The 2013 Mahakumbha Mela in Allahabad

Millions of pilgrims bathe at the most holy confluence of Indian rivers 

A Sea of Humanity at the Maha Kumbha 2013

The Kumbha Mela has its origins in Hindu mythology, in one of the most popular medieval texts, the Bhagavata Purana. Kumbha literally means “the urn/pitcher”. The first written evidence of the Kumbha Mela can be found in the accounts of Chinese traveler, Huan Tsang or Xuanzang (602 – 664 A.D.) who visited India in 629 -645 CE.


The story goes that the demigods lost their strength due to the curse of a sage, Durväsä Muni. Lord Vishnu instructed the demigods to churn the ocean of milk for the elixir/ nectar of immortality. To do this, the demi-gods had to make an agreement with their arch enemies, the demons or Asuras, to to churn out the nectar together and then share it equally thereafter. However, when the Kumbha containing the nectar appeared from the ocean, a fight ensued. For twelve days and twelve nights (equivalent to twelve human years) the gods and demons fought in the sky for the pot of nectar. It is believed that during the battle, Lord Vishnu flew away with the Kumbha containing the nectar of immortality, spilling drops at Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, the four places where the Kumbh festival has been held for centuries. In each of these cities, the “Ardha Kumbha” (or half kumbha) is held every six years and the “Purna Kumbha” is held every 12 years.


The Kumbha at Allahabad (Prayag) has a special significance because it is held on the confluence of three rivers, the holy Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, where bathing is considered especially auspicious for purifying oneself from sins.

Celebrated after 12 years, (the last one having been held in 2001), the 2013 pilgrimage gathering is a Maha Kumbh Mela (Festival) that only happens after 12 purna kumbhs, i.e once every 144 years, and always at Allahabad.

"We couldn't miss the fun", says the elephant.


The festival is considered to be the biggest religious gathering in the world. During the Maha Kumbha in 2001, more than 40 million people gathered on the main bathing day at Allahabad, breaking a world record for the biggest human gathering.

Kautilya Tents @ Maha Kumbh Mela

Dormitories @ Rs. 1000/night
Private Tents @ Rs. 4500/night 

Kautilya Society Camp

Over the next 45 days, tens of millions of Hindus are expected to take a dip in the Holy River Ganga, worshipped as “Mother Ganga”, in Allahabad where the rivers Ganga and Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati meet. They are all participating in the Maha Kumbha Mela, takes place once in every twelve years in Allahabad and is regarded by many as “the biggest human gathering in the world.” The Kumbha Mela is thought to have been recorded for the first time by a Chinese traveler in early seventh century AD. Pilgrims believe that bathing in the water during these days will purify their souls of sin and bring good karma.


Would you like to come and stay in the tents organised by the Kautilya Society? Would you like to join the pilgrims as they bathe in the holy River Ganga in the Maha Kumbha Mela at Allahabad? Send an email to

A Short Intro to the Kumbh

This year’s festival is especially significant as it is a once-in-a-lifetime Maha (Great) Kumbh, held after 12 Purna Kumbhs, so every 144 years, and only in Allahabad. The Purna (full) Kumbh Mela takes place in four locations, Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik every 12 years. An Ardh (half) Kumbh is held in Haridwar and Allahabad six years after (and six years before) every Purna Kumbh. The exact timing, duration and location of each festival are calculated according to an astrological chart.

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The Kumbh Mela comes from one of the most revered chapters of the ancient Hindu Purana texts, in which demigods fight with demons for possession of a Kumbha (urn) full of Amrita, a special nectar that would replenish the strength of the demigods. The fight lasted 12 days and 12 nights, the equivalent to 12 human years. The story goes that during the fight, drops of nectar fell from the Kumbha at the four locations where the festival is held.

Tents and Tents as Far as the Eyes can See

Over the course of the festival there are specific days, selected according to astrological factors, that are considered particularly holy. The most prestigious of these is the Mauni Amavasya Snan, the main bathing day which sees the greatest number of participants wading through the rivers. At the last Purna Kumbh Mela in 2001, it is estimated that around 40 million people bathed in the river Ganga on that day alone. This year the main bathing day will take place on February 10.

Organising the festival (with 30,000 police officers being deployed) and moving the state mechanism is thought to have cost the Indian state an equivalent of 150 million Euros. The 55-day event is expected to generate between 1.6 billion and two billion Euros-worth of income, with contributions coming from millions of domestic and foreign tourists.

“No construction 200 metres from the banks of the River Ganga in Varanasi”, orders the Allahabad High Court in India

The banks of the river Ganga in Varanasi might still survive the onslaught of “development”!

photo: Jaymis Loveday/Creative Commons

In a landmark judgement on 27 July 2012, Justice Ashok Bhushan of the Allahabad High Court, categorically ordered the Varanasi Development Authority and the district administration of Varanasi to “ensure that no construction is made 200 metres area from the highest flood level at both the banks of river Ganga” and that “appropriate notice and boards are placed at the banks of the river Ganga in this regard for the notice of public in general.”

The Allahabad High Court passed this order in response to the Public Interest Litigation, first filed by the Kautilya Society in 2005, appealing that the Varanasi Development Authority and the Uttar Pradesh State Government prohibit all illegal constructions on the banks of the river Ganga in Varanasi and implement laws and government orders to protect the Ganga riverfront ghats in Varanasi.

As part of its continuing efforts to protect the cultural, natural and architectural heritage of the city of Varanasi, especially the Ganga riverfront ghats, the Kautilya Society had appeared in the  Allahabad High Court on 27 July 2012 to defend the Public Interest Litigation it filed.

Download the full order passed by the Allahabad High Court on 27 July 2012 Allahabad High Court Order 27July 2012

The Unity of the Aesthetic Experience of the Ghats

Despite the presence in Banaras of thousands of temples, the centre of religious practice in this city is a vast hidden altar. Most people can’t see it even while moving over it. There is a threshold to cross over in order to perceive it, the threshold of devotion. The altar is revealed to the pilgrim performing purification’s rituals.

It is the altar of the great Sun Temple, that rises on the banks of Ganga-ji, (the name devotees use to refer to their mother, the river Ganges). It is a temple in the form, of an amphitheater, where the ghats form the platforms, the water the altar and the sun is God. Here Ganga-ji, which normally flows eastward, takes a sudden turn towards the North. Banaras is situated on its Western banks where it flows Northwards. That is why the sun rises perpendicularly to the river forming a burning line of light that cuts across the river at dawn.

Raising from the purifying dip in the river, the devotee opens joint hands and pours the Ganga water into the burning stream of light. In the offering of Water to the Sun, a unity is created between the Sun and Earth, between the fire and the water, between the source and receiver of the offering, between the soul of man and the soul of nature.

Though a bit forgotten in today’s Hindu pantheon, the Sun God was at the core of the original Vedic experience. That was the first religion of the Aryans who had declared Banaras to be the holiest amongst their cities, because of its unique combination of primary elements. Here, they worshiped Aditya, Surya the Sun, Usha- the Dawn, and Indra- the Rain with elaborate rituals.

Hinduism has changed in the past five thousand years. It is Shiva and Vishnu, with their female counterparts and their incarnations who are praised in the temples and addressed in the religious songs. Vedic Gods receive little attention in daily worships. But even now the holiest prayer of Hinduism has remained the Gayatri Mantra, the Vedic hymns to the Sum God. It is this mantra that the Hindu devotee recites as he /she rises out of the cold water, eyes closed, facing the warm, rising Sun.
Though over the centuries, temples and palace have been built long the river, such constructions have always represented an a cycle of respect around this sacrifice performed on the altar of the Sun Temple. The kings built their palaces, but bowed before austerity. Wealthy merchants, as well, lived in palaces, but they came to Banaras to adopt a discipline. The flaunting of one’s status was expressed through the promotion of learning the building of schools, the erecting of temples. One came to Banaras to make contact with the beyond, not to exhibit wealth.

The adhesion to this philosophy of life laid the foundation for the architectural and social unity of the Sun Temple which, astonishingly enough, continues to exist. But even if palaces crumbled to rubble, the place would simply return to what it was before, nature’s temple where the sanctifying elements of water, sun and prayers are all that are needed.
For this reason, the Mogul armies failed to destroy the true altar of the temple though they destroyed its walls several times. They may have succeeded only if they had managed to change the course of the river, obliterate the sun rise, of cut the faith out of the hearts of devotees.


Rationale for Including Varanasi on the World Heritage List of UNESCO

Do you know that the Ganga riverfront ghats and the old city of Varanasi fulfill the criteria for being nominated as a World Heritage List of UNESCO: the criteria of being a cultural landscape, characterised by living traditions and constituting a unique artistic and aesthetic accomplishment.

The city represents a unique natural shape along the Ganga river which flows northerly in crescent shape for about 7km, rendering sacred the city that has grown along its western banks, facing the rising of the sun and making the ghats (stone steps that rise from the river towards its shores) sacred for all Hindu rituals. The area along the right side is a flood plain, preserving the natural ecosystem. The natural setting, the spirit of place, and the continuity of cultural traditions have all blended together to create and preserve a unique lifestyle known as Banarasi. It is the only city where textually described cosmogonic frame and geomantic outlines are existent in their full form and totality, thus the city becomes universally significant.

The city considered as the microcosm of Hindu pilgrimage, is visited by thousands of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain pilgrims and foreign visitors each day and known the world over as the “sacred city”, is rich in architectural, artistic and historical buildings (temples, palaces, maths, mosques, ashrams, etc.). Besides being an indelible part of our heritage, these buildings, along with the local religious and cultural life, constitute an immense resource for tourism, domestic and foreign, one of the major economic activities of the city. Varanasi is a living symbolisation and a living expression of Indian culture and traditions in all its religious rituals, in its multi-ethnic artistic traditions, in its architectural treasures, in its life-expressions, in its particular relationship with life and death, in its ancient educational forms and methods and in its multi-ethnic population.

Development pressures are altering irreversibly many aspects of the cultural, architectural, artistic and above all the historic fabric of the city that is the very base and the very resource of economic sustainability of the city. In order to make development economically, environmentally and socially sustainable, conservation has to become a determining factor for development plans and due attention must be given to heritage conservation issues and related action plans. In order to achieve this, the city needs broad-based policy initiative and stringent laws that help protect and utilise its tangible and intangible heritage. Destruction of the architectural heritage and modification of urban spaces in the old areas of Varanasi could negatively alter the religious and cultural life ad landscape for which the city is sacred and a priceless treasure for the world.

Why Varanasi Needs a Conservation Policy

In Banaras, the tourism industry is greedily investing in building new structures to lodge tourists who stop over for short visits to get a quick view of the life and those parts of the “old” city that are world famous for their unique features. It is little concerned with sharing the benefices of development with the local community. In fact, one of the features of the city is that here the tourism industry is less capable than elsewhere of preserving the resources upon which the tourism business is based, i.e. the architectural, social and cultural heritage of the historic city centre.

Many of the historic palaces, that are the stars of the city, are in a dilapidated state. The state blames this on the lack of budget provisions and pressing matters of higher national importance. Developers lobby for new constructions and not for conservation of the old. The result is the rampant erosion of an increasing number of neglected old structures along the Ghats. So the “developers” are raising this issue to force their solution, i.e. to transform these structures into luxury hotels along the Ganges. But unplanned commercial exploitation of the Ghats will lead to disharmony with the traditional life along the river, provoke crises in the identity of the resident community of the historic city centre and will also undermine the resources upon which tourism is based. So, the challenge is to contrast such an unsustainable model of development. This challenge is now being taken up by some people, including visionary administrators, responsible political people, motivated traditional stalwarts, professors, lawyers, media and civil society bodies like the Kautilya Society.

In Varanasi, we have the paradox of it being one of the cities where traditional life style is best preserved, but also where architectural heritage is least conserved. There is a timid ordinance that forbids new constructions within “200 meters” distance from the river banks but this ordinance is little policed and extensively disrespected. State Government will continue to forget monitoring its implementation unless local community is involved in the process of policy planning for the conservation and management of the historical city centre. In a vacuum of legislations, even aggressive initiatives like the one of demolishing the the Darbhanga Palace demolished by a chain of hotels to make a five star structure, have public support. This constructed has been stopped for the moment only because the media, some responsible political people and civil society synergised to move the administration the high court of the state of Uttar Pradesh and because it was within 300 meters of a “National Monument” (the Manmandir observatory), protected by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The population growth is over burdening the carrying capacity of the urban environment and the river eco-system and unplanned mass and luxury tourism could potentially have a hard impact on the cultural carrying capacity of the old city centre. Social hygiene and sanitation services too are beginning to bend under the pressure of a growing resident population and a constant large floating population. While demographic pressures force new illegal and low-standard housing to mushroom in the low lying areas along the River Ganga at the two ends of the city, beyond the river Varuna in the North and the river Assi in the South, new illegal structures get added on to old historical buildings, temples and ashrams along the river in the ancient sacred part of the city. Not only are the historical, cultural and religious buildings today in peril of being demolished or mutated forever in a misused interpretation of “development”, but so are the old trees of this once famous “city of the gardens”, the haveli-s of the benefactors of this city, the sacred water bodies or kunds, the riverfront and the Goddess Ganga herself. Like most urban areas in India, Varanasi is being submerged by steep demographic increase and urban migration. Tourism is seen as the potentially most promising industry. So there is an increased attention to look at tourism as the source to provide funds for the badly needed restorations. But should the buildings along the river-front be converted into hotels? Does development always have to imply construction? Can we not develop preserving our heritage? By betraying the traditional usage of urban space, would we not be destroying the very resource for tourism, which is the “personality” of Varanasi.