Kumbh Mela – the highest gathering of people on pilgrimage in the entire world. It is believed that a visit to the Kumbh is an experience in itself. Kumbh is the faith and belief of crores of devotees. And you can very well see that if you visit this grand spectacle. This year in 2019, Kumbh Mela was held at Prayagraj (Allahabad). We visited the Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj on the very first day on Makar Sankranti which fell on January 15 and subtly experienced the grandeur of the event.
To be honest, we are not at all religious and usually wary of huge crowds. Those close to us know that we are usually off trekking somewhere or exploring a mountain hamlet. Even when we did the Amarnath Yatra, it was mainly because we wanted to see the beauty of the place and there was trekking involved. So when the opportunity to visit Ardh Kumbh presented before us, we were a bit skeptical. Yes, there was a time when we wanted to rush headlong into crowds and we (particularly me) wanted to visit the Kumbh in 2013. That did not materialise somehow. So this year, after much deliberation and many rounds of discussions over cups of tea, we finally decided to travel to Prayagraj. What did not happen in 2013, let’s make it happen in 2019! So here is the story of our visit to Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj.
What is the legend behind Kumbh Mela?
Before we take a trip to the Ardh Kumbh of 2019, let us delve into the realms of time to understand the significance of Kumbh Mela. As little children, we had listened to the tales of Samudra Manthan many times. Always these mythological tales used to leave us, the wide-eyed kids in awe. The legend of Kumbh Mela originates from the Samudra Manthan that had made the Devtas and Asuras work towards a common goal.
The Devtas (demi-gods) and Asuras (demons) were arched rivals. And Amrit or nectar was the coveted drink that would provide immortality to anyone who drinks it. The Amrit was to be found lying deep down within the ocean. So the Devtas and Asuras made a pact to churn the ocean together to get the Amrit and the jewels from the ocean and share it among them.
Kumbh means ‘pitcher’ or ‘pot’ in which the Amrit was stored. So when the sacred Kumbh (pot) containing Amrit finally came out, Lord Vishnu fooled the Asuras and gave the pot to the Devtas. As he took it, a few drops of the immortal Amrit fell at four places on the earth. These four places are said to be blessed and it is here where the Kumbh Mela is held. The rivers at these places were also divinely blessed. It is believed that if you take a dip into these holy rivers during the occasion of Kumbh Mela, then it would help you get rid of your sins and you will attain moksha.
The four places are Prayag (confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati Rivers), Haridwar (Ganga River), Nashik (Godavari River) and Ujjain (Shipra River) where Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years in rotation. It is known as Maha Kumbh.
Ardh Kumbh is held at Prayag and Haridwar every six years.
Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj, 2019
Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj started on January 15 at Makar Sankranti and finishes on March 4, 2019 with Maha Shivratri. Taking a dip at the Kumbh in all these 49 days is considered auspicious, but a few days have special significance. A holy dip at those dates is known as Shahi Snan. The key dates this year are:
Makar Sankranti – 15.01.2019
Paush Purnima – 21.01.2019
Mauni Amavasya – 04.02.2019
Basant Panchami – 10.02.2019
Maghi Purnima – 19.02.2019
Maha Shivratri – 04.03.2019
Should you visit the Kumbh?
Whether you want to visit Kumbh is entirely your choice. If you have faith, then you should visit Kumbh. Even if you are not religious, but are fine with crowds, you can visit Kumbh.
Will the place be crowded? Yes, of course. January 15 reported a footfall of almost a crore of pilgrims coming to Prayag for a shahi snan. Although the government has allocated acres of area around the Triveni Sangam (the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati Rivers) and have arranged for basic amenities for the pilgrims, it is always a sea of crowds at the Mela.
2 days itinerary of Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj (this is what we did)
Now that you have decided whether to visit Kumbh or not, we will just help you with a tentative itinerary. You can visit the Kumbh at any date, but a visit during the shahi snan dates will always be special. But remember, these special dates will also see more people, so more crowd.
If you plan to come in any of the special dates, we would suggest you arrive a day earlier.
- Arrive at Prayagraj early in the morning and get yourself a place to stay. The earlier you reach, the better.
- The tent city is around 8 km from Allahabad Station. But buses ply only till a certain distance. The last few kilometers are on foot.
- Roam around the entire place. It is a mini city there. It is great to see how the place becomes one of the greatest ephemeral cities in the world.
- There are akhadas where the Naga sadhus and other hermits stay. You can visit those places.
- Take a boat ride to the Triveni Sangam. You can also do this around the sunset time.
- Take as many pictures as you can.
- Get hold of the information about the time of the shahi snan and other details.
- Wake up early and go to the Triveni Ghat.
- See the Naga Sadhus arrive and then see them take a holy dip in the rivers.
- You may also take a dip into the river then. If you do so, keep your belongings with your friend. There will be a lot of people there, so just don’t leave your things behind.
- After the shahi snan is over, visit the akhadas where the sadhus are staying. Interact with them. And while taking pictures, do ask their permission.
- Leave the town at night or the next morning.
Where can I stay at Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj?
You can stay at any of the hotels at Allahabad. But most hotels are near the railway station. Otherwise, you can stay at the tent city near the ghats. There are both budget and luxury accommodations at Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj.
A 1N/2D package at a luxury accommodation can cost you around INR 12000 per person to even INR 20000 per person on a twin sharing basis. But you will get everything needed for a comfortable stay. It will be a glamping experience.
Budget camping is also available at INR 1000 per person per night. Here you will get basic accommodation with shared toilets. The toilets also may not have running water. We stayed at a budget camp having a 10-bed dormitory. The accommodation was basic. Our host Suraj Mishra was an amiable person who took us around the Kumbh Mela. You can contact him for stay and other arrangements at +919839226134.
How to reach Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj?
Prayagraj (Allahabad) is pretty easy to reach. You can reach Prayagraj either by train or bus. From the railway station, reaching the mela ground is a bit tricky. You have to reach Civil lines from where there are free bus services (the numbers are few) to a certain point. After that, you have to walk the last few kilometers.
Some handy tips for visiting the Kumbh Mela
- Start early and sleep late. A lot of rituals happen early in the morning. The entire place hardly ever sleeps, so you can see a lot of things at night.
- Talk and interact with people. Unless you do so, you will not get the essence of the place. Visit an akhada, talk with the sadhus there. But whatever you do, please ask for permission first.
- If you want to take pictures of the Naga Sadhus and other sadhus, take their permission. Some of them might ask for money in return for taking pictures. So keep some change handy. But there are a few Sadhus who do not like to be clicked. Any amount of cajoling or request will not move them.
- Be humble and respectful and keep the smile intact. Kumbh is a spiritual place. Just because it is not your world does not mean you should disrespect it.
- There is a lot of walking involved, so it is better to wear a comfortable shoe or flipflop.
- The Mela ground is huge and is very easy to get lost in the crowds. Do keep in mind the place, the bridge numbers and where your camp is located. Let me again tell you, all the camps, makeshift temples and akhadas look same. If possible, remember any landmark.
- Keep your things safe while you go for a bath. Just because it is a holy place, it does not guarantee that your things will not be stolen or taken. It is better to keep your belongings with a friend while you take a dip.
- For women travellers, I feel it is always better to travel with a group. Dress conservatively and take prior permission before entering any Naga Sadhu akhadas. Well, I do not want to scare you, but being a bit careful is always better.
Life at Kumbh
At Kumbh Mela, you can see the ends of spectrums. There are the Naga Sadhus and the ascetics who come to take a holy bath at the Kumbh. On the other end, there are people from every walks of society who visit the Kumbh with their faith. Many of the pilgrims are poor and have travelled long distances to Kumbh. The entire place is a cacophony of sounds. Near the river ghat, you can see thousands of people, some taking bath while others are drying their clothes. There are looks of hope, joy and sometimes wait.
And then there is a continuous announcement on the lost and found area. It is easy to get lost in such crowds. Bollywood had a fair share of films where families were separated at the Kumbh Mela. But with technology today, it is hard to get separated, but sometimes you might not have a mobile phone with you. Or may be, you do not have a mobile phone at all. Kumbh is visited by all strata of society. It is just a crazy world at Kumbh.
Naga Sadhus at Kumbh Mela
Kumbh is the place where you can see the elusive Naga Sadhus. These ascetics are an intrigue in them.
The origin of Naga Sadhus is said to date back to the Treta Yug, founded by Dattatreya. But in recent times, the Naga Sadhus were organized by Guru Shankaracharya in order to revive Hinduism. These Naga Babas were trained in the art of weapons and martial arts. After the religious war was won, the Naga Sadhus retreated to the Himalayas. They have taken the vows of celibacy and renounced the society. After years of spiritual quest, they are successful in controlling their desires and instincts. They wear no clothes and stay naked even at freezing cold temperatures. With ash smeared all over their bodies, the Naga Sadhus look quite mystic. The ash keeps them warm when the Kumbh is held in the winter months.
It is only during the Kumbh Mela that they come down from their recluse to take a holy bath in the rivers. Due to their state of enlightenment and austerity, the Naga Sadhus have gained the right to take the first holy dip in the rivers at Kumbh Mela. The Naga Babas take the first dip followed by the others. The Naga Sadhus stay at the Akhadas in Kumbh Mela. The Juna Akhada is perhaps the largest akhada.
We visited the Kumbh Mela on the Makar Sankranti and saw all the Naga Sadhus taking the first dip at the Shahi Snan. This does not happen every day. If you want to see them, then visit the Kumbh on the special Shahi Snan dates.
Here are a few more pictures of the Kumbh
Well, a visit to Kumbh is definitely an individual experience. While we were wary of the sheer number of people, we also enjoyed the interaction with the different people there. We cannot just define Kumbh as good or bad. Kumbh is much more than that. Kumbh experience is not the same for all. It entirely depends on how you are going to perceive the greatest gathering in the world!
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