Ramesh Chander Kapoor*
Haridwar (The Hawk): The Kumbh Fair is the greatest human congregation on Earth in which religious faith draws the devout in millions every twelve years to a specific centre of pilgrimage. In the present times, the Kumbh is celebrated at four places, namely, Haridwar, Prayag, Nashik and Ujjain. It is believed that in the wake of the Samudra Manthan, a struggle took place among the devas and asuras over the pitcher of Amrit when it was being taken away to the heavens for safe-keeping. The struggle went on for twelve divine days (equivalent to twelve human years). In the process, a few drops fell over the above-mentioned places. However, neither Visnu Purana (275-325 CE; 1:9:108-109) nor the Bhagawata Purana (> 500 CE; 5:24:1-3; 8: Ch.: 6-9) that describe the struggle among devas and the asuras for the possession of the pot of Amrit mention any of the places or the spillage.
The Kumbh fair has been related to one complete revolution of the planet Jupiter through the zodiacal circle. With a period of 11.86 years, it apparently spends a year in each of the twelve zodiacs. Importantly, the concept of zodiacs is not indigenous to India. Therefore, the Kumbh fair can be as old as the induction of the zodiacs into the Indian astronomical system and their wide acceptance. Like the zodiacs and the Greek astrology that came into India via Alexandria in the Ist century or somewhat later, the Aquarius-Jupiter connection too should be as recent. One may note that astrology in India struck firm roots by the 6th century only, in the hands of Varahamihira with his work BrhatJataka (550 CE).
Magh Mela as Kumbh
The first historical reference to a great fair in India is about the one held at Prayag in 643 CE. It figures in the accounts of the Chinese monk Hiuen Tsang who travelled through India during 630-644 CE. He recorded that the grand fair was held every five years. In Lakshmidhar's 12th Century work KrtyaKalpataru (Vol 8; Tirthavivechana-kanda), the chapter on Prayag Tirthyatra Vidhi talks about the significance of a bath at Prayag in the month of Magh but there is no reference to Kumbh. Later in 1574, Goswami Tulsidas (d. 1623 CE) wrote in Ramacharitmanas (Balkanda, between the dohas 43-44) about the significance of holy bath at the Tribeni in the month of Magh when the Sun moves into Capricorn (the Makara Samkranti) but he too does not refer to any Kumbh.
Dr. Kama Maclean has explored this mela intensively and concluded in 2003 that the Prayag Magh Mela is ancient but reference to it as a Kumbh Mela is as recent as the 19th century only. It was the Prayagwalas (the Brahmin priests – the pandas) who got the annual Magh Mela elevated to the status of Kumbh with the fair of 1870 and the people and the ascetics came to accept it so. Ever since, the fair at Allahabad has expanded in its dimension. The term Mahakumbh was coined only some years ago to refer to a Kumbh that is thirteenth in a sequence. It was applied to the Prayag Poorna Kumbh of 2013. On that count, the Prayag Kumbh of 1870 also was a Mahakumbh, a sobriquet it was not given then.
The Haridwar Kumbh
The Kumbh fairs at Prayaagraj, Nashik and Ujjain have actually grown out of their annual festivals after the one at Haridwar. The Haridwar Kumbh should be the original one as it is held as per the original astrological prescription with a 12-year cycle. Over the centuries, an annual fair at Haridwar held in spring attracted merchants in droves with their products from places as far as Kabul, Samarkand and Bukhara, and from Persia, China and Tartary. The Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh (1107 AH, i.e., 1695-96 CE), a chronicle of Delhi in Persian by Sujan Rai is the earliest historical text in which one comes across the term 'Kumbh Mela' in reference to a fair at Haridwar while it also acknowledged an annual fair at Allahabad. It said that every twelve years when Jupiter is stationed in Kumbh rashi (Aquarius) and the Sun enters Mesha rashi (Aries), there is a greater congregation of the devout than in other years. This work calls Haridwar as the holiest of the places on the banks of the Ganges.
The Haridwar scene (source: Wikimedia Commons) showing pilgrims taking holy bath in the Ganges is of the Kumbh of 1844. It is by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), the well-known British landscape painter. The view of the area today is completely different where the new bridges built over the Ganges have killed its beauty completely.