Today on March 4, 2019, Kumbh Mela, the festivity involving largest human congregation in the world, has come to an end in Prayagraj, the bank of holy Triveni Sangam. The festivity began on the auspicious day of Makar Sankranti on January 15. While millions of people take part in the mela whenever it happens, there must be millions others who wonder what this mela is all about. This post is for their consumption.
Kumbh Mela has its genesis in the great mythological event called Samudra Manthana, or churning Milk of Ocean (Ksheerasagar). The story goes like this:
Once upon a time, Sage Durvasa, who was known for his anger received a garland of fragrant flowers. When he saw Indra, the king of gods passing by on his Airavata (elephant), he tossed the garland over to Indra. Indra though placed the fragrant garland on the head of the elephant that unfortunately got irritated by the strong semll. It violently shook off the garland and trampled it. The incident enraged Sage Durvasa, who cursed Indra that he loses his power. As the curse came into effect, Indra lost his all the glory and the worlds started witnessing anarchy as the kingdom of gods was headless. Gods became weak and demons strong.
Fearing for their survival, gods approached Lord Vishnu who advised that they should put all kind of beneficial herbs into the Ocean of Milk (Kshirasagar) and churn it with the help of demons to get a pitcher of elixir, which would make them immortal.
The serpent god Vasuki became rope, and encircled the Meru mountain, which had been made the churning pole. Demons holding the head of the serpent, and gods the tail, churned the ocean for 12 nights and 12 days, which would translate into 12 human years.
Before they got the sight of the Pot of Elixir, a few other things surfaced in the ocean, beginning with a pot of poison. As none of the things that surfaced was not to be rejected, Lord Shiva drank the poison when others backed off. Then, Kamadhenu, the divine cow surfaced and it was given to rishis so that they could conduct yajnas with the milk and ghee offered.
After Kamadhenu, a white horse called Ucchaisravas came, and it was given to demon king, Bali. The next appeared Kaustubha, a jewel, which was taken by Lord Vishnu. And then came Apsaras or celestial beauties, who went to Indra. After these beauties, there came Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. Though worshipped and wooed by all, she chose Lord Vishnu and became his consort. The next, Varuni, or the god of alcohol, came and he was given to demons.
Then came Dhanvantari, the man of medicines, carrying the Pitcher of Elixir (Amrutha Kalasha) in his hand. Upon sighting the elixir-filled pitcher, gods thought that demons should not be allowed to have the elixir as it would make them immortal. Then, Indra’s son Jayant rushed to Dhanvanatari and made away with the pot. But demons rushed after him and tried to snatch the pot. A tug of war ensued and drops of the elixir fell over 12 places, 4 of which were on the earth.
Prayag (raj), Hardwar, Ujjain and Tryambakeshwar (Nasik) are these four places where the water of scared rivers is believed to turn into elixir on certain days when the sun, the moon and the Jupiter are in a specific constellation. And believers want to make use of it by taking a dip in the rivers on these auspicious times.
In Prayagraj it is the confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, in Hardwar it is River Ganga, in Ujjain it is River Shipra, in Nasik it is River Godavari, the banks of which become the venue of Kumbh Mela, once in 12 years in each place. In Prayagraj, a Maha Kumbh Mela is celebrated once in 144 years.