A moment of Indian pride as Kumbh Mela is recognised as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO

By Ankita Gupta

Kumbh Mela, the largest gathering of pilgrims in the world, has been inscribed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage under UNESCO. The Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage under the UN body included Kumbh Mela on the representative list at its 12th Session held in Jeju, South Korea on 7th December. The riverside pilgrim festivity has amalgamated with new elements from Botswana, Colombia, Mongolia, Morocco, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. The inscription is the third in two years for India, after the addition of yoga and Nowruz to the list.

Rationale behind the inscription

The Kumbh Mela is held once in every three years on the riverbanks in the sacred cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain. It embodies a syncretic set of rituals that combine worship with the cleansing of the holy rivers. The Intergovernmental Committee recognised the massive scale of the Kumbh Mela as the “largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth, which is attended by millions of people from all walks of life irrespective of their caste, creed or gender”. The Committee observed the Mela to be compatible with the existing international human rights instruments. “As a religious festival, the tolerance and inclusiveness that Kumbh Mela demonstrates are especially valuable for the contemporary world,” they stated. They also took note of the attribute that the knowledge and skills at the heart of the Mela are transmitted through generations by the ‘Guru-Shishya parampara’ (mentor-scholar tradition). The life-cycle of this festival is ensured in perpetuity by way of sadhus and saints who educate their disciples about the customary chants and rituals.

The list of these intangible cultural treasures was first created by UNESCO in 2003 with an intention of protecting international cultural heritage worldwide. It has identified the Kumbh Mela as being closely linked with the community’s perception of its own history and memory. The Kumbh Mela has been tied together this year with diverse selections like Pizzaiuolo—the Neapolitan art of pizza twirling, Shital Pati—an art of weaving handicrafts in Bangladesh, Asyk Atu—a traditional Kazakh game, and Kochari—a traditional Armenian dance among others.

The mythological history of Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela first finds mention in the seventh-century anecdotes of traveller-scholar Hieun Tsang, who visited during the reign of King Hashavardhana. The antiquity of the Mela is shrouded in mystery. The word ‘Kumbh’ literally translates to nectar. The Mela commemorates the mythological battle between the Devas (Gods) and the Asuras (demons) over the nectar of immortality. The story goes back to the time when the Devas were weakened by Sage Durvasa’s curse and the Asuras started to wreak havoc on earth. Seeing the plight of the human world, Lord Brahma advised the Devas to churn the nectar of immortality with the help of Asuras. However, Lord Vishnu, in the guise of enchantress Mohini, seized the nectar and passed it to his winged mount, Garuda. As Garuda fled with the pitcher of nectar through the skies, a few drops of it spilt in Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. Thus, the Kumbh Mela is held at these four locations in a cycle of three years. The Maha Kumbh, which is arguably the largest gathering of humans, is held every twelve years. The dates of the Mela are decided based on the alignment of the stars.

A living heritage of humanity

The Kumbh Mela is considered a pilgrimage of faith for the Hindus and has been in existence for over 2000 years now. This makes it one of the oldest religious gatherings in the world. Millions of people visit the Kumbh Mela from bare-bodied, ash-smeared sadhus to religious believers. The congregation has only bolstered in number over the centuries. It is believed that the water of the holy river turns into nectar during this auspicious festival. A huge crowd of people gathers around the riverbanks to take a ritual dip in the water and absolve themselves of all sins and free their soul from the bondage of life and death. A monumental assembly of devotees rally in Allahabad (Prayag), to cleanse themselves at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna, who are believed to be the wives of the ocean.

The Mela is deeply rooted in mythological, religious, and cultural ideologies. Saints from various holy sects attend the festival to perform their sacred rituals. They include myriad sages ranging from the Nagas—who worship naked even in extreme temperatures, the Parivajakas—mendicants who are sworn to silence, and the Shirshasins—who meditate for hours standing on their heads. Hundreds of photographers also arrive at the venue to take cinematic shots of weed-smoking sadhus or saffron-clad sadhvis. Pilgrims immerse themselves in holy activities to celebrate the living heritage of the Kumbh Mela.

The uprising of a cultural megapolis

The scale of the Kumbh Mela is so huge that it has become a recurrent theme that brothers parted at a young age in the Mela will be reunited as adults in the next gathering. A vast tented city is created during the Mela, where nearly a hundred million people gather. The devotees gather in jostling crowds to watch the colourful elephant chariots, the traditional procession of akhadas and to perform religious rites. The Kumbh Mela creates approximately lakhs of jobs and crores in earning. Given the scale in which the Mela is organised, it has been relatively mishap-free. There was a footbridge collapse with fatalities in the Allahabad Railway Station in 2013, but these accidents are rare. For this Mela, the officials had installed 14 temporary hospitals, 40,000 toilets and 50,000 police personnel to maintain order. Despite the inconveniences of overcrowding and near-zero temperatures, the devotees are drawn towards the experience to come closer to humanity and salvation. The religious fervour shown by millions of people concentrated in a small region makes the city of the Kumbh Mela come alive.

Soaking poison ivy from the riverside nectar

Following its inscription in UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Kumbh Mela will receive international cooperation and assistance to ensure its continued practice. It has given a new cultural identity to India on a global level. However, there are serious concerns regarding the toxicity of the rivers which crown the Mela—Ganga, Yamuna, Shipra, and Godavari. National scale efforts have been initiated to eliminate plastic products and ritual offerings that pollute the holy waters. A Green Kumbh campaign has been created to raise awareness on river pollution. These efforts will have a positive impact on reinforcing the significance of the extraordinary Kumbh Mela.

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