Geography has to do with everything we do in life. Congregating for a small worship or party, dinner or study, … anything. The kumbha mela 2019 at Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh is an exquisite and complex example of a ‘self-organizing’ geography.
Geographers Dr Jaipal Singh and Professor Mumtaz Khan have compiled a book of very interesting articles they have written: “Mythical Space, Cosmology and Landscape.” In this book, they connect mythology and geography in a very interesting way: The most important cultural vehicle that the Purānas employ for sanctifying a territory or a place are the myths and legends of gods, goddesses, and heroes which they inscribe on the landscape.
What do they mean by the phrase “inscribe on the landscape?” In several of my articles in this column, over the years, I have spoken about how we ‘write’ stories on the landscape. Everything we change on the landscape deliberately is a story. Some stories are small, and others are big. They are all part of a larger story.
For example, the minor Balaji temple in your neighborhood is a small local story. It is also part of the larger story of Balaji shrines world-wide. All of them are ultimately connected to THE Balaji shrine at Tirupati. Each local shrine may have its own place legend (sthala-purāna), but they all refer back to the original in Tirupati. Here is an earlier article on geography and hierarchy of shrines.
There are different myths associated with why the kumbha mela is observed where it is. Not all have references in ancient texts (e.g., the purānas).
The widely believed myth is that the churning of the ocean of milk (kshīra-sāgara-mathana), yielded both poison (visha) and amrta (ambrosia). The amrta would bestow immortality and the rākshasas (‘demons’) wanted it. In order to deny them the amrta, someone carried the amrta away in a pot (kumbha). [There are different versions of the myth as to who carried the amrta: Garuda, Dhanvantari, etc.]
Along the way, at several spots the carrier spilled a little bit of the amrta. The places where this happened became sacred places – tīrthas. The most important of these is Prayagraj where the Gangā, Yamunā, and Sarasvatī rivers meet. Sarasvatī is no longer present; it is believed to have gone underground, literally.
The confluence (sangama) of the three rivers is called the ‘confluence of the three braids’ (triveni-sangama). All river confluences are considered holy spots, in Hinduism.
We not only write stories on the landscape, we also read stories from them. Thus, the confluence of rivers is important because they connect waters (life) to the ocean/sea (immortality). Closer to home, you have probably heard of the sangama at Śrīrangapattana, as an example.
Over time, the practices have evolved into the kumbha melas (mela = fair). The timing, location, etc. of the melas are part of what my guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj, calls self-organizing systems. There is no religious authority that dictates that a person should go and attend the kumbha mela or any other mela. People go on their own, based on their own faith.
There are several kumbha melas occurring at different intervals. The one occurring in Prayagraj once every 12 years is the Purna kumbha mela and once every 144 years is the Mahaa kumbha mela. (Prayagraj used to be called Allahabad until recently.)
The kumbha mela is the world’s largest gathering of pilgrims at the same time. This year (2019), the kumbha mela is from 15 January (makara sankrānti) to 4 March (Mahāśivarātri).
Sacred and secular
The kumbha mela is both sacred and secular. I have often written here that the sacred and secular co-exist on the landscape. There is never a purely sacred place anywhere. The secular part includes political, economic, social, and many other activities. During every kumbha mela it is common for news media to carry pictures of ‘sadhus’ playing football, wearing jewellery, smoking, etc.
Many tour operators organize package tours to the kumbha mela. Hundreds of voluntary organizations help pilgrims in the vast area … providing free health care, lost-and-found services, shelter, and so on.
The Government of Uttar Pradesh and the Central Government mobilize a massive law-and-order operation to make sure people are safe. Many cultural entertainment activities are also provided.
Plus, of course, there is a lot of politics involved. Political parties and even the various religious groups involved all have their own politics here.
During this period, bathing in the rivers on various dates is a very important part of the faithful practice. There are specific dates for which bathing in the confluence zone are considered especially holy. The official website of the kumbha mela lists 15 and 21 January; 4, 10, 19 February, and the final bath on 4 March (Mahāśivarātri).
As a self-organizing system, the kumbha mela is a super-phenomenon. It is pan-Indian and pan-religious, combines the sacred and the secular, and brings together people of diverse regions and faiths to one place for a short period.Such activities are already important parts of helping to foster a shared identity among a large population. They are even more important because they are self-organizing.
This year, the attendance is expected to be 150 million people. They will be sharing a temporary city around the triveni sangama, inscribing, and reading an old story on that landscape.
Follow the developments on various media. Observe the geographic aspects of the festival.
Some further reading:
- The official website for kumbha mela.
- “Why the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj is the festival to end all festivals”. Guardian online article.
- Detailed Wikipedia page on the kumbha mela.
A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition, 16 January 2016
Featured image: Location of Prayagaraj. Source: GoogleMaps. Accessed on 15 January 2019.