World’s largest peaceful gatherings are Hinduism’s sacred fairs called Khumbh Mela

Vista of the Kumbh fair in 2016 (1)

A pilgrim’s view of the sacred river where millions bathe at this year’s Kumbh fair. Photo courtesy of the fair’s website.

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By BHAVYA SRIVASTAVA

Across the Western world, when people think of vast religious gatherings, most are aware of the annual pilgrimages to Mecca and the occasional outdoor services held by the pope that may attract more than a million people. But few Westerners know much about what experts consider the largest peaceful gathering on earth: the Indian Kumbh Mela, a multi-year cycle of pilgrimages on an enormous scale.

Pilgrims enjoy pavilions on a recent night at the fair

On a recent night, pilgrims stroll through pavilions in one corner of the vast Kumbh fair. Photo by Bhavia Srivastava.

How big are these events? Think of the scale of a world’s fair with colorful banners, lights, camps and installations—and then think even bigger. This year’s Kumbh fair is more than 15 square miles!

The words Kumbh Mela literally translate as “the fair of the pot.” Ancient Hindu tradition tells about a great churning of the sea, involving both deities and demons, and about a pot (or kumbh) that appeared filled with amrita, an elixir that confers immortality. Indian stories about this mystical pot describe a journey with the pot in which some droplets of amrita were left in four locations across India. That’s why Kumbh Mela rotates every 12 years among these locations: Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain. The sheer magnitude of the pilgrimages to these centers shows the world the power and diversity of Hinduism.

How old is the Kumbh tradition? In the 7th Century, the Chinese traveler Xuanzang returned to his homeland and described a ritual like kumbh at the confluence of two rivers. Hindu scholars say that the esteemed sage Adi Shankaracharya started the kumbh fair at Prayag (also known as Allahabad) in the 8th Century as a gathering of holy people. In addition to establishing this custom, Adi Shankaracharya was a major sacred figure credited with resurrecting and consolidating the Hindu religion.

Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh in India

Location in India: Black shows Ujjain. Salmon shows Madhya Pradesh.

This year, more than $500 million has been spent to make the city of Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, ready for the fair. The area is divided into six zones, twenty-two sectors, four flag stations, six satellite towns and 51 police stations. There are about 2,000 camps of devotees, noted saints or sadhus, organizations and NGOs. Throughout the April 22 to May 21 (2016) fair, there are multiple occasions for ritual bathing.

So far, more than 4,000 journalists and media professionals from all over the world have gathered in Ujjain to cover Simhasth Kumbh Mahaparv. This festival attracts millions of devotees and guests from across the world to meet the saints, attend the bathing rituals in the sacred river Kshipra and enjoy the inspiring messages conveyed in banners, installations, formal programs and individual conversations with other pilgrims.

Kumbh is more than a fair, a religious occasion and a symbol of Hindu tradition. Given the enormous scale of the event and its impact on the lives of millions of Indians, Kumbh shapes the social, cultural, economic and even the governmental life of India.

Hindu devotees at the Kumbh fair

A panorama of some of the colorful devotees who take part in the fair. Photo courtesy of the event website.

Covering a Kumbh fair as a journalist is unlike covering any other religious event around the world. The tens of millions of people who pass through these fairs reflect the vibrant diversity of Hinduism and the broad range of Indian culture.

Journalists who specialize in covering global religious movements find that they cannot ignore this challenging event, said senior journalist and associate editor of Telegraph Rasheed Kidwai. “A visit to the holy bathing place and other areas of the fair is a spirituality fulfilling experience. Seeing the faithful undergoing all hardships of such an event with ease and smiles give insight into the world of faith and dharma.”

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Kumbh for journalists is the presence of holy men often called saints or seers or gurus in English, said Devendra Joshi, one of the officials charged with managing this fair. “Kumbh has a strong presence of religious gurus and their organizations.”

One of the many banners at Kumbh Mela (1)

Photo by Bhavia Srivastava.

Understanding the complex background of these religious movements is a challenge for journalists, Joshi emphasized. Sometimes they are in harmony and, said Joshi, “sometimes they may be feuding with each other.” In the Western world, members of the hundreds of branches of Christianity can appreciate that occasional unity and occasional friction from their own religious history. At Kumbh Mela, nearly all branches of the Indian religious world come together.

While the high-spirited public bathing may appear in Western media reports, much of the fair’s spiritual life is never seen in public. The traditional privacy surrounding many Hindu practices means that, even within a fair of this scope, much is not apparent to outsiders.

Kumbh Mela is more than a public fair—it is a sacred time and place for saints to gather, for organizations to meet, for dialogue about the practice of the faith and for fresh ideas to surface even in this ancient religious faith. One example this year is an emerging “Meditation to Sanitation” campaign that will help to improve public health.

One of the banners at the fair proclaims: A nation needs not just well-defined strategies but also well-refined citizens.

Care to learn more?

Bhavia Srivastava also has written about covering religion in India at the website of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ). To follow religion news recommended by IARJ editors, follow the IARJ’s Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/RJournalists

Bhavia Srivastava at the Kumbh fair (1)

Bhavia Srivastava.

The fair’s official website is http://www.simhasthujjain.in/ You may also want to look for …

  • Facebook: simhasthujjain2016.
  • Instagram: simhasthujjain2016
  • Twitter: @simhasth

Bhavya Srivastava is a veteran journalist specializing in religion news. For years, he has worked as a news writer and producer for a number of media companies, including the popular Indian network STAR News (now known as ABP News). His academic work includes sociology, political science, media ethics and post-graduate research in film production and electronic media. He is a member of IARJ.

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