Table of Contents  
Year : 2020  |  Volume : 52  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 88-95

Review study of kumbh mela as a pilgrimage site

1 Yoga Spirituality Division, S-VYASA Deemed to Be University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India
2 Yoga and Life Science Department, S-VYASA Deemed to Be University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India

Date of Submission07-Oct-2020
Date of Acceptance19-Nov-2020
Date of Web Publication23-Dec-2020

Correspondence Address:
B R Divya
Yoga- Spirituality Division, S-VYASA Yoga Deemed University, Swami Vivekananda Road, Kalluballu Post, Anekal, Jigani, Karnataka 560 105
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DOI: 10.4103/ym.ym_21_20

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Pilgrimage site is a testimony to the sacred emergence and integration of space and time with the human spirit. The Kumbh Mela is one of the world's largest Hindu gathering known for bringing auspiciousness and contentment to its believers. The study is an attempt to bring out the significances of Kumbh as an important Hindu pilgrimage site and enumerating its healing dynamics.

Keywords: Healing, Kumbh mela, pilgrimage

How to cite this article:
Divya B R, Keshavamurthy. Review study of kumbh mela as a pilgrimage site. Yoga Mimamsa 2020;52:88-95

How to cite this URL:
Divya B R, Keshavamurthy. Review study of kumbh mela as a pilgrimage site. Yoga Mimamsa [serial online] 2020 [cited 2021 Jun 20];52:88-95. Available from:

  Introduction Top

Pilgrimage is defined as the actual travel to historical/sacred sites with the exploration of the interior world of mind and consciousness and encounters with the eternal and extraordinary. It is an inward metaphorical journey that can be a spiritual/existential quest for self-understanding, wholeness, or wisdom. The sacred sites as an anomalous status in the world meet our social, personal, and spiritual demands Pilgrimage is based on the awareness of a connected universe, a witness affirmation and witness bearing to the existential value, dignity and humaneness for the individual and collective. This witness consciousness renews centered and mindful connections to the self, to the community, to the nature, and to the eternal (McIntosh, Haddad, & Munro, 2019; Tamashiro, 2018).

  Kumbha Mela as a Pilgrimage Site Top

Kumbh is a riverside celebration with a hoary belief in the sanctity of the holy rivers Ganga, Yamuna, and its confluence (Saraswati). It is a celebration of bathing, drinking, and worshipping the holy rivers. Being an important Hindu pilgrimage site, it is one of the oldest religious gatherings at the river side and not for a temple or a deity (Atmashraddha, 2010a; Narain, Narain, & Burchett, 2010). It is recognized as one of the largest religious peaceful gatherings in the world.

Etymologically, kumbh means “Pitcher,” usually referred as “Kalash.” The Kumbh mela showcases the Indian folk and Sanskritic traditions and is a testimony to the sacred emergence and integration of space and time with the human spirit. The references related can be seen in Vedas where it defines Kumbh as bringing auspiciousness and contentment on the Mother Earth [Table 1].
Table 1: The Zodiac conjunctions of Kumbh

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It combines both the characteristics of pilgrimage: one an actual travel to a historical/sacred site and also an inward metaphorical journey which comprises a self-introspection, contemplation, and meditation (Cousineau, 2012).

The participation of both national and international pilgrims at this sacred event, circumambulating the temple, performing prostrations, and chanting prayers, serves as a rationale for the practices of mindfulness, affirming the pilgrimage into a witness consciousness and an awareness of the connected universe. Witness consciousness pilgrimage brings in sense of clarity, release of tensions, burdens, pains and difficulties experienced and is associated with open minded observations and mindful attentiveness (Kornfield, 2011; Tamashiro, 2018).

Pilgrims have the capacity to integrate, and the same is resonated in Kumbha Mela. Kumbh is described as “Microcosm of India.” As a pilgrimage site, Kumbh acts as a national integrator both with the celebration and bathing in the confluence of three different rivers and with the pilgrims and devotees drawn together at this time from distant corners of the country. It unifies the diverse religious and traditional practices and devotions of Hindu religion.

People visiting Kumbh believe that bathing (snan) at the confluence of the rivers offers immortality. The holy men (sadhus) of Kumbh smearing their bodies with the sacred ash (vibhuti) with intense austerities bestow blessings on the pilgrims who seek their darshana (Maclean, 2008).

  Materials and Methods Top

We searched PubMed and national databases for Indian medical journals ( with search terms such as “Kumbh,” “Kumbh Mela,” “Hindu pilgrimage,” “Hindu fair,” “Indian pilgrimage,” “Indian fair,” “religious gathering,” and “Hindu mass gathering” for obtaining peer-reviewed articles on the Mela. We obtained gray literature on the history of Mela and its organization using Google search for the same terms. The search was limited to the first three pages of the results. Any news articles, reports, or government websites containing relevant information about the Kumbh Mela were used as information sources.

  History and Cultural Background Top

Kumbh Mela's historicity – Kumbh in Sanskrit means pitcher and Mela means fair. Kumbh mela conducted during the 1870's, was more chaotic and had possibly became a dangerous practice. This led to the intervention of the colonial government to ensure a safe pilgrimage and encourage more attendance.

Across India, pilgrimages draw Hindus to bath in the sacred rivers and to experience the festive life of a mela. Along the banks of the sacred rivers, pilgrimage called Tirthas meaning “crossing places/spiritual crossings” are located. It is believed as sites where one's prayers are heard, where one's generosity is amplified, and where one's penitential moments are more effective when a religious rite, simple/elaborate, is yielding a powerful fruit. Prayag (Allahabad) city is called “Tirtha Raj.” It is also called Sangam, a confluence where river Ganga (called Mandakini) meets the other two rivers Alaknanda at Rudraprayag and the Bhagirathi at Devprayag. The greatest of the sangams along the Ganga is at Prayag. This is where the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers meet the invisible, Sarasvati river. This place where the three rivers meet is called the triveni, the “triple-braid” of rivers. For pilgrims, bathing at this very location marks the precise holy moment they are seeking. Here, the rivers are said to flow with amrit, “the nectar of immortality,” during the auspicious period of the Kumbh Mela.

  Kumbh – Its Astrological Conjunctions Top

The Skanda Purana links the astrological conjunctions when the four Kumbh Melas take place and the places where the drops of nectar are spilled.

The auspicious occasion of ritual bathing takes place every 12th year when Jupiter is in Aquarius and the Sun enters Aries. In Haridwar, it is celebrated as Kumbh Parva. The significance of bathing and sipping the sacred waters is ubiquitous in the puranas (Matsya Purana 107.7 & Padma Purana Uttara Khanda 23.14).

Tracing its history, the mela in Allahabad has been continuous since the Gupta period from 4th–6th centuries. The same is dated in the Narasimha purana, and it is in this time sages are said to come from different orders assembling from various parts of India during the month of Magh. The first historical description of this great mela was in 643 CE by the Chinese, Buddhist monk Hsuan Tsang, who had traveled to India to find Buddhist sacred texts. He describes his experiences of the gathering of the pilgrims and the generosity of King Harsha in his “age-long festival” “during the month of Magh” (January–February). The traditional scene of the mela and its major attractions are the ascetic exhibitions of yogic performance, the recitation of religious texts, discourses on socio-religious problems, and sectarian propaganda.

The modern Kumbh mela was in 1870, making the mela seemingly chaotic and possible dangerous practice of such a pilgrimage safe and with more encouraged attendance by the intervention of the colonial government.

  At the Cultural Outset Top

The great Kumbh Mela is of a far greater magnitude and scale than other melas. The main streets of the Kumbh City have colorful gateways, decorated with flags, flashing lights, and spinning fluorescent pinwheels. Crowds of pilgrims are welcomed into large halls where hundreds may sit for the discourses of a famous teacher for whom the great mela is a chance to gather his/her followers and recruit new ones. Gurus sit with their disciples and interpret sacred texts. Yogis demonstrate their spiritual accomplishments. Popular singers and musical artists are invited to perform. Some of the great pavilions are built especially to house the theater groups that perform the “lilas,” the religious plays in which actors enact favorite scenes from the Ramayana or the life of Krishna. These performances occur twice a day, in the morning and evening, and end with worship, religious songs, and a ceremonial lamp and flower offering to the principal actors who portray the deities. Lilas incorporate a multimedia approach that provides vibrancy and energy to the mela.

Outside, along the streets of the Kumbh Mela's encampment, sit hundreds of merchants, selling daily necessities and various wares and trinkets of religious life. They spread their merchandise on the ground or wheel it along the streets in carts. For them, the mela is a great opportunity for business.

Shahi Snan, the royal bathing days, is astrologically auspicious, so on these days, the power and magnetism of the holy waters is amplified, and the crowds swell.

Kumbha Mela is the largest harmonious conclave in the world that stands for its magnanimity. It has been inscribed on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage under UNESCO. The concept of Kumbh Mela as a festival welcomes and celebrates people from all corners of the world without any differentiation and ensures the continuity of Guru–Shishya parampara (teacher–student lineage) (Sengar, 2019).

  Akharas: Ascetic Encampments of Kumbh Top

Akhara is a place of practice with facilities for boarding, lodging, and training, both in the context of martial arts and sampradaya monastery for religious renunciates in Guru–Shishya tradition. There are 14 akharas. [Table 2] gives information about the associated sampradayas of different headquarters, akharas, and the headquarters' location. When Kumbh dates near, the government sends a formal invitation to the mela to the different heads of akharas. When these akharas and their generals, the Mahamandaleshvars, make their processional entry into the Kumbh Mela grounds, the event is called “Pravesha (entrance).” Once their encampment is laid out in the mela, each order has a bhumi puja (earth prayer), to sanctify the ground at the central altar of the camp. Each camp raises a huge flagpole to symbolize the deity of the akhara. Great gateways are built along one of the main roads to mark the entryway into the akhara.
Table 2: Different Akharas followed by its sampradaya and their headquarters

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  Major Events of Kumbh and Its Significance Top

Peshwais (Sridhar, Gautret, & Brouqui, 2015) mark the beginning of the festival when all the sadhus (religious saints) and participants of the mela are welcomed to the mela as guests. There is a huge procession with loud music and dance followed by Langar, where mass feeding of visitors takes place. The food is vegetarian and usually something simple. The bathing ritual is the most important ritual and is started by a group of sadhus called naga sadhus who are considered spiritually and physically the most powerful of all. They are strong followers of Lord Shiva (the lord of destruction in Hinduism) and have given up all material possessions on this earth including family, wealth, and clothes. They bath in ash and smear it over their body as a sign of divine protection and are naked except sometimes for a loin cloth.

Every Kumbh Mela witnesses thousands of followers aspiring to become naga sadhus, and they are welcomed into the group through a secret process of initiation. After the initiation, the hair on their heads is shaved (ritual shaving) as a sign of death of one's self and renunciation of the materialistic body. Following this, they chant holy scripts all through the night and at the dawn of the next day, they commence the bathing ritual for everyone. After the sadhus have had their dip in the holy waters, the other millions of pilgrims are allowed to enter the water (ghat). In addition, there are various boats on which the sadhus perform rituals, and an offering (flowers, coconut, or garlands) is placed in the river.

  The Royal/Imperial Bath (Shahi Snan) Top

The Magha month is the time of Shahi snan (royal bath). The shahi snans are on Makara Sankranti, Paush Purnima, Mauni Amavasya, Basant Pancham, Maghi Purnima, and Maha Shivaratri days. It is considered royal due to sadhus' way of approach to the holy bath on the auspicious days dressed in garlands in royal processions sitting on a throne in a decorated chariot fitted with an umbrella. During these days, each monk of different Akhadhas is given a predetermined time to take bath. The first in order is the Dashnami Sanyaasi order followed by the Bairagis. Bathing in holy rivers and darshana of the holy sadhus attending the Kumbh are considered a blessing and an opportunity to attain immortality (Atmashraddha, 2010b).

This event is marked not only as a religious gathering but also as a blend of trade and social communication, sharing the recreational elements of fair (Mehta, Vera, Eck, Mehta, & Mehta, 2015).


The Aarti to the holy rivers (Ganga and Sangam) is followed by prayers and discourses. It is an initiative to understand the significance and protect the holy rivers. Rituals such as Sankalp dharnam and shodashopachara puja are performed. Three types of Aarti performed are as follows: Aarti with burning incense (Dhoop Aarti), Aarti with lighted lamps (Jhar Aarti), and Aarti with camphor (Sayan Aarti). All these rituals are performed with their associated mudras, sounds (high, medium, and low), and chanting of mantras. These ritualistic procedures do carry a rationale and logical approach (Shah, 2014).

Kumbha mela as Yajna (Kumbh Mela: Historical and Cultural Background, n.d.)

The concept of Yajna is understood as sacrifice and a journey of an individual mindset toward developing a collective interest. Yajna is about worshipping, developing reverential attitudes (Devapujana), company of noble pious people (sangatikarana), and attaining religious merit (punya) through donations and sacrifice of personal wealth. The concept of Yajna and its relation to the Kumbh and the mela associated with it is briefly discussed in [Table 3].
Table 3: The elements of Yajna as seen in Kumbh

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The confluence point of the rivers is a great sacrificial ground also known as the earth-altar (Vedi). The Kumbhmela is hence equalized to Yajna at the macrocosmic level. The nature of the participant, their pilgrimage journey encourages them towards developing a collectivistic mindset, allows them to release themselves from the egoistic and self-interested nature. Being part of the event and their ascetic aspirants leads their journey towards life of self-renunciation that indicates the microcosmic nature of the sacrifice.

  Pilgrimages for a Transformative Learning Top

Traumas at emotional level, indecisiveness, confused states, cognitive dissonance, and existential crises exist in a psychosocial formative stage system for mindfulness, self-awareness, spiritual awakening, and consciousness development.

Psychosocial models such as transformative learning theory (Mezirow 1991, 2009) and radical forgiveness (Tipping 2002) explain the formative cycle that individuals (or gatherings) may make one's way to witness, survive, or encounter with inhumane and mass sufferings. The learning process and the inner revelations, insights, and experiences of a peace pilgrimage journey support a transformative journey in widening the consciousness, social healing, and the wholeness. This brings receptiveness, connections, and communication from ordinary to extraordinary sources.

This whole experience is a transformative learning process that connects to the legacy of humanity and history and taking the ownership of one's role as a global citizen. Knowing, accepting, and appreciating the profound sufferings through a peace pilgrimage helps in affirming the faith and redefining the purpose of our lives and cultivates wholeness, healing, and the dignity one seeks (Tamashiro, 2018).

  Kumbh Mela for a Transformative Journey Top

Water is an intrinsic part of the Indian society and is considered sacred. Ganges considered a sacred river and the blood line for India is known to have developed pilgrimage points at all its sources. Religious rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and even funerals are performed in the vicinity of these sacred rivers. Bathing in these rivers is considered a purificatory ritual. The sacred rivers are a source of constant cultural connectedness with religious practices, festivals, and sacraments, being practiced all along the banks.

Kumbh Mela is a source of inspiration, healing, and a transformation. As an event, a peace pilgrimage journey for the quest of bliss is an offshoot of Bhuta Shuddhi (cleansing of five elements) both at macrocosmic level (planet, the Solar system, and the universe) and at microcosmic level, cleansing the five elements of our own body system (72% is water, 12% is earth, 6% is air, 4% is fire, and the remaining is akash or space).

Because majority of the elements at both micro and macro cosmic levels is water, the influence of water internally and externally has a huge impact in one's transformative journey. The Kumbh as a science is making use of this concept in the confluence of rivers at certain latitudes and at different times of the solar cycle; wherever two water bodies meet with a certain force, it creates a churning of water. Participating in such events and taking holy dips at that particular time helps the body to receive 72% of water and allows in obtaining the maximum benefits of the influence of the water bodies internally and externally. A period of 48 days (mandala) in Kumbh brings transformation at all levels – physically, psychologically, energetically, and spiritually.

  From the Education Perspective Top

Pilgrimage through its oral history and auto-ethnographic accounts reveals existential insights and world-view paradigm shifts, which may be valuable for educators or researchers in peace studies, religious education, history, biography, philosophy, psychology, and consciousness studies (Agamben, 2002). Kumbh Mela being a massively important cultural event contributes to the spread of nationalism. It also serves as an information mechanism to effectively spread the nationalist messages. The mela encourages the religious publications, prayer books, mela guidebooks, and manuals. The historicity of Kumbh with lack of countervailing information, sources, and evidence challenges the conventional approaches to historiography, where the actions and agency of gods, goddesses, and demons have been averred (Maclean, 2008).

  Healing Dimensions of a Pilgrimage Top

The sacred ritual bathing in Kumbh Mela is considered “redeemer of sins.” Peace pilgrimage connects with divinity and humanity and supports personal, communal, and societal healing. It exerts an influence at personal, interpersonal, social, class, political, and nationalistic levels. It provides symbols and processes for linking people together across these and other dimensions of difference. Pilgrimage with reinvented traditions helps us connect with others and the community. The healing effects of pilgrimage can be termed “biopsychosociospiritual,” encompassing the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions and engaging the personal, social, and political bodies. For problems at a personal level, these sites act as reconciliation and creation of peace with one's circumstance.

The ritual journey, the power of adhering to specific sacred spiritual places, and the connection of pilgrimage site with important cultural myths combine to provide a particularly compelling and potent context for healing of both physical and emotional ailments. Pilgrimage is about day-to-day concerns, about the expression, and a search for resolution of the human experience of suffering, as described in [Table 4].
Table 4: The healing dynamics of kumbh mela pilgrimage journey

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  Challenges in Kumbh Mela Top

The concept of holy water is an integral part of Indian religious and cultural rituals. Be it birth, marriage, and death rituals, or any of the daily, monthly, or annual ceremony is not complete without ritual purification with water. These have led to pollution of these water bodies (Baca, 2015). Kumbh as a mass gathering poses health challenges both for physiological and psychological well-being. At physiological level, challenges of crowd management, limited infrastructure facilities, reduced hygienic conditions, and exposure to environmental pollutants could lead to transmission of pathogens. In the case of Kumbh, the rituals include rolling on the floor and bathing in rivers, which could lead to skin, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and genitourinary infections (Pellerin & Edmond, 2013; Sridhar, et al., 2015).

A study assessed the river samples in the Kumbh sites for its physico-chemical and microbiological characteristics and stated that all the parameters assessed in this regard were reported to be in the permissible limit, concluding that mass bathing is not posing a threat on the water quality of the rivers. (Khanna, Bhutiani, Tyagi, & Ruhela, 2012). However, due to mass bathing in the year 2019 , the river samples were studied for physico-chemical parameters which has shown that the rivers during Kumbh has not been fit both for bathing as well as drinking(Yadav & Bhatia, 2020).

The River Ganga when assessed during this time has shown self-cleansing properties. The presence of bacteriophages and trace elements in Ganga has played a role in controlling bacterial growth, thus preventing putrefaction of Ganga water and suppression of the bacterial growth (Dwivedi et al., 2020). The dust level in the atmosphere monitored during Kumbh showed enhanced aerosol optical depth values and size distribution (Suryavanshi, Taori, & Rao, 2020). The noise due to the event was assessed for its impact on the psychological health which revealed increased headache, reduced work efficiency, communication interferences both face to face and telephonic, disturbed sleep, and fatigue with dilation of pupil (Madan & Pallavi, 2010).

[Table 5] gives us an insight into the Kumbha mela being the largest and longest mass gathering event. It enumerates the practical concerns for the organizers and participants and also throws light on how a huge mass gathering and its associated rituals can tamper the environmental equilibrium. [Table 5] also summarizes how different strategies are brought into the forefront to manage the event.
Table 5: Challenges in Kumbh Mela and its management

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  Conclusion Top

Pilgrimage journeys emphasize the external travel and an inward reflective journey contributing to educational, healing, and peace building value. Both collectively and individually, pilgrimage is a compelling and an effective means of addressing the problem of suffering.

The Kumbh Mela facilitates the coming together of ascetics, scholars, practitioners, volunteers, and pilgrims from diverse traditions. Most of them participate in discourses, discussions, reflections, and meditation with the positive intention of elevating the self and benefiting the society.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.[34]

  References Top

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  [Table 1], [Table 2], [Table 3], [Table 4], [Table 5]


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