Guide to the Mystical Kumbh Mela in India

The Largest Religious Gathering in the World

Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela.
Kuni Takahashi / Contributor/Getty Images

The Kumbh Mela in India is as mesmerizing as it is spiritual. This ancient northern Indian festival is a meeting of mystical minds. The largest religious gathering in the world, the Kumbh Mela brings Hindu holy men together to discuss their faith and disseminate information about their religion. It's attended by millions of people each day.

In recognition of the festival's importance, in December 2017, UNESCO included the Kumbh Mela on its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list.

Where is the Kumbh Mela Held?

The Mela takes place on a rotational basis in four of the most holy Hindu places in India -- on the banks of the Godavari river in Nashik (Maharashtra), the Shipra river in Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh), the Ganges river in Haridwar (Uttarakhand), and confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and mythical Saraswati rivers in Allahabad/Prayag (Uttar Pradesh). The confluence of these rivers is referred to as the Sangam.

When is the Kumbh Mela Held?

In each location once every 12 years. Theoretically, it should happen every three years in a different place. However, the exact time and place of the festival depends on astrological and religious considerations. This means that the Mela sometimes happens only a year apart at the different sites.

There is also a Maha Kumbh Mela, which is held once every 12 years. In between, in the sixth year, the Ardh Kumbh Mela (half mela) takes place. In addition, in Allahabad, every year the Maagh Mela is celebrated in the month of Maagh (as per Hindu calendar during mid January to February) at the Sangam. This Maagh Mela is referred to as the Ardh Kumbh Mela and Kumbh Mela when it happens in the sixth and twelfth years, respectively.

The Maha Kumbh Mela is considered to be the most auspicious mela. It always occurs in Allahabad, as the confluence of the rivers there is considered to be particularly holy. The Ardh Kumb Mela occurs in both Allahabad and Haridwar.

When is the Next Kumbh Mela?

  • 2021 Kumbh Mela in Haridwar from January 14 to April 27. It's being held there after 11 years, not the usual 12, due to specific auspicious dates. This is the first time in 80 years that such a phenomenon has happened.
  • 2025 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.
  • 2027 Kumbh Mela in Nashik.

The Legend Behind the Kumbh Mela

Kumbh means pot or pitcher. Mela means festival or fair. Hence, the Kumbh Mela means festival of the pot. It specifically relates to the pot of nectar in Hindu mythology.

Legend has it that the gods once lost their strength. In order to regain it, they agreed with the demons to churn the primordial ocean of milk for amrit (the nectar of immortality). This was to be shared equally between them. However, a fight broke out, which went on for 12 human years. During the battle, the celestial bird, Garuda, flew away with the Kumbh that held the nectar. Drops of nectar are believed to have fallen in the places that the Kumbh Mela is now held -- Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain.

Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela

The sadhus (wandering ascetics) and other holy men are an integral part of the mela. Hindus consider sadhus to be representatives of the gods, and thus revere them. The pilgrims who attend the mela come to see and listen to these men, in order to gain spiritual enlightenment.

There are 13 types of sadhus and akharas (organizations/groups they belong to), divided according to their beliefs and ideologies. Seven follow Shaivism (worship of Lord Shiva), three Vaishnavism (worship of Lord Vishnu), and three are Panchayati/Udasin (followers of the teachings of Shri Chand, the elder son of Sikh Guru Nanak).

Some of the most well known sadhus are:

  • Nagas -- naked sadhus who smear their bodies with ash and have long matted hair. Constant exposure to the weather makes them resistant to temperature extremes. Their eyes are bloodshot from constantly smoking charas (marijuana), which they believe aids enlightenment. These sadhus belong to the renowned Juna Akhara, headquartered in Varanasi.
  • Urdhwavahurs -- who have emaciated bodies from rigid spiritual practices.
  • Parivajakas -- who have taken a vow of silence.
  • Shirshasinse -- who remain standing, sleep with their heads resting on a vertical pole, and meditate standing on their heads.
  • Kalpvasis -- who remain by the river banks and devote their time to meditating, performing rituals, and bathing numerous times a day.

The sadhus arrive at the mela together in a Peshwari procession of each akhara. They then set themselves up in camps according to their akhara.

What Rituals are Performed at the Kumbh Mela?

The main ritual is the ritual bath. Hindus believe that submerging themselves in the sacred waters on the most auspicious day of the new moon will absolve them and their ancestors of sin, thus ending the cycle of rebirth. Pilgrims start lining up to bathe from around 3 a.m. on this day.

As the sun comes up, the different groups of sadhus move in processions towards the river to bathe in set order. The Nagas usually lead, while each group tries to outdo the others with more grandeur and fanfare. The moment is magical, and everyone is absorbed in it.

After bathing, the pilgrims wear fresh clothes and proceed to worship by the river bank. They then walk around listening to discourses from the various sadhus.

How to Attend the Kumbh Mela

From a tourist perspective, the Kumbh Mela is an unforgettable -- and daunting -- experience! The sheer number of people there can be off-putting. However, dedicated arrangements are made, especially foreigners. Special tourist camps are set up, providing luxury tents with attached bathrooms, guides, and assistance for excursions. Tight security is also in place.

To see the biggest spectacle of sadhus, make sure you're there for a Shahi Snan (Royal Bath), which happens on certain auspicious days. There are usually a handful of these days during each Kumbh Mela. The dates are announced in advance.

Another major event is the arrival of the various sects of sadhus, in procession with much fanfare, at the start of the Kumbh Mela.

Important Bathing Dates for the 2021 Kumbh Mela

  • January 14, 2021: Makar Sankranti.
  • February 11, 2021: Mauni Amavasya.
  • February 16, 2021: Basant Panchami.
  • February 27, 2021: Maghi Poornima.
  • March 11, 2021: Maha Shivratri (First Shahi Snan).
  • April 12, 2021: Somwati Amavasya (Second Shahi Snan).
  • April 14, 2021: Baisakhi (Third Shahi Snan).
  • April 27, 2021: Chaitra Purnima (Fourth Shahi Snan).

Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Kumbh Mela

Although the festival is going ahead as planned, there will be additional measures in place to restrict crowding.

In particular, the bathing ghats (steps leading down to the river) will be divided into sectors and color-coded zones. Pilgrims who want to take a holy dip in the river on any of the four important Shahi Snan dates (March 11, April 12, April 14 and April 27) will have to make an online booking in advance and get an e-pass for entry into the area. Each pilgrim will be allocated a specific time and location, and will only be allowed to spend up to 15 minutes the water. Security camera will be used to monitor all locations, and security teams will be deployed if crowding is visible.

All 13 akharas will participate in the mela. However, there will be less sadhus present. The ones that are will have to follow Covid-19 protocols as determined by the event organizers.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely that foreign tourists will be able to attend the mela due to the Indian government's current ban on tourist visas. It's uncertain when this ban will be lifted.

Pictures of the Kumbh Mela

See some of the weird and wonderful sights of the Kumbh Mela in this photo gallery.

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