Kumbh Melas are being held in India since ancient times. They are older than history. Even in ancient times when transport facilities were next to nothing, thousands of men, women and children used to converge for a holy bath from all corners of the country. History tells us that these melas were held in the seventh century during the time of Harshavardhana. The king used to make large gifts on such auspicious occasions. Hieun Tsang, a Chinese traveller, had stated that these melas were held since ancient times.
Though religious congregations also take place in other parts of the world like Adivel and Kandy Easala Posehera festivals of Sri Lanka, the water festival of Kampuchea and Tet festival of Vietnam yet the Kumbh Mela of India excels in religious significance, spiritual fervour and mass appeal.
In fact, the Kumbh Mela is different from other congregations because no advertisements are issued, no propaganda is launched and no invitations are issued for it. People flock to this congregation despite inconveniences of travel, inclemencies of weather and for no material gain whatsoever. People from all walks of life, rich and poor, young and old, men and women, saints and scholars, artists and artisans; gather here in the hope of achieving salvation.
Unfortunately, sometimes the crowd at Kumbh Melas becomes unmanageable despite elaborate arrangements made by the Mela authorities to regulate the flow of pilgrims. At the Maha Kumbha Mela at Hardwar, as many as 47 persons were killed and 35 injured in a stampede on 14th April, 1986. This tragedy occurred when thousands of pilgrims rushed for a holy dip at the Brahm Kund (Hardwar). This was not the first Kumbh Mela to end in tragedy. In the past also, there have been many worse tragedies resulting in much heavier loss of lives-18,000 in 1760 A.D., 500 in 1795 A.D. and 500 in 1953 A.D.
To millions of Hindus, the Ganga is not merely a lifegiving, life supporting river. It is the goddess incarnate. To bathe in the river, to drink its holy waters, to have one’s ashes scattered over its surface; these are the greatest wishes of every devout Hindu. According to an ancient Sanskrit verse, the people who “participate” in the Kumbh Mela and “bathe” become free from temporal bondage and get spiritual salvation.
Thus, the Kumbh Mela is a socio-spiritual parliament of men and women, young and old, who are in quest of salvation. Even the most unsophisticated people who throng to the Kumbh Mela understand that this rare congregation is a symbol of the country’s unity and emotional integration. These melas can promote national integration and lead to universal brotherhood.
On the auspicious occasion of Maha Kumbh at Prayag on 24th January, 2001, an estimated two crore pilgrims sought a soul-salvaging dip in the Sangam on mauni amavasya, the holiest day of the world’s largest religious festival. The explosion of religiosity began as dawn was breaking, with nag sadhus leading the charge. Wearing nothing but garlands of marigold, the frenzied hordes of naga sadhus rushed into the chilly water chanting mantras.
Again over one crore people on 9th February, 2001 took a ritual dip at the time of the above Kumbh Mela at Prayag in the holy waters of the Sangam amid tight security on the occasion of Magh Poornima. The Nashik Trimbakeshwar year long Simhasta Kumb Mela marking the celestial romance between Jupiter and Leo began on July 30, 2003 in Nashik.
On April 14, 2010 alone approximately 10 million people bathed in the Ganges river. According to officials by mid April about 40 million people had bathed since January 14, 2010. Hundreds of foreigners joined Indian pilgrims in the the festival which is thought to be the largest religious gathering in the world. To accommodate the large number of pilgrims Indian Railways ran special trains. Indian Space Research Organisation took satellite pictures of the crowds with the hope of improving the conduct of the festival in the future.