Where: Alternating locations between Ujjain, Haridwar, Nasik and Allahabad in India
When: Every 3 years, the full cycle Mela is every 12 years, dates based on stellar constellations
What’s it about: En masse sacred bathing in line with the Hindu faith
Taken from the Pilot Guides Book ‘Great Festivals of the World’
Where’s the Party?
The Kumbh Mela is held every three years in each of four different locations, returning to Allahabad for the Maha Kumbh Mela (Prayag) every twelve years.
Dates for the Diary
The next Mela is held in April and May 2004 at Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. In 2007 it is held atNasik in Maharastra. In 2010 it will be held at Haridwar in the foothills of the Himilaya in the new state of Uttaranchal Pradesh. Every six years there is an Ardh or half Mela at Allahabad (2007). The actual dates are dependent on stellar constellations and will be announced nearer to the time.
What’s it All About?
The basic point of the Kumbh Mela is for pilgrims to bathe at certain sacred spots on certain auspicious days. A large tented city is erected and pilgrims stay at tents owned by Pandas(religious and spiritual guides) and at various ashrams. Others will just sleep rough or turn up for the actual bathing day. Certain of these bathing days are designated ‘Royal’, and it is on these days that the naga sadhus process and bathe. On other days there will still be people bathing and other events and random processions.
Indian passport holders do not require a visa to travel to India. All other visitors do, and you are advised not to finalise your travel plans before obtaining your visa. Contact the Indian Embassy or High Commission in your home country for information.
India is becoming more and more organised and the health and sanitation arrangements at the last mela were exemplary, and although ‘Delhi-belly’ is not a foregone conclusion these days, you should still take a basic first aid kit with you.
You will probably not see such great crowds ever as you will in the Kumbha Mela, and if you are even remotely claustrophobic then do not bother! On the main bathing days you could be stuck in crushes of people for hours.
Always take a hat and carry water with you. The locals might be used to the sun but you won’t be. If you are staying for a while then vitamens tablets or food supplements (strictly vegetarian) are a good idea. Pilgrim food is relatively bland.
Special trains are laid on to the Kumbh Mela from all over India. Ujjain and Nasik are easiest reached from Mumbai (Bombay) and Haridwar and Allahabad from New Delhi. Haridwar is a bus ride away. These trains will be
Where To Stay
It is possible to turn up at ashrams and request to stay, but they will expect a donation (up to US$20 per day or some voluntary work) if you are a Westerner. Private camps are available through various travel agencies and organisations and the local tourist office will have a camp. The cost for these vary from about US$30 per night through to hundreds for a luxury camp.Contact the relevant Indian State Tourist office (see below). There is also the Rainbow Camp, (Camp Crusty) where travellers can stay for free but it is often on the very outskirts of the mela ground. It is possible to just turn up and find accommodation but it is better to sort something in advance, especially around the main bathing days. Most of these organisations will have a presence on the internet.
Once you have paid for accommodation there is not much else to pay for. There is not a great deal of food available. Most of the pilgrims eat simple vegetarian meals for free at ashrams (you will also be welcome) and bought food is fraught due to the rigid cast rules still found in India. In general you will only be able to buy fried (pukka) food – the only food that a higher cast Hindu can eat that has been prepared by a lower cast Hindu.
Once You’re There
The Kumbh Mela is a religious festival not a tourist spectacle, and your behaviour should reflect this. All types of meat and egg products are strictly banned, as is alcohol.
You should always take off shoes when entering a building or tent of any type. The swept patio area of the sadhus ashrams is especially holy and you should always remove all footware, even if you are leaning in to receive a blessing or pass something. No one (especially not women) should touch sadhus and if you are passing something to them put it on the ground near them or give it to one of their acolytes. The naga sadhus are considere living saints to devout Hindus. If you offend them they may well physically attackyou. If they do, then no court, police officer or pilgrim will intervene.
Just because the sadhus are naked it does not mean that you can take your clothes off as well. One stupid woman did at the Allahabad Mela and caused huge offence to the nation. The usual rules about decent and modest dressand behaviour also apply.
These will vary on the location, but certainly visitors to Haridwar and Allahabad should also visit Rishikesh and Varanasi (respectively) as many of the pilgrims go here after the mela for more ritual bathing.
There are a number of festivals held all over India that are similar in style to the Kumbh Mela. The most famous has to be the Pushkar Camel Fair, which is held at Pushkar in Rajasthan in the week leading up to the full moon of Kartik (October/November every year). Grizzled old Rajasthani men from all over the desert region turn up to haggle over camels and pilgrims throng to bate in the tiny holy lake in the centre of town. The Rajasthan District Tourist Commission sets up a large tented camp for tourists.
Beginning on the same full moon, in the troubled state of Bihar, near the city of Patna, there is the Sonepur Mela. This is famous for the Haathi or elephant bazaar, referred to by Mark Shand in his book Travels on my Elephant, where hundreds of elephants are traded. There is a also large general livestock market here and on the full moon, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims bathe in the confluence of the rivers Ganges and Gandak.
No Full Stops in India, by Mark Tulley
Intrepid Journeys – Short stories published by La Belle Aurore
Websites for the Kumbh Mela will change depending on the location, but any search engine should throw up a number of links.
Madhya Pradesh State Tourism
MTDC, Gangotri Bhawan
Tel: + 91 755 774450
Fax: + 91 755 774289/772384
Maharashtra State Tourism
Express Tower, 9th Floor
Tel: + 91 22 2823844
Fax: + 91 22 2024521/2023472
Uttar Pradesh State Tourism
3 Nawal Kishore Road
Tel: + 91 522 228349
Fax: + 91 522 221776
A good, English speaking, Delhi based travel company who can make arrangements all over India. Contact: Shiv Raj Singh
Indian Trends B-4
Hill View Apartments
Tel: +91 11 615 3125
Fax: +91 11 615 3135
main image: Haridwar April 14th 2010: Pilgrims gather at the third Shahi Snan in Har ki Pauri to take the Royal Bath in the Ganges. Video still from the documentary “Amrit Nectar of Immortality“
By Steve Davey