By Malini Bisen
The 42-day Maha Kumbh Mela (Great Kumbh Fair), which begins January 9, will draw 30 million devotees – roughly the population of Canada – to Allahabad where the holy Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet.
KUMBH MELA DATES IN 2001:
* 9 January 2001: Paush Purnima
* 14 January 2001: Makar Sankranti
* 24 January 2001: Mauni Amavasya
* 29 January 2001: Basant Panchami
* 8 February 2001: Magh Purnima
* 21 February 2001: Maha Shivratri
Periodical or annual fairs – Melas as they are known -on river banks, lake-shores, beaches and sacred places are held by Hindus to commemorate important events or in honour of Gods or Goddesses. These melas find a mention in our epics and Puranas and therefore, are a prominent feature of Hinduism from time immemorial.
The most important of these melas is the KUMBH MELA. The origin of this mela is still obscure. May be it originated as a meeting place for the main religious heads in the country who could lay down canons for the whole community as Hinduism has no supreme hierarchial head. A large number of religious heads, ascetics, high priests, philosophers and wandering mendicants form the major part of pilgrims who visit the Kumbh Mela. It is the prospect of their “Darshan” that draws the crowds.
It is said about this mela that the earth was made sacred at four places by contact with the “KUMBH”- jar-filled with “amrit” – nectar.
It is believed that the gods became emaciated as a result of the curse by a saint and wanted to regain their old strength and vigour by drinking the nectar. But they knew that they would not be able to churn the ocean by themselves and bring up the Kumbh, filled with the nectar-the Elixir of Immortality that was lying on the bed of the ocean. So they approached the Asuras – the demons who were their inveterate enemies, to join hands with them in churning the ocean. For that help, the gods promised the Asuras that they would be given a portion of the nectar when the pot of nectar is brought up from the depths of the ocean. The Asuras readily agreed.
Then the gods and the demons started churning the ocean with Mandar mountain as the rod for churning and Vasuki, the great Cobra serpent for the thick string. As the vigorous churning progressed the ocean began to yield its treasures one by one. In all thirteen precious things came out from the sea. Lastly the Sage Dhanwantri appeared with the coveted jar of nectar in his hands. The Asuras who were physically stronger than the gods seized the kumbh. At that moment Lord Indra’s son Jayant, assumed the form of a gregarious rook- a ferocious bird – whisked away the jar from the hands of the demons and flew high up in the sky. The bird on its way to heaven rested at Nasik, Ujjain, Prayag and Haradwar. He took twelve days to reach paradise from the ocean. As each divine day is reckoned to be equivalent to an earth year, the KUMBH MELA is celebrated once in twelve years at each of these four places.
Another version of this story says that when the Gods and Asuras struggled for the possession of the kumbh nectar spilled from the jar and fell at these four places. The Mela is not held at all the four places on the same date but in turn and hence we have a Kumbh Mela every three years.
But at Prayag – Allahabad – where the three holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the hidden Saraswati meet – the Sangam of these rivers – and the river-bed is extensive, the Kumbh Mela attracts a large multitude of people. The sight is truly spectacular ! Next to this Mela at Prayag, the Kumbh Mela at Haradwar is gorgeous too.
It is a stupendous pageant as millions upon millions of inspired people step into the ice-cold water at dawn. Disregarding the heavy expenses and the long tiring journey people come from all parts of the country and band together to form the world’s and most colourful religious concourse – the KUMBH-MELA which comes after twelve long years of waiting. Hindus regard that a dip in the holy Ganga specially at Haradwar which is believed to be the gangadwar of ancient mythology. As in ages gone by, the powerful call of Kumbh Mela still draws millions of people from all over India. It is indeed fantastic to behold the ancient past blending so naturally with the reality of the present world. The large gatherings of millions are seen once every six years in Ardha-Kumbh Mela and once in twelve years in the Kumbh melas.
In these Kumbh Melas there are hermits and sages from the higher reaches of the Himalayas, Pilgrims, Swamis and missionaries from South of India and from far away lands like America. The faces of unlead ash-smeared sadhus, known as “Digambers”, add to the mystic atmosphere. Bringing all of these together to the same place and at the same time certainly speaks of the overpowering strength of religious traditions in India and also of their staunch faith in their own religious precepts.
As the auspicious Kumbh Mela at Haradwar draws near thousands of emergency shelters spring up-modern tents, old style bamboo cottages like those used long ago by ancient sages. Atop of these flutter thousands of coloured flags of various religious sects. A common feature of this mela is fakirs sitting with their twisted limbs on their sharp spikes and ascetics standing on their heads. As the auspicious hour for the dip draws near some 100,000 Sadhu take out a procession, which is led by a Sadhu, riding an unsadled horse, followed by caprisoned elephant behind which the holy men march in long files. The whole corsage proceeds in regal splendour down to the water’s edge with some of the Sadhus reclining under gorgeous parasols in decorated palanquins. The route of the procession is lined with crowds of pilgrims. A ripple runs through the crowd as the first sect of Sadhus steps into the water to be followed by wave after wave of Sadhus dip in the holy river. Then excited people enter the water to have their holy bath.
In the ancient literary works the importance of Haradwar as one of the seven holy cities of the Hindus is highly emphasised. It is at Haradwar, rightly known as the “gateway to reach the gods” that the great holy Ganga enters the plain after a journey of two hundred miles through the rugged mountains. Thus beauty and sanctity are seen together at Haradwar. Wooded hills, cradle the youthful Ganga not yet defiled by city wastes, as she emerges from the protective girdle of the majestic Himalayas, holding forth a promise of a million years in heaven no deities need to be propitiated, no temple bells are required to be rung! Just a bath in the magic waters of the Sacred Ganga at Haradwar and you reach nearer to heaven. As evening falls at Haradwar and hundreds of lighted floats go bobbing down in the waters of Ganga, pilgrims sitting around the fire narrate the mythical episode of the churning of the sea by the gods and the demons for a continuous thousand years to finally bring out from the sea the KUMBH containing the elixir of immortality. The crowds listen to the legend of the fight between the gods and the demons to take possession of that Kumbh and also to the many stories that have sprung from that one episode.
Apart from the Hindu devotees, there are a great many who came with truly pious sentiments. It is to such people that the Kumbh and Ardh-Kumbh melas owe their tremendous impact and popularity. Joyous and free, calm and tranquil the faithful ones leave the Melas at complete peace with themselves. The holy river and the All-powerful god in whom their faith becomes more implicit, convince them that they are a step ahead in their quest for achieving “MOKSHA” – freedom from mortality.
Most of the visitors to the Melas stay for one month in tents on the shores of the Ganga and cook their own food specially the LAPSI which is a “must” on the main day of the Kumbh.
RECIPE OF LAPSI
2 1/2 cups coarse Semolina (suji)
1/2 cup ghee
2 cups milk
2 cups jaggery grated
1 teaspoon cardamoms crushed
1/4 cup kishmis.
1. Heat ghee in a heavy-bottomed dekchi.
2. Then season the ghee with whole cloves and cardamoms.
3. Add Semolina. Make the fire medium and fry it to a light golden colour.
4. Pour milk, stir and cover the dekchi.
5. Make the fire slow and let the Semolina cook till it is soft.
6. If necessary add a little water to cook it.
7. Put in the jaggery mix well, cover the dekchi.
8. Let cook till the jaggery is absorbed and the Lapsi becomes quite thick.
9. Put in the Kishmis and sprinkle the Cardamom powder.
When served hot it is simply delicious.