First Timer’s Guide to Kumbh Mela

Divya Kumbh, Bhavya Kumbh

From January to March 2019, millions will gather at Prayagraj for Ardh Kumbh Mela. Let me explain the origin and significance of one of the largest religious gathering on Earth.

The Kumbh Mela has its origins in Hinduism, as per religious texts, Lord Vishnu snatched a vessel containing the nectar for eternal life from rakshasas [demons]. It ensued a war between the Gods and demons which lasted for 12 days. It was during this time that four drops of nectar fell on Earth.

The drops that fell on Earth turned into four sacred rivers – Ganga in Haridwar, Godavri in Nashik, Shipra in Ujjain and the confluence of Ganga, Jamuna & the mythical Saraswati ‘Triveni Sangam’ at Allahabad. Devotees from all over the world come to Kumbh to take holy dip on auspicious days to wash away sins and to cleanse their souls. Religious teachers, hermits, Naga Sadhus, saints, holy men along with their followers attend the Kumbh.

Shades of Orange and blue merging the morning sky at Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh

Types of Kumbh Mela

According to the Hindu calendar, there are four types of Kumbh Mela:

  1. Magh Kumbh Mela – Annually held at Allahabad/Prayagraj.
  2. Ardh Kumbh Mela – Ardh means half, so it is celebrated every 6 years at two locations i.e. Prayagraj and Haridwar.
  3. Purna Kumbh Mela – Comes after every 12 years and is celebrated at four location on the basis of astrological significance i.e. Prayagraj , Haridwar , Nashik and Ujjain 
  4. Maha Kumbh Mela – It is only after twelve Purna Kumbh i.e. 144 years later that Maha Kumbh Mela is celebrated at banks of Triveni Sangam, Prayagraj.

Where is Kumbh Mela held?

The location for Kumbh Mela is selected on the basis of Hindu Calendar traditions. Kumbh Mela is held at Haridwar during Chaitra [first month as per Hindu calender] when the Sun is in Mesha rashi [Aries] and Jupiter is in Kumbha rashi [Aquarius]. It is held at Allahabad/Prayagraj during Magha when the Sun and the Moon are in Makar rashi and Jupiter is in Mesha rashi. Nashik hosts Kumbh Mela when the Sun and Jupiter are in Singh rashi [Leo] during Bhaado [around August/September]. During Vaisakha [April/May], Kumbh is held at Ujjain when Jupiter is in Singh rashi and Sun is in Mesha rashi or when Sun, Moon and Jupiter are in Tula rashi [Libra].

A mother bathing her child in Ganga River at Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh

Who is a Naga Sadhu?

A Naga Sadhu is a religious ascetic those who worships Lord Shiva in Hindu tradition. It was Adi Shankara who formed an armed group of Naga sadhus to save Hinduism from the Mughal invasion in the 8th century.

A Naga sadhu on his horse at Triveni Sangam

What are the rules of becoming a Naga Sadhu?

  • Vow of celibacy
  • Abandon worldly relationships
  • Live on bare minimum – eat once a day, ‘Bhiksha’ [begging for food],
  • Renunciant materialistic needs – Clothes, ornaments etc.
  • Live a secluded life away from civilization
  • Commitment to ‘Sadhna’ [Meditation], Yoga and religious rituals
  • Strong supporters of Truth, non-violence, non-stealing and benevolence
  • Perform one’s own last rites.

What are the stages of becoming a Naga Sadhu?

Stage 1: Mahapurush

The first stage of becoming a Naga requires an individual to observe Brahmacharya for 6 years. At this stage, the ‘Sadhak’ [aspirant] joins an Akhada where he devotes himself to a Guru and becomes his shishya. Once the aspirant masters his biological needs, he is then conferred with the title of a ‘Mahapurush’ [Great Man].

Stage 2: Advhoot

In this stage, the Sadhak has to self-deny all worldly attachments including family bonds, friendship ties, materialistic possessions and worries

Stage 3: Naga

The third stage is the most tormenting one, the Sadhak undergoes various physical and spiritual tests. They have to starve, do back breaking exercises and their genitals are slowly beaten-up while chanting Vedic mantras [this is done to make their sexual desires inactive].

Naga Sadhus after taking the holy dip

Once an individual clears all the three stages and fulfil all requirements, only then they are initiated into the sect. After the initiation they are conferred with the title of ‘Naga’. The ‘diksha ceremony’ takes place at Kumbh Mela where the sadhus undergo a group ‘Mundan’ [head shaving ceremony] and perform their last rites. Last rite or ‘Pind Daan’ is the stepping stone into a new life for an ascetic. After renouncing earthly pleasure, the only aim of a Naga’s life is to defend Mandir [Temple] and Math of Sanatan Dharam.

Saffron Akhada Flags

What is an Akhada?

An Akhada is a place of practice where basic facilities of accommodation, food and training is provided to aspirants for religious renunciation. The fourteen Akhadas under Akhil Bharatiya Akhara Parishad falls under two categories – Shastradhari [scripture-bearers] and Astradhari [Warriors] . In 8th century, all the Akhadas came together during Kumbh Mela to shield Hinduism against Islamic influences and to protect Hindu traditions.

The Akhadas can be classified into three main categories:

  • Shaiva Akahras : Followers of Shiva
  • Vaishnava Akharas : Followers of Vishnu 
  • Udaseen Akharas :Followers of ‘ॐ’

What is the significance of Shahi Snan

It is believed that the drops of immortality is acquired by those who bathes in the holy river during Kumbh. As mentioned above, the four drops of nectar that turned into sacred rivers possesses the consecrated qualities of immortality and to cleanse the soul of Naga sadhus. Nagas were the protectors of Dharma and in order to do so, they had to turn to violence. The holy dip washes away all their sins and moves them a step closer to Nirvana.

Ardh Kumbh Mela 2019 at Prayagraj

If you are interested in witnessing World’s largest gathering of people, then visit Ardh Kumbh Mela. This year Ardh Kumbh Mela is being held at Prayagraj from 15th January till the 4th of March, 2019. Some of the auspicious dates for this year’s Kumbh Mela are:

  • First Shahi Snan on Makar Sankranti – 14/15 January 2019
  • Paush Purnima – 21 January 2019
  • Second Shahi Snan on Mauni Amavasya – 4 February 2019
  • Third Shahi Snan on Basant Panchami – 10 February 2019
  • Maghi Poornima – 19 February 2019
  • Maha Shivratri – 4 March 2019

This is the power of gathering: it inspires us, delightfully, to be more hopeful, more joyful, more thoughtful: in a word, more alive. 

Alice Waters

My Experience at Kumbh

I was there at Allahabad to attend the first Shahi Snan on Makar Sankranti this year. It was an overwhelming experience just to be there at that moment among the multitude of unrelated people. Thousands flock in unison towards Sangam for holy dip in the wee hours of the morning.

I reached Triveni Sangam at 5.30 am to see the procession of Naga Sadhus. It was impossible to get a closer look because of the growing crowd. But it was my lucky day, I was able to jump the fence and see the procession from a hands’ length. Ash-smeared naked bodies wearing nothing but a garland and an occasional loincloth, the Naga sadhus came charging with their shining tridents and weapons, shouting slogans of ‘Har Har Mahadev’. 

While I was trying to capture this breathtaking moment on my camera, I got shouted at by the police – one almost about to hit me when he realised I was a girl [I was wearing a hoodie, so he couldn’t make out my gender]. Several garlands crashed on my head, I was scared initially but after a while I got so consumed in that moment that I forgot everything. In that moment, all I could do was to ‘Be There’ and experience that surreal spectacle.

After the holy dip, all Akhadas proceed for a Rath Yatra on their chariots or tractors turned trolleys. The devotees throng the roads just to get a glimpse of their saints and seek divine blessings.

Rath Yatra

Kumbh Chalo!

All you need to know to attend this year’s Kumbh Mela at Allahabad/ Prayagray in Uttar Pradesh, India. You can visit the official site for Kumbh Mela 2019 for more information.

How to Reach:

By Flight: Nearest airport is Bamrauli Airport  which is located 12 kms outside the city. 

By Train: Reach Allahabad Junction Railway station and there go to Civil Lines bus stop. You can take Kumbh Mela Special buses to reach the Mela ground or take a shared vehicle to reach Shashtri Bridge aka Jhunsi Bridge.

By Road: You can drive to Allahabad via Agra and Kanpur or take a local bus from Delhi, Varanasi, Lucknow, etc.

Where to Stay:

I stayed at Kumbh Dormitory 2019, it is a tented accommodation with basic facilities and shared bathrooms. If you are a budget traveller and want decent yet cheap stay option then contact Mr. Suraj Mishra [+91-9839226134].

Kumbh Dormitory 2019 at Prayagraj

Depending on your spending capacity, there are many options available near Jhunsi bridge. Swiss tents with attached bathrooms and a separate dinning area has a tariff plan of 30K per night. You can also choose to stay near Civil Lines or Allahabad Railway Station and travel to Mela grounds to experience Kumbh.

author --
If it wasn't for some dear friends who backed out of a trip to Ladakh, Suman wouldn't have been sharing these travel stories today! It was an eye opener, her first solo trip. Beyond the shenanigans of youthful days, Suman experienced a world of many dimensions. With her words, Suman hopes to share and inspire.

41 thoughts on “First Timer’s Guide to Kumbh Mela

  1. A very informative post about the Kumbh Mela and about the Naga Sadhus. I can quite imagine the time when the policeman was shouting at you. We too had a similar experience. It was great travelling with you (as usual) and we should do this more often! 🙂

  2. This is so interesting! I like the way you structured the post by explaining what Kumbh Mela is and then your experience attending the event. I love learning about other cultures and it is interesting to know the criteria for becoming a Naga Sadhu, such as only eating once a day.

  3. This is such a detailed and informative post! I really like how you’ve woven in your personal experience and also shared tips for others who may be planning a trip here or would like to know more. Lovely photography from your travel experience as well.

  4. Wow, wow, wow! What an unbelievable ceremony to witness. Your photos are unbelievable. It is fascinating to hear about the rules and what these men go through to join this sect – beating up their privates? I would love to know more about the history of this religion and what draws men to want to join it. As an atheist, it seems such a foreign concept to want to do this versus have to do this.

  5. I know little about Hinduism but I’m amazed by this post. You’ve provided an amazing amount of info about it. Thanks for the info on how to get there and where to stay.

  6. Hinduism is a complicated religion that is very difficult to understand. I enjoyed reading all the details that you provided as many people attend events just because they are famous and have no idea what the real meaning of the event is. What looks like just a procession of ash-smeared naked bodies actually hides a real deep and complicated spiritual concept. Great post and what an amazing experience you had!

  7. I’ve never heard of this festival before, but then have never travelled to India. It looks like an interesting festival and vibrant too!

  8. Just the other day we were watching the ‘Magh Mela Prayagraj’ video and found it incredible. Visiting the Kumbh is surely an incredible experience and I am sure the memories will remain with you. We hope to make it someday to the Kumbh.

  9. I was very skeptical to visit Kumbh Mela, but you summarized your experience nicely. I guess I can make a visit next time it happens. Would you recommend a solo female traveler try out this experience?

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