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According to myth, the sage Dhanwantari appeared with the coveted Kumbha (Jar of Nectar) as a result of churning the ocean both by the gods and Asuras, the enemies.
The Asuras were stronger and tried to seize the Kumbha from the gods but one of them who assumed the form of a rook snatched the Kumbha from the Asuras and had taken it to Nasik, Ujjain, Prayag and Hardwar.
Since the rook reached the Paradise in twelve days, the Kumbha Mela is held once in twelve year at these four places.
It is believed that at the time of the conjunction of the planet Jupiter with the sun, earth and moon which occurs once in twelve years or sometimes after an interval of eleven years, special merit could be acquired with a bath in river Ganga. The bathing festivals held on these occasions came to be known as the Kumbh Mela.
At these fairs, religious heads of different sects, philosophers, ascetics, high priests of temples meet and discuss matters concerning Hinduism and the discourses are listened by thousands of pilgrims. There are many auspicious days when the main bathing are observed such as Vasant Panchami, Maghi Purnima Shiv, Ratri and Amavasya. Apart from Kumbh Melas, Ardh Kumbh, meaning half of the mela, is also held after every six years.
A belief in the religious efficacy of a bath in the Ganga on the occasion of the Kumbha Mela is strong and widespread and these immense gatherings have became an integral part of Indian culture. One can witness a mammoth procession of Naga Sadhus during the Kumbh Mela. These Sadhus have the right to bathe in the Ganga at the most auspicious moment and all others must wait for them to finish and only then the pilgrims were allowed to complete their ritual ablutions.
Kumbha Mela are festivals, especially sacred to holy men and women. Besides, Allahabad and Hardwar this is also held in Ujjain and Nasik. The most significant is of course the Kumbha Mela at Allahabad, occurs, as said before, every twelve years, a cycle that is related to the movement of the planet Jupiter.
During the festival, pilgrims and renouncers proceed into the river Ganges to bathe. The naked naga sadhus, covered in ashes and with matted hair, lead the procession, followed by other orders of ascetics and finally by ordinary house-holders.
During Kumbha Mela, Haridwar is inundated with bathers. The low wooden chaukis where riverside vendors and priests sit are stacked high with Kumbhas, the fat clay water pots, representing the famous Kumbha of old which held the nectar of immortality. As stated before this nectar, churned up from the ocean at the beginning of time, is said to have splashed the earth in four places as it was whisked away to heaven by the gods: Prayaga, Hardwar, Nasik and Ujjain.
Kumbh Mela has infact found a mention in the Guinness Book of Records which says in its 1987 edition: The greatest recorded number of human beings assembled with a common purpose was an estimated 12,700,000 at the Hindu Festival of Kumbha Mela, which was held (at Allahabad) on 19 January, 1977″.
This is the biggest congregation, perhaps of the world. These pilgrimage attract huge crowds and during Allahabad Kumbha Mela in 1989 an estimated 15 million pilgrims came to bathe in the river.