This is the largest congregation of pilgrims on Earth, when literally millions of people gather to bathe in the holy waters and thus free themselves from sins, liberating them from the cycle of birth and death. Attendees come from all sections of Hindu religious life, ranging from sadhus (holy men), who remain naked year-round or practise the most severe physical discipline, to hermits, who leave their isolation only for these pilgrimages, and even to silk-clad teachers using the latest technology.

The religious organisations represented range from social welfare societies to political lobbyists. Vast crowds of disciples, friends and spectators join the individual ascetics and organisations.

Tradition ascribes the Kumbh Mela’s origin to the 8th-century philosopher Shankara, who instituted regular gatherings of learned ascetics for discussion and debate. The founding myth of the Kumbh Mela – attributed to the Puranas (collections of myth and legend) – recounts how the gods and demons fought over the pot (kumbha) of amrita, the elixir of immortality produced by their joint churning of the milky ocean.

During the struggle, drops of the elixir fell on the Kumbh Mela’s four earthly sites, and the rivers are believed to turn back into that primordial nectar at the climactic moment of each, giving pilgrims the chance to bathe in the essence of purity, auspiciousness and immortality. The term Kumbh comes from this mythic pot of elixir but it is also the Hindi name for Aquarius, the sign of the zodiac in which Jupiter resides during the Haridwar Mela.

Each site’s celebration is based on a distinct set of astrological positions of the Sun, the Moon and Jupiter, the holiest time occurring at the exact moment when these positions are fully occupied. The Kumbh Mela at Prayag, in particular, attracts millions of pilgrims. In addition, a Great Kumbh Mela festival is held every 144 years at Prayag; the 2001 festival attracted some 60 million people.

The festival is held at Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik every four years by rotation, thus returning to each location after a 12-year span. Attendance is irrespective of caste, creed or gender. There is no precise method of ascertaining the number of pilgrims, and the estimates of those bathing on the most auspicious day may vary. An estimated 120 million people visited Maha Kumbh Mela in Prayag over a two-month period in 2013, including over 30 million on a single day, 10 February 2013.

Kumbh Mela was inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017. The festival plays a central spiritual role in the country, exerting a mesmeric influence on ordinary Indians. It encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, and social and cultural customs and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge.

As it is held in four different cities in India, it involves different social and cultural activities, making for a culturally diverse festival. Knowledge and skills related to the tradition are transmitted through ancient religious manuscripts, oral traditions, historical travelogues and texts produced by eminent historians. However, the teacher-student relationship of the sadhus in the ashrams and akhadas remains the most important method of imparting and safeguarding knowledge and skills relating to Kumbh Mela.

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