel stories that circum-narrate this basic myth, replacing characters and shuffling episodes but the essence of the story remains more or less the same. The two most commonly narrated variants are first, the one where the Devas (god-like beings) enfeebled by the constant and unremitting onslaughts of the Asuras (demon-like beings) approach Brahma the Creator for help. He in turn asks them to seek Vishnu’s counsel. On Vishnu’s advice the gods make a pact with the demons to undertake the task of churning the Kshirsagar—Ocean of Milk— together and dividing the nectar of immortality equally between them. The churning was an elaborate process. A hill, Mandara was used as the churning stick, while the king of Serpents, Vasuki was used as the rope. Vishnu himself took the form of Kurma, the tortoise on whose back the stick rested. After ages of churning, fumes and gases and a deadly poison emerged. As no god or demon was ready to come forth and risk their lives by drinking this, Lord Shiva was prevailed upon to drink the poison and spare the world of its ill effects. Thereafter 14 precious gifts emerged, among them a flying horse, a legendary cow, a priceless jewel, the magic moon, a sky chariot, Rambha (the beautiful apsaras), Lakshmi (Vishnu’s divine consort), and Vishwakarma (the divine architect). At last Dhanvantri, the divine healer surfaced with a “kumbha” or a pot containing “amrita”~the nectar of immortality. Once they had the nectar, the gods (as they had secretly decided!) declined to share it with the demons. Quarrels broke out. Vishnu took the form of a beautiful woman Mohini to seduce the demons and divert their attention from the nectar thereby allowing Jayant, the son of Indra, to escape with the kumbha. During his journey that spanned twelve human years, (one day of the gods is said to equal one human year) Jayant rested at 12 places, of which 4 were on this earth (Prithvilok) and 8 in the heavens (Devalok). The earthly stops were at Prayag, Haridwar (where the Ganga enters the plains from the Himalayas), Nashik (on the banks of the Godavari river) and Ujjain (the banks of the Kshipra river). Some drops of the nectar fell on each of these spots sanctifying them. That is why the Kumbh is held by rotation once every 12 years at each of these tiraths.
The second story narrates how sage Durvasa (also known as the angry one!) once offered a garland to Indra, the king of the devas. Indra committed the unforgivable offence of crowning his elephant Airavat’s head with it. Airawat tossed his head, threw the garland to the ground and trampled upon it. The enraged Durvasa cursed the world with drought and colossal natural disasters. Hence the Samudra-Manthan became necessary. In this version the Asuras cheated and ran away with the pot of nectar They hid it in their serpent domain beneath the world and it fell upon Garuda to retrieve the pot and carry it back to the gods. He too spilt nectar at the same four places which became sites for Kumbh Melas.
Many research scholars maintain that though the samudra-manthan legend is included in several ancient texts, the part about the spilling of the amrita does not find any mention there in. They believe the legend has been simply applied to the Kumbh Mela in order to show some scriptural authority for it. Some say the myth was adopted as late as the 18th/19th Century by local Brahmins of Allahabad; others advocate that the festival as a ‘Kumbh-Mela’ was started by Adi Shankara in the 8th Century during the Hindu Renaissance. None of the claims are really conclusive so the debate continues, even though it is restricted to an esoteric few.
For the vast majority of ardent devotees what is important is the planetary conjunction that decides the timing of the Kumbh Mela once in every 12 calendar years. The transition of Jupiter, along with the positions of the Sun and Moon are the most important factors according to the Hindu Almanac in deciding the timing of the festival at the four tiraths. As explicated in ancient texts:
Magh Mesh Gatey Jive
Makare Chandra Bhaskaro
(when Jupiter is in Aries in the month of Magh, while the Sun and Moon are in Capricorn…the Kumbh occurs at Prayag)
Those who believe, wait for this auspicious mythological moment when a passage to the celestial space opens up at the confluence and the river waters turn into “amrita”. A dip in these energised waters, even in the freezing cold, would purify their body and cleanse their inner being of all bad karma not just of this birth but even those of the past seven ‘janams’. And in the Hindu faith only when your karmic slate is wiped clean can your soul attain the ultimate goal of ‘moksha’~ liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth to achieve the state of being one with the One Supreme Being or Brahman.
And so the faithful await the next Kumbh of 2025…