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The greatest of the Hindu pilgrimage festivals, the Kumbh Mela is a riverside religious fair held four times every 12 years, rotating between Haridwar on the Ganges River, Ujjain on the Sipra, Nasik on the Godavari, and Allahabad, which lies at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati. Bathing in these rivers during the Kumbh Mela is seen as an act of great merit, cleansing body and soul, and it attracts millions.
The Chinese Buddhist traveler Hsüan-tsang recorded a visit to the Allahabad Kumbh Mela in the 7th century in the company of the emperor Harsha, who distributed alms on the occasion. In the 8th century the philosopher Shankara established four monasteries, in the north, south, east, and west of India, and exhorted the sadhus (holy men) to meet at the Kumbh Mela for an exchange of views. The informal assembly of ascetics and yogis that took place at the melas (festivals) served as a kind of "parliament of Hinduism" for the discussion of religious doctrine and possible reform and has remained a major attraction for the pilgrim. Sadhus who stay naked the year round, ascetics who practice the most severe physical disciplines, hermits who leave their isolation for these pilgrimages only, teachers who use modern microphones and public-address systems to talk to the crowds, frauds, and saints — of all sects and from all parts of India —gather in camps along the riverbank and are frequented by pilgrims seeking spiritual renewal.
The explanation given in the Puranas for the Kumbh Mela is that the gods and the demons fought over the pot (kumbha) of amrit, the elixir that rose up from their joint churning of the milky ocean. During the battle, drops of the elixir fell on four earthly sites, the four sites of the mela. The fair's aspect as a fertility festival may stem from a supposedly ancient tradition of dipping pots of grain in the river during this highly auspicious period. The consecrated grain was later sowed with other grain to ensure a good harvest. [—Adapted from Encyclopedia Britannica; 1998]
Kumbh Mela Project: An expedition of film makers, photographers, writers, researchers, composers, and others to document the event.
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