Kumbh Mela (Devanagari: कुम्भ मेला) is a mass Hindu pilgrimage. It occurs four times every twelve years and rotates among four locations: Allahabad (Prayag), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Every twelve-year cycle includes one Maha Kumbh Mela (Great Kumbh Mela) at Prayag, which is attended around 60 million people, making it the largest gathering anywhere in the world.
The observance of Kumbh Mela is believed to have started thousands of years ago, in the Vedic period, gods and demons made a temporary agreement to work together churning amrit (the nectar of immortality) from the Ksheera Sagara (primordial ocean of milk), and to share the nectar equally.
However, when the Kumbh (urn) containing the amrita appeared, the demons ran away with it and were chased by the gods. For twelve days and twelve nights (equivalent to twelve human years) the gods and demons fought in the sky for the pot of amrita. It is believed that during the battle, drops of amrita fell at four places: Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Thus, the Kumbh Mela is observed at these four locations where the nectar fell from the skies.
Kumbh Mela is attended by millions of people on a single day. The major event of the festival is a ritual bath at the banks of the rivers in each town. Other activities include religious discussions, devotional singing, mass feeding of holy men and women and the poor, and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated and standardized.
Kumbh Mela (especially the Maha Kumbh Mela) is the most sacred of all the pilgrimages. Thousands of holy men and women (monks, saints and sadhus) attend, and the auspiciousness of the festival is in part attributable to this. The sadhus are seen clad in saffron sheets with plenty of ashes and powder dabbed on their skin per the requirements of ancient traditions. Some called nanga sanyasis or 'Dhigambers' may often be seen without any clothes even in severe winter, generally considered to live an extreme lifestyle. This tends to attract a lot of western attention as it is seemingly in contrast to a generally conservative social modesty practised in the country.
After visiting the Kumbh Mela of 1895, Mark Twain wrote:
"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.
When the Kumbh Mela was held in Nashik, India, from July 27 to September 7 2003, 39 pilgrims (28 women and 11 men) were trampled to death and 57 were injured (keeping in mind that the number of devotees attending the fair was around 70 million). Devotees had gathered on the banks of the Godavari river for the maha snaan or holy bath. Over 30,000 pilgrims were being held back by barricades in a narrow street leading to the Ramkund, a holy spot, so the sadhus could take the first ceremonial bath. Reportedly, a sadhu threw some silver coins into the crowd and the subsequent scramble led to the stampede.'''