Type Religious Festival Time January – April; Every 12 Years Location Allahabad, Ujjain, Trimbakeshwar, Haridwar

The Maha Kumbh Mela, held in Allahabad, was declared to be the largest gathering of humanity for a religious occasion. The Ardha (half) Kumbh Mela, much smaller in magnitude, is held at six-year intervals.

The Legend

It is believed that the gods and the demons churned the cosmic ocean in their quest for amrit – the celestial nectar – which would bestow immortality upon those who drank it. What emerged first from the waters was poison, which Lord Shiva drank, then the 12 gems, and finally, the long-awaited pot of elixir. A fight broke out between the devas and asuras for the possession of the precious pitcher. In order to help the gods, Lord Vishnu appeared in the form of Mohini, a beautiful damsel.

The demons were momentarily distracted and Jayanta, Indra’s son, took advantage of this and carried away the pot of nectar. However, the demons soon discovered this and started chasing Jayanta. A fight ensued. As this happened, it is said that Jayanta spilled drops of the immortal nectar at four places: Ujjain, Haridwar, Trimbakeshwar and Prayag (Allahabad), sanctifying them forever. Thus, at each place, the Kumbh is celebrated once every twelve years, as Jayanta’s flight was said to have lasted twelve days, which is equivalent to twelve human years.

It is also said that Jayanta, during his flight, appealed to the Sun to protect the pitcher from breaking, to the moon to prevent the nectar from falling out, and to Jupiter to protect him. Since all these three celestial powers had a significant role to play, the Kumbh is held when Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon are in a particular astrological position in the almanac. Ujjain, Haridwar, Trimbakeshwar and Prayag (Allahabad) thus became sites of great pilgrimage, and the Kumbh Mela is celebrated by turn in each of these four places, once every four years.

The Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang wrote of the Kumbh Mela that took place in 643CE. Over a period of a month he recorded the presence of a large gathering of sadhus, saints, mendicants and beggars. He added that Gupta king Harshavardhan used to visit this mela and give away all his earnings, even his jewellery and clothes, to the poor. Centuries later, in 1885, Mark Twain described the mela thus, “Pilgrims plodded for months in the heat to get here, worn, poor and hungry, but sustained by unwavering faith.”

The Festival

A temporary mela township comes up at each of these four places when the Kumbh is celebrated. During the Kumbh festival, many religious, cultural, social, voluntary, commercial and even political organisations, besides government departments, set up temporary camps in the mela area. Sadhus from all over the country assemble and take up residence in these tents. The mela is dominated by 13 akharas (homes/ sects of sadhus), essentially specific groups of religious warriors, who are also famous for their intersect rivalries. The fiercest and most individualistic among them is the Juna Akhara. The akharas set up camp in the Kumbh areas with much fanfare. The tradition of ‘Kalpvaas’ is observed, where the devout, often comprising entire families, come and stay on the riverbanks for a month, leading a spartan and pious life. They bathe thrice, perform day-long pujas, and eat only once a day.

The main bathing days are known as Shahi Snans, or Royal Bathing Days. There are three Shahi Snans: Mauni Amavasya (the dark moon), Basant Panchami (the fifth day of the new moon), Maha Sankranti (when the Sun enters the sign of Capricorn). Sadhus lead the order in which a Shahi Snan is performed.

An agreement between the government and the akharas, dating back to 1906, clearly lays down the number of processions, their order and the duration of the Shahi Snans. For the holy bath, the members of the akharas are followed by the other sadhus and holy men, who in turn are followed by VIPs and then lay folk. A crushing wave of humanity surges towards the bathing places with chants of ‘Har Har Mahadev!’ renting the air. The akharas leave the mela after the last Shahi Snan on the occasion of Basant Panchami, which marks the beginning of the end of the mela. The most visible sect at the Kumbh, however, are the naked Naga Babas. They cover their bodies only with ash, and wear their hair in dreadlocks.

Naga babas, synonymous with the Kumbh Mela, dash into the holy waters
Naga babas, synonymous with the Kumbh Mela, dash into the holy waters
Prashant Panjiar


In Allahabad, the Kumbh area is divided into three parts to create the required infrastructure. The first one is around the Sangam area, where there is a huge tract of open land, including the Parade Ground, which belongs to the army; the second is across the River Ganga towards the Jhunsi side; and the third, across the River Yamuna, towards the industrial township of Naini, is known as Arail. Since river waters separate these areas, floating pontoon bridges are erected to connect them.

During one of the melas Kumbh, Jal Nigam, the water authority, had to construct 350km of pipelines, in addition to setting up 15,000 water taps for actual supply. For the drainage of wastewater, kuccha drains had to be dug below every tap. On the trunk supply line, provision was made for 1,100 fire hydrants. To quench the pilgrims’ thirst, 12,000 drinking water taps were set up along the roads. Electrical sub-stations were installed to maintain a continuous supply of power to the mela township, called Kumbh Nagar, in cold January. The Health Department provided Kumbh Nagar with medical and sanitation facilities and ensured regular cleaning and sweeping of the whole area. Supply of foodgrains, edible oils, firewood, cooking gas, kerosene oil, vegetables and fruits was ensured. Restaurants, tea stalls and sweet shops came up. The town sustained an entire local economy. About 20 kiosks and two cyber cafés were set up, and they were especially handy for the many reporters who came to file their stories.

Many ashrams and institutions like the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharat Seva Ashram set up camp in Kumbh Nagar. They also accommodate pilgrims on prior booking, routed through their headquarters in Kolkata.

Audirus Beniorus, Head of the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Vilnyus, Lithuania, who happened to attend one of the melas said that in spite of the crowds and chaos, he was amazed and humbled by the sight of Hindu unity. “Yes, unity, that’s the only word I can think of,” he said. And what do the people of Allahabad themselves feel? For Raju, a driver, the Kumbh makes things difficult for various reasons: the roads are choked with people, rickshaws and cycles, and driving becomes a nightmare. Vatika, a resident, says that the best period is the build-up to the mela itself. There are no massive flows of humanity yet, but there is already a sense of excitement in the air. Cleaning is undertaken and the city spruced up. A swamiji from the Ramakrishna Mission sums up his feelings by saying that he prefers to be in some other city during the mela!

A devotee seeks Shiva’s blessings
A devotee seeks Shiva’s blessings
Gireesh G.v

The most vivid impression is that of Debashish Dutta, an IT specialist from Kolkata: “I don’t know how and why but I just felt connected with all the millions of people there. We were all so different but it was as if there was a common link between all of us.”

The Ujjain Simhastha

The Ujjain Kumbh is celebrated when Jupiter is seen in the ascendant of the Leo or the simha constellation of the zodiac and is therefore known as the Simhastha. Ritual bathing in the holy waters of the Shipra begins on the day of the full moon of the Hindu month of Chaitra (March–April) and carries on till the next full moon the following month, which is known as Baisakh.

Allahabad and Haridwar also host an Ardha Kumbh every six years. Allahabad holds the Maha Kumbh Mela after every 12 Purna Kumbh Melas, that is, 144 years! People from many religious persuasions actively participate in the festivities. In fact, in 2004, the Shehar Kazi of Ujjain hosted 7,000 pilgrims for the entire duration of the Simhastha. Other local communities that actively participate in organising the event are the Bohras and the Sikhs.

A ghat at Har-ki-Pauri crowded with the faithful
A ghat at Har-ki-Pauri crowded with the faithful
Bharat Aggarwal

The MP Government estimates that approximately 20 million people visit Ujjain during the Simhasthas. Like other Kumbh Melas, the Simhastha is a spectacle to behold. Hermits of various sects assemble in the city of Ujjain. Holy men mingle with ordinary people as they take their ritual dip in the holy waters of the Shipra.

Har-ki-Pauri & Trimbakeshwar

Har-ki-Pauri (near Haridwar) and Trimbakeshwar (near Nashik) are also sites where the divine nectar fell from the celestial kumbh. Temporary mela townships  come up around these two places when the Kumbh is celebrated. The usual  tradition of ‘Kalpvaas’ is observed,  and there are also the usual bathing days. A dip in the waters here at these times, they say, cleanses the soul and accrues merit equivalent to bathing in River Ganga for 60,000 years.

Façade of the Trimbakeshwar Jyotirlinga Temple
Façade of the Trimbakeshwar Jyotirlinga Temple
Punit Paranjpe


In Allahabad

Allahabad offers a variety of accommodation and most hotels are located in the Civil Lines area. Hotel Kanha Shyam (Tel: 0532-2560123-32; Tariff: 7,000–25,000) in Civil Lines is a 4-star hotel. Elegant and modern, it has a restaurant, bar, Wi-Fi and a wellness centre. The Legend Hotel (Tel: 2272200, Cell: 07080305807/ 801; Tariff: 7,000–15,000) on Thornhill Road is also a good option. It is a new property with clean rooms, modern facilities and good food. Grand Continental (Tel: 2260631-35/ 37; Tariff: 4,000–8,500) on Sardar Patel Marg is another good place with an excellent restaurant, bar and swimming pool. Hotel Milan Palace (Tel: 2421505–06; Tariff: 4,500–11,000) on Strachy Road, is equipped with almost all facilities. Other good options in Civil Lines are Clarks Inn Ajay International (Tel: 2422026/ 925; Tariff: 4,700–11,000) opposite the General Post Office; and Harsh Ananda Hotel (Tel: 2427691/ 97, Cell: 09984502097; Tariff: 3,600–7,500), a heritage property located on MG Marg.

MG Marg also has Hotel Samrat (Tel: 2561200-07, Cell: 09450848669, 09335116175; Tariff: 2,500–3,000), with an old-world charm; and UPSTDC’s Illawart Tourist Bungalow (Tel: 2102784, Cell: 08004929778; Tariff: 2,200–3,200) with fairly clean rooms and a restaurant.

MG Marg is the best place to head to for good food. It has a number of elegant restaurants, including El Chico, Tandoor, Dewsis and Khana Khazana (at Grand Continental), serving everything from south Indian to Chinese and Continental. A more cosy and informal atmosphere with delicious snacks and meals can be found at the Kamadhenu Fast Foods Restaurant and the Indian Coffee House. The Tamarind Tree on Thornbill Road serves good south Indian fare. Friends Café, just off MG Marg, is a good bet for pizzas, burgers and milk shakes. There are umpteen places all over the city where one can have staples such as samosas, mithais and chaat.

Devotees gather to take a dip in the holy waters of the Shipra river, Ujjain
Devotees gather to take a dip in the holy waters of the Shipra river, Ujjain

In Ujjain

The Prayag Kumbh Camp (Tel: 0532-6542838, Cell: 09839505909, 09871993981; W ujjainkumbhmela.com; Tariff: 4,500–12,000, with meals) sets up about 100 clean, comfortable and eco-friendly cottages during the mela. Vegetarian meals are provided.

In Haridwar

The best hotel in Haridwar is The Haveli Hari Ganga (Tel: 01334-226443, 265207; Tariff: 7,000–15,000) set in the Pilibhit House haveli, with a riverside location at Ram Ghat. It has a private ghat and an Ayurvedic spa.

In Trimbakeshwar

Maharashtra Tourism’s Sanskruti Holiday Resort (Tel: 02594-233143, Cell: 09881329390, 09763389545; Tariff: 2,368–3,078) in Trimbakeshwar has 15 rooms, and is located only half a kilometre away from the main temple.


For Allahabad

Tourist Office

UP Tourism

Rahi Illawart Tourist Bungalow

35, MG Road

Civil Lines, Allahabad

Tel: 0532-2408873

W uptourism.gov.in

STD code 0532


For Allahabad

Air Nearest airport: Bamrauli Airport is connected to Delhi and Varanasi by Air India flights. Taxis from here charge 900 for a pick-up and drop. Outstation fares range from 10–14 per km. Fares can go up during the mela

Rail Nearest railheads: Allahabad Junction, Allahabad City and Prayag railheads are connected to Delhi and other cities across India. Radio cabs such as Ola, autos and rickshaws are readily available around town

Road Bus UP Road Transport buses have good connectivity within the state