Vrindavan KumbhMark Twain, the famous writer and historian wrote of the Kumbh Mela – “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”
This was in the year 1895!
The term ‘Kumbh’ in Sanskrit and ‘Kumbha’ in most South Indian languages, literally means a pitcher, and ‘Mela’ means festival. It is one of the largest, peaceful, religious gatherings in the world; in 2013 over a 100 million people attended the festival from all over India and around the world. Literally, it is the ‘world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims’.
The reference to the Kumbh is found in one of the oldest Puranas (religious texts of Hinduism) where devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) fought over the ‘amrita Kumbh’ or the pitcher containing the nectar of immortality. It also refers to Aquarius, the Zodiac sign depicted by the sign of the Pitcher; the planet Jupiter supposedly resides in this Zodiac sign during the Kumbh Mela.
The Kumbh Mela – Origins and References in Mythology
The devas, having earned the wrath and curses of Sage Durvasa and having lost many battles with the asuras, approached Brahma and Shiva to find a way to regain their strength, vigour and fortune. On the instructions of Brahma and Shiva, they prayed to Vishnu who asked them to churn the ocean of milk (Ksheera Sagara) and obtain the amrita. The act of churning requires a huge pillar like object to be placed in the centre (churning rod) with a rope tied around the middle of the pillar (churning rope) and pulled alternatively on both sides causing the pillar to turn clockwise and anti-clockwise. The devas made temporary truce with the asuras and requested their help in churning the ocean. For the churning rod, they took the help of Mandarachala (Mount Mandara) and Vasuki, the king of serpents, who adorned Shiva’s neck, became the churning rope. Garud, the mythical half-eagle, half-human bird-like creature and the divine mount (vahana) of Vishnu, helped carry Mandara on his wings to the ocean. However, the weight of the mountain made it start to sink to the bottom of the ocean. Vishnu, in his avatar as Kurma, or the tortoise, became the base to prop up the mountain from sinking.
The churning of the ocean, referred to as ‘Samudra Manthan’ in the Puranas resulted in producing Ratnas, three types of goddesses, three types of supernatural animals, along with many other valuables. Finally, the heavenly physician, Dhanavantri emerged from the ocean with the pitcher (Kumbh) containing the amrita. However, on seeing the pitcher of nectar and as envisaged, a fierce battle erupted between the devas and asuras to get control of the nectar, because it promised immortality. A bitter tussle waged for twelve days and twelve nights (a day and night in puranic times equalled one year in human terms). Garud, realizing that the nectar had to be safeguarded and prevented from falling into the hands of the asuras because it would give them full-fledged superiority and immunity over the devas, snatched the nectar pitcher and flew away. In his flight, he dropped four drops of the precious nectar at four places – Prayag (modern Allahabad), Haridwar, Awantika (now Ujjain) and Nasik.
Another account refers to Vishnu himself taking the form of Mohini-Murthi and flying away with the nectar pitcher. The presence of Garud (the eagle) in close proximity to Vasuki (the serpent) can be disputed as the snake is the natural prey of the eagle; on the sidelines of the Samudra Manthan is the tale of garud wishing for a few drops of nectar to save his mother Vinata from the custody of her evil elder sister Kadru who kept her imprisoned in Patala surrounded by her hundred sons, all snakes. However, the garud reference is very prominently shown not only in Hindu mythology but also in Buddhism as a veritable symbol of culture and worship in many parts of South East Asia, like Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam, in particular reference to the Samudra Manthan (Churning of the Ocean).
Traditionally, the origins of the Kumbh Mela are associated with that great philosopher-saint of the 8th century, Shankaracharya, who revived and strengthened Hindu philosophy by gathering learned ascetics and saints for debates and discussions.
Kumbh Mela Celebrations and Rituals
This religious folklore and legend, is the origin of the Kumbh Mela, commemorated four times every twelve years by rotation at all four places of pilgrimage; every third year sees a celebration at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain by turns. The celebrations at each of these places and the auspicious timings are fixed based on zodiacal positions of the Sun, Moon and Jupiter and anyone taking a dip in these holy rivers at the exact auspicious timings is believed to receive highest religious merit in life.
The main event of the Kumbh Mela is the ritual bathing by large congregations of people at the four sacred rivers, the Ganga at Haridwar, the Sangam or the sacred confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad; at Nasik it is the Godavari and at Ujjain, the Shipra. The belief is that the drops of nectar falling at these four places have given the rivers the attributes of purity, immortality and auspiciousness. Related activities like devotional singing, religious discourses and debates by religious scholars and mass feeding of the poor and the sadhus and sadhvis (holy men and women who have renounced the world, also called sanyasis) also take place on the sidelines of the Kumbh Mela.
The earliest chronicled reference to the Kumbh Mela are seen in the writings of Hiuen Tsang, the Chinese monk and scholar who visited India during the reign of King Harshavardhan in 629-645 BC, when the first river festivals began to be organized. Several historical texts and paintings in Hinduism and Buddhism refer to the churning of the ocean and the religious significance of river festivals across South East Asia.
Timing of Vrindavan Kumbh Mela
As mentioned earlier, the celebrations at different locations are calculated and timed in accordance with special zodiacal and planetary positions of the Sun, the Moon and Jupiter. The Kumbh Mela is celebrated at Haridwar when the Sun is in Aquarius (Kumbh Rashi), in Trimbakeshwar, Nasik when the Sun and Jupiter are in Leo (Simha Rashi), at Allahabad when the Sun is in Capricorn (Makara Rashi) and Jupiter is in Taurus (Vrishabha Rashi) and at Ujjain when the Sun and Jupiter are in consonance in the house of Scorpio (Vrischika Rashi).
Vrindavan Kumbh Mela
The Puranas talk about “Mrityuloka” or the material Earth planet for mortals where the Kumbh Mela is held at four sacred places and the “Aprakata” or the transcendental universe where the Kumbh Mela is held in eight different places, Vrindavan and Kashi in the North and Kumbakonam in the South being the foremost.
On a more practical note, historians refer to evidence pertaining to the shifting of sites and places by custodians of religion to promote their own ‘tirthas’ or places of pilgrimage, which may partly explain the importance of Allahabad over Haridwar or the rediscovery of Braj Bhoomi or Vrindavan by saint-reformers of the Vaishnava sect in the 15th century, who reinterpreted the worship of trees, hills and rivers in relation to Krishna’s lilas (pastimes).
In relevance to the Kumbh Mela, a connection is established in the Puranas and Vedas between the ocean of milk (Ksheera Sagar) and Gauloka (gau means cow and loka means world), or the planet of cows on which Krishna resides. Krishna, as we know, is the complete avatar of Vishnu and hence the connotation or significance to Samudra Manthan and the Kumbh Mela cannot be missed. Krishna is said to live in a beautiful white castle in the midst of the Ksheera Sagar. The oceans of salt water, sweet water, milk, honey, yoghurt, ghee and finally the ocean of bliss, the eternal world of Vaikuntha, bear reference to how one can aspire to leave the material world and enter the world of ‘absolute truth’.
Legends in India are many; the external tale is woven like a child’s tale but the inner subtle and mysterious significances cannot be ignored.
To continue with the tale of the Samudra Manthan, a popular belief is held that Garud while flying away with the nectar pitcher sat on the Kadamba tree at Kalidah in Vrindavan; the tree has since then remained evergreen. Therein is the connection between Vrindavan and the Kumbh Mela. Another story tells about how Nandbaba, Krishna’s foster father, expressed the desire to bathe in the Ganga as a purification ritual. To Krishna’s reply that the Yamuna was also a sacred river mother, Nandbaba merely replied that Ganga is the most holy of rivers and a dip during the holy Kumbh season was a must for every devout Hindu. Nandbaba then dreamt of the holy horse, Prayag Raj, on a visit to Vrindavan from Allahabad to turn his black exterior into dusty white in the soil of Vrindavan on the banks of the Yamuna. In his dream he saw the white waters of the Ganga flowing into the blacker waters of the Yamuna thus creating a holy confluence (Sangam).
The black outline is reference to the sins of the millions who came to bathe in the Ganga and the change from black to white is a significant reference to the equally pure waters of the Yamuna capable of washing away the sins of mortals.
Held once in 12 years, or every year that the Haridwar Kumbh Mela is held, the Vrindavan Kumbh Mela attracts many devotees who ritually bathe in the Yamuna. It is customary practice for some groups of saints to attend the Vrindavan Kumbh prior to the Shahi Snan (royal bath) at Haridwar.
The Vrindavan Kumbh is observed when the Sun and Jupiter traverse through the 11th house of the Zodiac, which is Aquarius, synchronizing with the timing of the Haridwar Kumbh Mela. During the Vrindavan Kumbh, holy waters of the Ganga are brought from Garhganga and released into the Yamuna to signify the Sangam and devotees take a dip in the river, because Vrindavan or Braj Bhoomi is considered ‘transcendental’ or beyond the material universe.
What sets Vrindavan Kumbh apart from the Maha Kumbh
The Maha Kumbh at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain reinforce the belief that “Knowledge” of the inner self releases us from this material world into “renunciation”. The intense bathing rituals at the Maha Kumbh Melas are filled with the need to obtain spiritual gain; a dip in the holy waters delivers an individual from the unrelenting and unchanging cycle of life and death. It cleanses and purifies the devotee and puts him on a path to attaining salvation (Moksha).
The Vrindavan Kumbh in Uttar Pradesh is conspicuously different from the other Maha Kumbhs as aspiration for spiritual gain is seen as unholy and unethical. Braj Bhoomi is replete with virtues showered by Lord Krishna and a devotee’s profound desire is to be drenched with the overwhelming love and affection for the Lord which surpasses every other yearning and fills one with bhakti (devotion).
There is a fable that reinforces the essence of devotion and bhakti of Vrindavan through the allegorical reference to two characters representing knowledge (gyan) and renunciation (vairagya), which were energised by Bhakti Devi to be removed from the constant search for salvation and infused by complete devotion to the Lord. Hence, gyan and vairagya have no place in Vrindavan, only Ragatmika Bhakti (unsurpassable devotion) that fills the hearts of the devotees, reigns supreme. Hence, the Vrindavan Kumbh does not espouse salvation as a spiritual need. Revelling in Shyamaamrita (Shyam is a reference to Krishna and amrita, is of course nectar) by invoking the grace and blessings of Radharani and Madanmohan is the true fulfilment of the Vrindavan Kumbh and the bathing ritual endows them with Ragatmika Bhakti which is seen as the truest form of transcendental aspiration. Hence, a large number of Vaishnavas usually take part in the Vrindavan Kumbh; Vrindavan is known as the undisputed centre of Vaishnavism.
Another feature that sets apart the Vrindavan Kumbh is the Nishan (signage or coat of arms) procession. In a fight between the Vaishnavas and the Sanyasis, the Vaishnavas won and the Nishan was presented to them as a token of victory. Hence, at the closing ceremony of the Vrindavan Kumbh, the Nishan draped in silver is held aloft, and leads the procession.
The recent past has seen many activists and saints taking steps to drawn attention to the increased commercial activities around Vrindavan, which is destroying the landscape and greenery and polluting the sacred Yamuna River.
Safety and Security measures for Vrindavan Kumbh
The month-long Magh Mela (Jan-Feb 2014) witnessed large numbers of people congregating at Allahabad. As with any mass gathering involving thousands of devotees and pilgrims who arrive from all over India and perhaps from overseas, it is a huge task for the city and state administration and law enforcement agencies to ensure that the festival goes off smoothly with minimum difficulty or hardship to the pilgrims as well as the regular citizens of the city. Nevertheless, such huge gatherings are not without mishaps and misfortunes that have affected many people in the past.
With the lessons from the tragic stampede that took place at the Maha Kumbh celebrations last year, elaborate security measures have been put in place this year. Separate teams to deal with law and order and security to attendees, general information handouts to pilgrims, traffic arrangements, communications and visual networking infrastructures, control rooms manned round the clock with hotlines to police, government officials, agencies and hospitals, standard guidelines to local hotels, rest houses and boarding establishments in the housing of pilgrims, sanitary provisions etc. are ensuring that no untoward incidents take place. Special contingency plans and emergency measures in collaboration with state government agencies and police departments are taking care of the event.
Several teams of people from the police and intelligence departments at both state and national levels are also using the event to learn more about man-management skills as well as understand the science behind the high tech gadgets that have been installed for the security and safety of the visitors. The information and networking will help put together foolproof measures for future events; the next Maha Kumbh will be held in Nasik in 2015-16.
Places where pilgrims gather in large numbers like government and private bus and railway stations are heavily guarded by police and para-military personnel, especially on auspicious dates when crowd numbers swell. River patrol police and boats are also on standby to prevent mishaps and accidents on the river banks.