The Magic of India’s Kumbh Mela


PRAYAG, INDIA, January 10, 2013 (BBC, by Mark Tully): The Kumbha Mela is expected to be the biggest religious gathering of humanity in the world. In my long years in India I have seen many spectacles but none so remarkable as the two Maha or Great Kumbha Melas which I attended. I have seen vast crowds assemble but none as big as the millions who flocked to the north Indian city of Allahabad to bathe at the confluence where the cloudy waters of the river Ganges meet the blue waters of the river Yamuna on the most auspicious day of those Melas. I have never been more forcefully reminded that India’s age old culture survives today than I have been by those two Kumbha Melas. It is of course a great religious festival, the world’s largest we are told, but there is much more to it than just the great bathing day, spectacular though that is. Most spectacular of all are the naked sadhus or holy men, who careen through the crowds dancing to the frenzied beat of drums and leaping in the air as they charge into the river to bathe.

At Kumbha Melas there is much religious teaching also, and a multitude of discourses. There are the sadhus to be seen on any day performing amazing acts of asceticism. They demonstrate the wide variety of Hindu traditions, and Hinduism’s tolerance too. Hindu pluralism is also shown by the different creation myths the Mela commemorates. The word Kumbha means an urn, and one of the several myths is the story of an urn filled with the nectar of immortality which emerged from the primeval waters when they were being churned by gods and demons. The urn was snatched by demons but the son of the ruler of heaven, the god Indira, recovered it. Drops from the urn fell at the Sangam and other places in India where Kumbha Melas are held.

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