A Guide to India’s Kumbh Mela

Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest religious festival, and it takes place in India. It’s a celebration of extraordinary measures, where millions of Hindu pilgrims come together at the Ganges, Shipra, or Godavari Rivers for a ceremonial dip meant to rid the individuals of all their sins. If you thought Burning Man was big, you haven’t seen anything!

The site for the gatherings rotate every few years, and they move between the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. This year’s event takes place in Nasik, from August 15th to September 13, 2015. If you’re coming to witness the chaos, it’s best to plan far in advance.

For the first time India-goer, this festival may seem overwhelming…and it is. But it’s also one of the most beautiful, sacred events you’ll ever witness, and you’ll feel grateful for having been there. Guides worldwide will agree – be prepared!

Here’s a guide to Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious festival.

What is Kumbh Mela?

The plains between Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik cities are where drops of the nectar of immortality were spilled during a battle between demi-gods and demons. Kumbh Mela celebrates the victory of good over evil, and each of the four cities hosts its own festival (mela) during the 12-year cycle.

The largest celebration takes place in Allahabad, where the holy rivers converge (Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati). Most pilgrims hope to bathe here at least once in their lifetime, with the goal being to bathe during dates that are considered auspicious by a team of astrologers. As many as 30-million people bathed during the 2013 celebration. That’s a lot of Hindus!

But although Allahabad may be the biggest celebration, it doesn’t mean the other melas aren’t worth checking out. No matter where the mela is held, we guarantee your mind is going to be blown by the press of humanity.

During the Kumbh Mela, the waters at the four locations apparently turn into nectar, which cleanses the sins of your lifetime. The best part about this festival is the variety of pilgrims who come from all corners of the country: some travel on foot for months, others are flown in via helicopter.

Why You Should Visit

Many people who come to visit this festival want to see the incredible mass of humanity, and it’s certainly worth it. Outsiders were once banned from bathing during the festival, but now you can participate, albeit not on the holiest days. You can even camp out along the riverbanks with the thousands of other pilgrims and visitors. As a traveller, you’re already practically a pilgrim, right?

Another excellent reason to visit: The real people to watch out for are the sadhus holy men, for whom the event is the only social event of their lives. These men come in groups representing different orders, like Shiva or Rama. Other pilgrims seek out these holy men for enlightenment, or to make offerings. If you’re lucky, you might even meet one.

The most “interesting” sadhus are the Nagas, the naked sadhus who smear their bodies with ash and have very long, matted hair. You may have seen photos of them around the web. They’re able to withstand extreme temperatures, and their eyes are constantly red due to excessive marijuana smoking. No joke. They believe it helps them achieve enlightenment.

You’ll see India and the Indian people at their best. You’ll witness the joy of those worshippers who have travelled so far to honour their faith, and you’ll be swept up in a world of storytelling and celebration. And, as always in India, you’ll be welcomed with open arms!

Before or after the festival, be sure to book some extra time in the country to explore your surroundings, perhaps in a more relaxed environment. Hiring a guide in India will give you the insider experience at a slower pace.

Things to Keep in Mind

As you can imagine, a festival of millions means there are some really strict rules put in place to keep things running smoothly.

  1. If you’re participating in the festivals, use the designated bathing areas authorized by the administration. These are more safe and secure!
  2. You’re welcome to bathe in the rivers, but remember that the rivers are notoriously polluted. We recommend keeping your mouth closed.
  3. Don’t litter – you’re on sacred grounds, remember?
  4. Dress modestly! This is a religious event, and so heeding advice about attire and appearance is highly recommended. For women, this means covering up shoulders, and wearing long skirts or pants. Otherwise, dress in loose, dark clothing.
  5. Have your visa ready. A tourist visa is mandatory, and you can apply for one beforehand, or at the moment of arrival if you’re flying into Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata.
  6. Pay attention to the “Holy Dip Schedule” that astrologers put together as a bathing timetable. That’s when you’ll want to see all the best action. Viewing from the riverbank is advisable, BUT keep in mind that people often get trampled along here. Trampling deaths are sadly a reality.
  7. If you want to make the whole experience as smooth as possible, we recommend hiring a local India guide to lead you into the festival. You’ll feel safest, and most assured!

The Don’ts For Tourists

  1. If you’re in Allahabad, do NOT use plastic bags. They’re banned in the city during the Kumbh Mela.
  2. Do not wash your clothes in the river, and using soap while bathing in the river should be avoided.
  3. Don’t litter!
  4. The festival organizers ask that you do not encourage begging from the locals, but it’s a personal choice, after all.
  5. Do NOT take photographs in the main bathing area without having a journalist visa or a press pass. Otherwise, you may have your camera confiscated…and you might not ever get it back.
  6. Don’t trust everyone. Not all holy men who attend this festival are authentic, and you may be handing over your money to a con-artist.

What’s Nasik Like?

When Jupiter and the Sun are in the Zodiac sign Leo, the Kumbh Mela is held in Trimbakeshwar, Nashik. We’re not entirely sure what that astrology really means, but we’ll go with it.

Nasik is pleasant year-round, but things can heat up a lot in the warmer seasons. During the summer months, temperatures can climb up to 42 degrees Celsius. It’s much cooler from December to February, and a bit rainy from June to September, but still lovely for visiting.

With that in mind, Kumbh Mela takes place during some of the hottest temperatures. If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t do well in extreme heats, plan accordingly! It’s well worth it to book an air-conditioned hotel room in the city, even if it does end up getting rather expensive. Stay hydrated is also absolutely necessary.

Things to do in Trimbakeshwar

Try to say “Trimbakeshwar” three times fast, firstly. Just kidding.

Trimbakeshwar is home to one of the ivortirlings of Lord Shiva, and the housed here is unique because it has three faces. It’s very much a religious town, and it exudes a certain peace and spirituality you may not find elsewhere. It’s an ideal spot for nature lovers and those seeking to “slow down.”

Trimbakeshwar temple is the main draw here, and along with the river Godavari and the hills of Brahmagiri, this area is one of the holiest places in India. The temple is ornately decorated and beautifully carved, with plentiful pillars and arches. People come here to perform religious pujas, to attain a happy and peaceful life.

The best thing you can do for yourself in Trimbakeshwar is slow down and enjoying a quieter way of life. This ideology is quite rare to find elsewhere in India, as you’ll quickly come to realize.

If you’re thinking the world’s largest religious festival is not for you, perhaps there’s another festival for you. What one would you choose?

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