Every 12 years throngs of people flock the city of Allahbad, to attend what is said to be, and I’m quoting it. “The world’s most massive act of faith”. The Kumbh mela. I, for one have been really lucky to have been able to see this incredible phenomenon. In 1989, 24 years ago when I had just about begun my career as a chef working with the ITDC at Hotel Varnasi Ashok, I was given the opportunity to be a part of the team that catered to the food needs of the array of people that come to visit the Kumbh mela. I can assure it was an experience of a lifetime.
There is no evidence of a specific time or era during when the tradition of the Kumbh Mela began, but the legend dates back to the time during the Samudra manthan, when the gods and the demons had to churn the sea so as to obtain amrit or the nectar of immortality from the sea. When this pot of nectar emerged from the sea, the gods escaped with it. What followed was a fight between the devas and the asura’s that went on for 12 days ( equivalent to 12 human years! ) As the gods tried to protect the amrit from going into the hands of the demons, four drops of this nectar fell at four different places namely Haridwar, Ujjain, Nasik and Prayag ( Allahbad). Ever since it is believed that these places have developed a mystical quality and anyone who has a dip in the rivers in these divine places, washes away all his past sins and is eligible for liberation from the cycle of rebirth. During the Kumbh mela the piety of this snan is increased a hundred folds.
The kumbh mela is called so, as this sacrament started because of the pitcher of nectar and kumbh is another name for pot/pitcher. It is held every three years in each of the places mentioned above. The Kumbh held at Allahabad is considered the most sanctifying because it is the place of confluence of the three sacred rivers of Hindu mythology, the Ganga, theYamuna and the Saraswati. This has earned Allahabad the title of “Thirtharaja – the king of holy places”.
The Maha kumbh mela takes place once in 12 years. The 2013 kumbh is extra special because a planetary alignment so auspicious happens only once in 144 years. The Allahabad Kumbh mela 2013 began on the 14th of January on the day of Makar sankranti at the holiest of holy places, Prayag, with a loud, colorful vibrant and numinous procession that included hundreds of thousands of people, all waiting to take a dip in the holy waters, to wash away their bad karma. The “shahi snan” as it is called happens in the most organized manner possible. A strict order is followed. The first to take a dip are the famed Naga sadhu’s. The Naga sadhu’s are one of the most fascinating and important elements of the Kumbh mela. They are Shaivaite saints, followers of Lord Shiva, who have given up worldly possessions and reside in the Himalaya’s. The only time Naga sadhu’s decend down from the holy mountain and can be seen amongst us is during the Kumbh mela. Completely unclothed, wearing garlands made of marigold flowers, matted locks of hair, ash smeared all over their body, trishul’s in hand, they make quite a sight as they take a dip in the River with loud chants of “ Ganga maiya ki jai” and “Jai bhole naath”. After the Naga Sadhu’s have had a dip, next in line are the Vaishnav Vairagi’s or the sages who follow Lord Vishnu, and are basically wandering mendichants ( monks ). Then comes the turn of the several other holy men belonging to different faiths and sects of Hinduism. Only then do the scores of pilgrims from all over the world enter the holy rivers and bath themselves with the blessings of all the gods and the saints.
The Kumbh Mela goes on for period of 75 days. During this time, pooja’s and yagna’s are performed on the ghats, offerings are made, the sounds of the conch shell or the shanka’s being blown are synonymous with the rhythmic recital of shloka’s and mantra’s , there is a divine scent from the incense sticks that are lit, dances are performed and drama’s are enacted, saffron colored flags are hoisted as a crowd of people submit themselves to the pious waters, lost in devotion. This is a feast for all the senses at once.
Since the mela is held during the winter months of January and February the temperatures can go as low as 9 degrees Celsius, but the chill does not deter the pilgrims from taking a dip in the icy cold waters and then viewing the sights within the mela. The fact that all motor vehicles are banned from the mela on days of the special snan does not become a hindrance either. Yes. All movement Within the mela happens on horseback, bullock cart on foot or the ever so famous cycle rickshaws. The mela period also sees a high rise in the revenue of the locals. As they set up several stalls selling things of religious importance to handmade artifacts. Thousands of food stalls are also set up. The food during the mela is strict vegetarian. Puri-bhaji, Moongdal Kachori , dryfruit or mawa kachori’s, jalebi, imarti, samosa’s, jeera aloo, chaat papdi, Badam doodh and other specials from Allahbad are must try’s. A lot of people even carry their own utensil’s and stoves and cook food along the banks, while others eat food at the tents that have been set up to provide meals to the lakhs of pious men that make the site their home for the 2 odd months of the Kumbh.
On certain special dates like Mahashivratri, Basant panchami, Maghi purnima etc. the significance of the ganga snan increases. The number of people on the ghats are also a lot higher on these days. A rough estimate on the number of people attending this Maha Kumbh mela at Prayag this year is about 100 million. Around 7 lakh tents have been erected, pipelines have been laid to provide drinking water to the pilgrims, 25000 tonnes of food grains made available, temporary bridges have been constructed on the rivers, scores of policemen ( some on horsebacks !) are present to control any law and order situation that may arise, super specialty hospitals have been built, fire security personnel are there 24/7. Lakhs of volunteers offer their services to this holy gathering. The combination of technology and tradition can’t be ignored as GPS tracking facilities and huge Led screens have been installed at several locations at the mela. I read somewhere that the crowds on the important days are so massive that they are visible from space satellites. Whoa ! that is something. While most people visit for religious reasons, a large number of people come just to view the spectacular scenes as the event unfolds. Important people from all walks of life attend this mega event. Even departments at the Harvard University are so intrigued by this sensation that they have taken it up as a topic of research. With numbers and statistics this high the chances of glitches happening are not eliminated. Years ago there was a stampede at the mela, and sometime in the 18th century there was an outbreak of cholera, and there are always instances of people getting lost. However in the recent years there has been no room for criticism directed towards the administrative machinery organizing this massive fair. It is indeed a spectacular feat.
The Kumbh mela offers a magnificent view of thousands of people old and young, rich and poor, gathered together at the meeting point of the holy Ganges, the Yamuna and the mystical Saraswati, to attain the ultimate goal of Moksha. Belief in the supreme power, faith in a tradition that is being carried on for centuries and a chance to be a part of something this splendid draws the crowds to the Kumbh mela year after year and will continue to do so.
Here are the recipe links to some dishes popularly eaten during the Kumbh mela , so you can try them at home and treat your taste buds to some divine food.