The Kumbh Mela and its many layers

Shiva appears in the gaatha (story) of the Kumbh, which is about churning of the ocean, where the symbolism is aspiring for moksha by experiencing the nectar, where the idea of immortality is about unifying with the cosmos and blending with the five elements. The Kumbh at Prayagraj, the location of the confluence of the three rivers representing purity (Ganga), devotion (Yamuna) and knowledge (Saraswati) in the month of Maagh is special. “The most important part of the Kumbh is the element of a cosmic force called amrit or nectar. The phenomenon that the sun is behind the moon in this phase and its heat and energy results in the release of the nectar generated in the moon.

The belief is that taking a dip in the sacred waters during the Kumbh brings the blessing of the nectar,” says veteran indologist Dr. G.C. Tripathi. Shiva, in the story of Kumbh, is an actor in the gaatha, who prevents the destruction of the world by drinking and holding the poison in his throat; he thus enables the Gods to proceed towards the nectar.

Naga Sadhus take holy bath, at the Sangam river during Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

Naga Sadhus take holy bath, at the Sangam river during Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar


The occurrence of Kumbh in Prayag this year officially has been declared to end on Shivratri. However, Swami Akhandnanda of Juna Akhara says,“There is no association between Kumbh and Shivratri. Of the Kumbhs which occur every six years in one of the four destinations (Prayag, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain) only the ones in Prayag and Haridwar fall in the month of Maagh. Hence, the Kumbh in this location forms a part of the festivities of the annual Maagh mela. As ascetics associated with the worship of Shiva, we are organised in 14 categories (akharas). The Kumbh of 2019 in Prayag was a Magh mela and got over with the Magh Purnima on February 19.”

During the Maagh month, there are four Shahi or main bathing days when constellations give energies that assume collective force in the confluence of the holy waters. These sacred baths are on Makar Sankranti, Paush Purnima, Mauni Amavasya, and Vasant Panchami. “Hence most of us, and our akharas leave the Kumbh after Vasant Panchami. Those who stay behind or reappear to have a dip on the last day of Maagh — Full Moon or on Shivratri are pilgrims, Shiv mendicants and Kalpvasi (those ordinary pilgrims who attend Kumbh for the entire period and live minimally).”

Dr. Tripathi adds that the purpose of taking a dip in Holy Ganga on dates which are aligned with the Hindu calendar and form festivities that occur during or near the time of the Kumbh is to gain more spiritual benefits but has no association with the Kumbh. The Shivratri is one such occasion. After all, the Ganga flows out of Shiva’s locks.

An aerial view of Kumbh Mela in Prayag, Allahbad.

An aerial view of Kumbh Mela in Prayag, Allahbad.   | Photo Credit: Ritu Raj Konwar


Annually, in the month of Magh astrological and cosmic forces lead to a number of festivities. Magh melas are organised in different places such as Uttarkashi and in Prayag. The Magh mela begins on January 14 (Makar Sankranti) ends on Magh Purnima — Full moon in February.

Shivaratri of Phagun: There are two main Shivratris, the one in Phagun (spring) is when Shiva appeared in his un-manifest form of the lighted Shiva Linga. Whereas, during the monsoon (Sawan) the Shivratri marks the marriage of Shiva and Parvati.

Brahma (creator) and Vishnu (preserver) fought for supremacy and then Shiva appeared in his un-manifest form. The cosmic form had no end nor any beginning; its appearance marked the celebration of Shivratri in the month of Phagun.

with the manifestation of Śiva Liṅga in the form of a pillar of light equal

to a hundred doomsday fires, without beginning, middle or end, incomparable,

indescribable and indefinable whose bottom and top Viṣṇu and Brahmā could not

reach. - Linga Purāna

The idea of form, gaathas, rituals and observances related to the Indian Gods are more than myths and legends they represent a more complex network of philosophical tenets, metaphors, and thoughts through which humans contextualise their existence and evolve from within.

Advaitvadini Kaul, Professor of Inter-Disciplinary Study of the Arts at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), Delhi has worked on aspects of Kashmir Shaivism. She says that the idea of the Linga can be perceived from the Vedas where the mention of the word ‘Hiraṇyagarbha’ implies ‘One who brought out this universe out of Himself’. The word also denotes the Sun, the source of energy.

New moons and full moons are linked with one or the other deity, and 13th day (triyadashi) after full moon is for Shiva, says Pandit Anil Joshi.

The one in Phagun is observed as Mahashivratri. There is much diversity embodied as spiritual play affecting both individuals and communities. Fasting, dips in holy rivers, visiting temples, colourful processions and fairs form varied celebrations. Among the Hindu Kashmiris, the night of Shivratri forms the biggest festival and is limited to families. People not only perform elaborate rituals but keep awake in the night.

The Kumbh Mela and its many layers

‘Shiva Lagna’ by poet Pandit Krishnajoo Razdan (early 20th Century) illustrates a number of Shiva Lilas linking the marriage of Shiva with Shakti and then transcending the unity of the two into the symbol of the linga.

The poem refers to the night of the Shivratri when the dissolved God of Love Kama Deva is reincarnated, and devotees experience the greatness of Sadashiva or the Bliss encapsulated in the symbol of Shiva Linga.

It is believed that Parvati is from Himachal Pradesh while Shiva is from Kashmir. Thus, in Shimla celebrations continue for nearly a fortnight.

In the great temple of Brihadeshwar in Thanjavur, says renowned archaeologist and scholar on Shiv Siddhanta Kudavayil Balasubramaniyam, “The shrine remains open throughout the night where the main rituals are performed four times in the night.”

"Meditating upon the oneness with supreme

consciousness, I laud Svacchand Bhairava, the

body of supreme light, underlying substratum of the

universe, supreme being and the creator primordial.”

Svacchanda Tantra

Sadhus walk in a procession towards Sangam -- the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers -- during the auspicious bathing day of 'Basant Panchami' at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.

Sadhus walk in a procession towards Sangam -- the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers -- during the auspicious bathing day of 'Basant Panchami' at the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.   | Photo Credit: AFP


Socio-Economics of Kumbh

The official website on the Kumbh declares the end of the largest human gathering of the world on Shivratri, March 4. Unlike any other Kumbh before, the investment was huge. The planning and execution of the world’s largest event call for not only data but some critique of the socio-economic impact of pilgrimage tourism event. Although the phenomenon is age-old, the UNESCO recognised it as a masterpiece of living heritage only in 2017. The investment and marketing of the event involved enlarging the constituency of both Shiva’s gaatha and the ethos of TeerthRaj or Prayag as the imperial location of Indian pilgrimage by changing the name of the city to Prayag Raj.

Some new features of the Kumbh included the introduction of a new formal group of Shiv ascetics – To the 13 Akharas was added the community of Kinnar or Transgenders as the 14. This was significant as the Kumbh Mela for the first time became inclusive. Land was auctioned to private players and luxury tents were set up. The Mela Committee and able administration of Ashish Goel, commissioner Allahabad peacefully facilitated the sacred dip, along with lodging boarding facilities for over 150 million people as compared to 120 million in 2013.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2021 1:14:40 AM |

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