By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
Currently there is a mega-event going on in India which the Indian diaspora – in Mauritius at least — does not know much about. It is the Maha Kumbh Mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith and hope which takes place every 12 years in the city of Allahabad in northern India. Allahabad is the ancient holy city of Prayag (holiest of the holy) which is located at the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna and is considered the most sacred location for this event.
‘Kumbh’ means a pitcher and ‘mela’ means a fair in Hindi. The current Kumbh Mela began on 14 January 2013 and will end on 10 March, thus lasting nearly two months. During this period it is expected that between 75 to 100 million pilgrims will come to take the ‘holy dip.’ No wonder it is billed as the biggest religious gathering that takes place anywhere in the world. And no wonder either that it evokes the interest of many people who are attracted to the study of Hinduism and those who have a scientific interest in mass phenomena of such epic magnitudes.
Thus, the Times of India reports, under the title, ‘Kumbh mystique now draws Harvard dons’, that ‘intrigued by the sheer scale and complex dynamics of the mela, a group of top Harvard dons have been quietly working on a big multi-disciplinary project to study its various aspects. The effort is… underpinned by the desire to figure out just how tens of millions of Indians gather peacefully in one spot to celebrate this ancient rite of religious passage.’
How ancient? The first written evidence of the Kumbh Mela can be found in the accounts of the Chinese traveller Huan Tsang or Xuanzang (602 – 664 A.D) who visited India in 629 -645 CE, during the reign of King Harshavardhana. However, similar observances date back many centuries, when the river festivals first started getting organised. According to medieval Hindu theology, its origin is found in one of the most popular Puranas, the Bhagavata Purana. The Samudra manthan episode (churning of the ocean of milk) is mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana, Vishnu Purana, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana.
According to Diana Eck, a key faculty member and author of several works on Hinduism, ‘There’s no doubt that the mela is an incredible, even astonishing, human undertaking. Just the organisational logistics involved in managing so many people over a few months in one spot is tremendous. Our project seeks to understand this unique phenomenon better.’
Another academic, Tarun Khanna of the Harvard Business School, is ‘fascinated by the temporary township – a “pop-up megacity”… spread over 1940 acres… a unique, moving laboratory… offers a special opportunity to study everything from the process of organisation to the interplay of commerce and technology.’ Others, in association with the Harvard Global Health Institute, will study the sanitary and medical aspects of the Mela, as well as such aspects as mapping the use of cellphone networks there. All this will make up one of the biggest data sets around, and is expected to be useful to public health experts and even physicists.
The celebration date is calculated in advance according to a special combination of the zodiacal positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the planet Brhaspati: Jupiter. The traditional account in Hindu mythology goes that the gods had lost their strength by the curse of Durväsä Muni, and to regain it, they approached Lord Brahma and Lord Shiva, who directed them to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Vishnu. They were instructed to churn the primordial ocean of milk Ksheera Sagara, which would then yield amrita (the nectar of immortality). This required them to make a temporary agreement with their arch enemies, the demons or Asuras, to work together, with a promise of sharing the wealth equally thereafter.
However, when the kumbh containing the amrita appeared, a fight ensued. 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, Lord Vishnu (incarnated as Mohini-Mürti) flew away with the kumbh of elixir, spilling drops of amrita at four places: Allahabad, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nashik. These are the four places where kumbh melas are held.
Certain days during the celebrations, such as Makar Sankranti, are considered to be particularly auspicious snan (bathing) days. This ritual cleansing, a physical act accompanied by chanting of specific mantras, is of course symbolic of the inner mental purification that one must undergo throughout one’s life in order to attain liberation from material bondage, moksha. Performing this at a kumbh mela may help to put the traveller on this path if he is not already there, perhaps even ‘fast-track’ his attainment – but count in celestial, not human years!
Although the major event of the festival is ritual bathing at the banks of the river, there are also other activities that take place, such as religious discussions, devotional singing, mass feeding of holy men and women and the poor, and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated and standardized.
It can no doubt be appreciated that, given the scale of this gathering, mishaps are practically inevitable – but they have been few and far between. Lessons have been learnt and corrective measures instituted subsequently. According to The Imperial Gazetteer of India, an outbreak of cholera occurred at the 1892 mela at Hardwar, leading to the rapid improvement of arrangements by the authorities and to the formation of the Hardwar Improvement Society. During the 1954 Kumbh Mela stampede at Prayag, around 500 people were killed, and scores were injured. When the Kumbha Mela was held in Nashik in 2003, 39 pilgrims were trampled to death and 57 were injured.
ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organisation, has been taking pictures of the melas with a view to better organise the conduct of the festival.
We leave the last words to American novelist Mark Twain who, after visiting the Kumbh Mela in 1895, 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, marvellous to our kind of people, the old whites.’
* Published in print edition on 25 January 2013