Nitin Mehta: Come to Kumbh Mela to see the miracle that is modern India

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During the last two months the world's greatest religious gathering has been taking place at Allahabad also known as Prayag in the state of Utter Pradesh in India. Kumbha is a Sanskrit word for a round pot with no handles, Mela means "a gathering", or a fair.

The observance of Kumbh Mela dates back many centuries. It is said that once upon a time the Gods had lost their strength, and to regain it, they thought of churning the Kshera Sagara (primordial ocean of milk) for amrit (the nectar of immortality).

This required them to make a temporary agreement with their arch enemies, the demons or Asuras to work together with a promise of sharing the nectar equally thereafter.

But when the Kumbha 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 Kumbha of elixir, and that is when drops of amrita fell at four places on Earth: Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, and that is where the Kumbh Mela is observed every 12 years.

The main highlight for most pilgrims during a Kumbha Mela is the observance of a sacred bath at the Sangam. It is said that a bath in either of the sacred rivers has purifying effects, but where the three rivers meet, the bather's purification is increased one hundred times. This year Makar Sankranti fell on 14 January and the Kumbha Mela began with all the pomp and glory for which it so well known. Millions of people led by the holy men took a dip in the holy river.

Hindus believe all paths to God are valid. Conflict between different denominations within Hinduism is unknown. It is due to this ingrained belief in diversity that democracy thrives in India. Violence in the name of religion will only stop when all the religions acknowledge that all paths to God are valid. It is a miracle that India pulls of such a massive show, with all its logistical nightmares, so brilliantly.

While the numbers who have attended this year's Kumbh Mela are not known yet, in January 2007 around 70 million pilgrims gathered at Prayag for the Ardh Kumbh Mela, by far the world's largest religious festival.

This is an extract from a talk given by the founder of the Indian Vegetarian Society

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