It lasts for 55 days and involves over 100 million participants, and each year sets world records as one of the biggest worship gatherings in the world. The legendary Kumbh Mela is a pilgrimage in India that takes place 4 times every twelve years at the meeting point of the Ganges, Yamuna and Sarasvati rivers, a sacred place where bathing is associated with purification from sin.
Besides providing the world with some breathtaking images, many other details of this holy event are also of scientific and cultural interest. For example, the location depends on the position of Jupiter and the Sun. The exact dates are then determined in advance based on the position of the Sun, Moon and Jupiter. The first written account of the gathering were made by the Chinese traveler, Huan Tsang around 629AD, though non-written observations go back even further.
While the bathing is surely the highlight of the event, other rituals include: “devotional singing, mass feeding of holy men and women and the poor, and religious assemblies where doctrines are debated and standardized.” The holiday itself is a celebration of a victory of the gods over demons in a legendary battle over a special nectar of immortality. Just as it is believed that continuing the cycle of life and death helps to rid them of their sins, believers of the Hindu faith also see the waters of the river on this holy day as capable of cleansing their sins.
A gathering this large has also not been without its share of health risks throughout its history. In 1892 there was a deadly cholera outbreak during the Mela. Several years later Mark Twain attended the pilgrimage and wrote: “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”
No it isn’t an overt scientific gathering. But there’s a lot of science in this impressive tradition.
Photo: sabamonin/ flickr