Kumbh Mela is the largest congregation of religious devotees in the world. It is an extraordinary event which is held only once in three years at one of the four sacred Maha Kumbh locations namely Haridwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Nashik and Ujjain. The festival is held on the banks of the rivers at each of these places and it is the holy bath in these rivers that is the highlight of the Kumbh Mela. The rivers at these places are the Ganges or Ganga at Haridwar, the converging point of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers at the famous Prayag or Allahabad, the Godavari in Nashik and Kshipra in Ujjain.
Although there is written evidence of the Kumbh Mela in the travelogues of the Chinese monk Hsuan Tsang who visited India during the reign of King Harshavardhana, Hindu theology suggests that the medieval puranas have references to it. According the Bhagavata Purana, the Sagara Manthan episode supposedly has the origin and link to the kumbh mela. The story goes that the Gods or Devas who were under the curse of Durvasa Muni were asked to pray to Lord Vishnu and churn the Ksheera Sagara or Ocean of Milk to obtain the pot of Amrit ( nectar of immortality) in order to regain their lost strength. But they had to ask their enemies, the Asuras or demons for help in the monumental task. But after the churning, when the pot of Amrit appeared, a fight ensued between the Devas and Asuras. Lord Vishnu appeared and flew away with the pot of Amrit. On the way drops of Amrit fell on to the earth at four places and it is at these holy places that the KumbhMela is held.
The Kumbh Mela is a festive celebration held on a rotational basis at each of the four venues. Each venue gets to host it once in twelve years and the river banks are the venue for the main rituals. The visual depictions of the Kumbh Melas in the photographs of the event down the years show swarms of people at the river banks, saffron clad sadhus, sanyasis with their bodies smeared with Vibhuti or ashes – all immersed in worshipping the Almighty. Although the Kumbh Mela involves a lot of Hindu rituals, the main ritual is the ‘Shahi Snaan’ or the Holy Dip in the river on the day of Amavasya or new moon. The rivers supposedly become sacred waters during this time. It is believed that a holy dip in the river on predetermined scared days will cleanse you of all your sins till date and release you from the vicious cycle of birth and death.
At Ujjain, the Kumbh Mela is held on the banks of the river Kshipra. The mela is also known as the Simhasth Mela. The name gets this derivation from the fact that according to Hindu astrology, this is the time that Brahaspati or planet Jupiter enters the sign of Simha or Leo. The main holy bath is on the day of full moon or Poornima in the month of Vaishakh (April – May). The Simhasth Kumbh Mela at Ujjain also has special reverence for the Mahakaleswar Jyotirlinga temple. The banks of the Kshipra River comes alive with millions of people from all walks of life converging to have the ceremonial bath. The crowds, the noise of people and the elephants and camels brought for ceremonies, all create a spiritual aura which allows one to witness the essence of ancient Hindu beliefs. The last Kumbh Mela at Ujjain was in 2016 with millions of devotees attending it to gain salvation. The next maha Simhasth Kumbh at Ujjain will be held in the year 2028. There are extensive tourism packages on offer to visit the Kumbh Melas and pre-booking starts years in advance.