The origin of Kumbh Mela lies rooted in the Hindu mythology of the time when the Gods and demons churned the ocean in search of the nectar of immortality.
The fight between good and evil has existed from time immemorial. According to the mythology, the demons were always fighting with their brothers, the gods. However, the gods did not want to fight; they remained peaceful and calm. This did not deter the demons from killing them, though. Hence, the forces of good were falling to the forces of evil. One day, the devas went to Lord Brahma and said, “We are losing so many of our brothers and sisters in the never-ending war with the demons! If this continues, none of us will be left. Please help us!” Lord Brahma told them to go to Lord Vishnu.
Lord Vishnu listened to their story and sympathetically responded, “If you churn the great milky ocean, you will find a gold pot of nectar. He who drinks this nectar will be blessed with the boon of immortality. However, you are not strong enough to churn the ocean yourselves. You must attain the help of your brothers, the demons.”
The gods were in great distress. “But, Lord Vishnu,” they said. “If the demons know that the reward of churning will be immortality, they will take the nectar all for themselves. Then we will be in even more trouble! Alternatively, if we hide from them the reason, they will never agree to help us.”
Lord Vishnu assuaged them and told them to simply go and request help from the demons. So, the gods left the abode of Lord Vishnu and successfully convinced their demon brothers to help with the task. The churning of the great milky ocean by the gods and the demons became a momentous event. The snake Vasuki offered himself to serve as the rope required for churning, and Lord Vishnu Himself became a huge turtle on whose back they could easily churn.
So, the fantastic churning began with the hope of divine nectar filling the minds of the gods. However, after a great deal of effort, what emerged was not nectar, but poison! The gods and demons knew that in order to continue churning, they could not simply toss the poison aside. Someone had to drink it. So, a conflict began. Who would drink the poison and thereby allow the historic churning to continue? No one would agree to sacrifice himself, until Lord Shiva came forward and said, “I will drink the poison if it will preserve peace and enable my brothers and sisters to attain the nectar of immortality.” The sacrifice Lord Shiva made an example of why He is Maha Deva and all the other gods are simply devas: this selflessness and dedication to the welfare of others.
After more churning, at last out of the murky waters emerged fourteen precious jewels, including Goddess Lakshmi, Kamadhenu (the wish-granting divine cow), along with many other treasures. At the end, Lord Vishnu Himself appeared, holding the precious Kumbh in His hands.
However, Indra – the King of the Gods – knew that the demons were planning to abscond with the treasure of immortality. So, he immediately signaled to his son, Jayant, who lept forward, grabbed the pot of nectar and quickly ran away. The demons, however, were stronger and quicker than Jayant and they pursued him relentlessly. Indra sought aid from Jupiter (Guru), Surya (the Sun), the moon and Saturn to protect his son and preserve the Kumbh. The long chase lasted twelve days, which was the equivalent of twelve years on Earth. During this chase – which traversed the realms of the Earth, the heavens and the moons – Jayant rested only four times. While he rested, he placed the Kumbh on the ground and a few drops of holy nectar spilled onto the Earth in each place. It is these four places that have now become the four centers of pilgrimage for the Kumbh Mela.
- Haridwar on the River Ganga in Uttarakhand
- Ujjain on the River Shipra in Madhya Pradesh
- Nashik on the River Godavari in Maharashtra
- Prayagraj at the confluence of the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvati Rivers in Uttar Pradesh