The Kumbh Mela, now on, is by far the largest gathering of faith anywhere in the world. It is celebrated when the planet Jupiter enters the zodiac sign of Aquarius (kumbh), attracting the faithful from all over India and beyond to the banks of the Ganga, mainly in Haridwar.
Its origin is found in the mythical churning of the ocean, undertaken jointly by the gods and demons for amrita (nectar) on the understanding of sharing it equally.
However, when the kumbh (pot) containing the amrita appeared, a fight ensued. For 12 days and 12 nights (equivalent to 12 human years), the gods and demons fought in the sky for the pot of amrita. It is believed that during the battle, Lord Vishnu flew away with the elixir. In the course of the battle, drops of amrita fell at four places on earth at Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, and that is where the Kumbh Mela is observed every 12 years.
Like any other such religious event in the world, apart from faith, a lot of colour and pageantry is associated with the Kumbh. A large number of foreigners too come to witness the event for it is an occasion when various orders of Sadhus come out of their Himalayan caves to take the ritual bath in the holy Ganga.
The number of pilgrims swells to millions when Naga Sadhus and ascetics of the Juna and Dasnamai Akaharas (orders) come for the ritual bath. They traditionally enjoy certain privileges like exclusive access to the river on auspicious days marked for shahai snan (grand bath), occasionally leading to clashes for precedence over each other.
It is a great spectacle to watch these sadhus go in a procession for the snan, for a dip in the holy waters is believed to be rejuvenating. On several occasions, the scramble for being the first to take the bath on auspicious days has caused stampedes, leading to loss of lives. But that is okay because the faithful believe that those who die during the Kumbh go straight to heaven!