If you’ve never visited India, or know much about Hinduism, you may wonder why hundreds of people are dressing up like gods and bathing together in the rivers. You might also wonder why there are dozens of men, wearing nothing but loincloths, shaving their heads and walking around covered in ash. If any of this seems strange, then you’ve never experienced Kumbh Mela.
It’s a very easy holiday to miss. Why? Although it’s a massive celebration for the country of India, it only occurs four times within a 12-year period– even the location changes each time. Depending on the placement of the sun, the moon and Jupiter, Kumbh Mela will either be celebrated in in Haridwar (when the sun is in Aries and Jupiter is in Aquarius), Prayag (when Jupiter is in Taurus and the sun is in Capricorn), Ujjain (when Jupiter and the sun are in Scorpio), or Nasik (when Jupiter and the sun falls on Leo). This year, the skies are all pointing toward the lion- which is why you’ll see all of the excitement happening in Nasik.
What’s the reason for all of these rules and traditions behind the celebration? It all starts with stuff of legend. In English, Kumbh Mela translates to Pitcher Festival, because the origins of this event trace back to the Hindu mythological story of gods and demons battling over a pitcher filled with the nectar of immortality (amrita). Vishnu, considered the preserver and protector of the universe, disguised himself as a beautiful woman, stole the pitcher from the demons, and flew off on his get-away, Garuda (a large bird-like creature). But the demons followed after him, and in the dog fight that followed, drops of nectar spilled from the pitcher, falling onto four ancient cities: Allahabad (Prayag), Nasik, Haridwar and Ujjain. During the times of the holy days of Kumbh Mela, the rivers of these cities are believed to transform into amrita.
It’s worth mentioning that the festival, which in this specific instance is considered the Maha (great) Kumbh Mela, only occurs in Allahabad once every 144 years and is one of the world’s largest religious gatherings. You’ll have to wait another 142 years for the next one, as the last Maha Kumbh took place in 2013.
How to Celebrate
The easiest way to celebrate this occasion is to take a dip in the river. From August 26 till this Friday (September 25), people have come from near and far to the northern city of Nashik, for the chance to bathe in the Godavari River. This act is believed to cleanse the bather of their sins and free them from the cycle of rebirth, bringing them one step closer to Nirvana.
Additionally, it’s not uncommon to see these pilgrims dressed as Hindu gods or goddesses, or for men to strip their garments and shave their heads. These men that bear all are known as Sadhus, partaking in a tradition to become “Naga Sadhus,” or holy ascetics, who must remain naked the entire year. The rite can only take place at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, which happens every 12 years. These men shave their heads and beards, and cover their naked bodies in ash as part of a sort of initiation tradition.
There’s no right or wrong way to travel to this event, but many show up in style. Some arrive carrying pennants, bow and arrow or banners. Many danced by the beat of drums. Others arrived in gaudily decorated chariots. Some on horseback. Most all come dressed in saffron with leis draped around their necks.