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The Allahabad Kumbh Mela is a mela held every 12 years at Allahabad (also called Prayag), India. The exact date is determined according to Hindu astrology: the Mela is held when Jupiter is in Taurus and the sun and the moon are in Capricorn. The fair involves ritual bathing at Triveni Sangam, the meeting points of three rivers: the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Sarasvati. The latest Allahabad Kumbh Mela took place in 2013 and became the largest religious gathering in the world with almost 120 million visitors. The next one is scheduled for 2025, with an Ardh Kumbh Mela scheduled for 2019.
The Mela is one of the four fairs traditionally recognized as Kumbh Melas. An annual fair, known as Magh Mela, has been held in Allahabad since ancient times (early centuries CE), and is mentioned in the Puranas. However, the earliest mention of a Kumbh Mela at Allahabad occurs only after the mid-19th century. The Prayagwals (local Brahmins of Allahabad) are believed to have adopted the kumbha myth and the 12-year cycle of the Haridwar Kumbh Mela for their annual Magh Mela around this time. Since then, every 12 years, the Magh Mela turns into a Kumbh Mela, and six years after a Kumbh Mela, it turns into an Ardh Kumbh ("Half Kumbh") Mela.
The Kumbh Mela at Allahabad is held in the month of Magh when Jupiter is in Aries, and Sun and Moon are in Capricorn; or Jupiter is in Taurus, and Sun in Capricorn. However, at times this astrological combiniation (Kumbh Yoga) does not coincide with the month of Magh. In such a case, the mela is still held in Magh. For example, the 1989 Kumbh Mela should have begun in mid-March according to astrological calculations; however, it started in January.
There have been multiple incidences of Hindu astrologers disagreeing over the exact condition that ushers in a mela. As a result, fairs claimed to be Kumbh Melas have been at the same place in successive years. For example, 1941 and 1942 in Allahabad; and again, 1965 and 1966 in Allahabad.
According to Hindu mythology, Vishnu dropped drops of amrita (the drink of immortality) at four places, while transporting it in a kumbha (pot). These four places, including Prayag, are identified as the present-day sites of the Kumbh Mela. The river-side fair at Allahabad is centuries old, but its association with the kumbha myth and a 12-year old cycle dates back to the 19th century. The priests of Prayag borrowed these concepts from the Haridwar Kumbh Mela and applied it to their local Magh Mela, an annual celebration. The Magh Mela probably dates back to the early centuries CE, and has been mentioned in several Puranas.
The writings of the Chinese traveler Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) possibly contain a reference to an ancient version of this fair in 644 CE. Xuanzang mentions that Emperor Shiladitya (identified with Harsha) distributed his wealth among the public once every five years; his treasury was then replenished by his vassals. He describes such a ritual at a site located at the confluence of two rivers, in the kingdom of Po-lo-ye-kia (identified with Prayaga). He also mentions that many hundreds take a bath at the confluence of two rivers, to wash away their sins. According to some scholars, this is earliest surviving historical account of the Kumbh Mela or its predecessor. However, Australian researcher Kama Maclean notes that the Xuanzang reference is about an event that happened every 5 years (and not 12 years), and might have been a Buddhist celebration (since, according to Xuanzang, Harsha was a Buddhist emperor).
A common conception, advocated by the akharas, is that Adi Shankara started the Kumbh Mela at Prayag in the 8th century, to facilitate meeting of holy men from different regions. However, academics doubt the authenticity of this claim.
There is no record of a Kumbh Mela or a 12-year cycle at Allahabad before the 19th century. The Prayag Mahatmya section of the Matsya Purana states the exalted holiness of Prayag in the Magha month, but does not mention any "Kumbh Mela". Bengal's prominent spiritual leader Chaitanya visited Prayag in 1514, and participated in a bath on the Makara Sankranti. The Bengali language source Chaitanya Charitamrita mentions that he visited a Magh Mela (and not a Kumbh Mela). The 16th century Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas mentions the mela in Allahabad as an annual one, but does not contain any reference to a 12-year cycle. Tabaqat-i-Akbari (c. 1590s) of Nizamuddin Ahmad also mentions that the mela as annual. It states that after the rabi harvest, Hindus came to the Triveni Sangam in such large numbers that the jungles and the plains were not sufficient to hold them. Ain-i-Akbari, also from the 16th century, mentions that Prayag is especially holy in the month of Magha. Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh (c. 1695-1699) uses the term "Kumbh Mela" to describe only the Mela at Haridwar; it only mentions the existence of an annual Mela at Allahabad. Yadgar-i-Bahaduri (1834 CE) similarly mentions that the mela at Prayag is held every winter in Magha, when the sun enters the Capricorn.
The British East India Company gained control of the Prayag area after the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765. The early British records contain detailed information about the annual Magh Mela at Allahabad, collected for tax-related and administrative purposes. But none of these records call the mela by the name "Kumbh", nor do they suggest any specific significance (such as larger crowds) to a Mela held every 12th year. In contrast, there are multiple references to the name "Kumbh Mela" as well as a 12-year cycle for the Haridwar Kumbh Mela. There are several records of applications from Hindu princes seeking tax-free attendance at the Mela at Allahabad. Again, all of these describe the mela as an annual one. Bholanath Chunder (1869) of Asiatic Society also mentions "the especial great mela" at Allahabad as an annual one, held in January.
It is difficult to determine the exact year in which the Magh Mela was first celebrated as a Kumbh Mela. The 1870 fair at Allahabad is the earliest fair that is described as a "Kumbh Mela" by contemporary sources. The previous Kumbh Mela would have been scheduled in 1858; but that year, no fair was held in Allahabad because of disturbances resulting from the 1857 uprising. Before that, a Kumbh Mela would have been held in 1846, but there are no records to suggest this. In 1874, G. H. M. Ricketts — the Commissioner of Allahabad — wrote that the fair became more sacred every seventh year, and attracted a larger number of pilgrims and merchants. Beyond this, he wrote, the administration had little knowledge of the factors that resulted in increased or decreased attendance at the fair in a given year.
The earliest reference to a Kumbh Mela at Allahabad is from a British report of 1868. In this report, G. H. M. Ricketts (then the Magistrate of Allahabad) discusses the need for sanitation controls at the "Coomb fair" (Kumbh Mela) to be held in 1870. He also mentions that he had witnessed huge crowd at an "Ad Coomb" (Ardh Kumbh) four years earlier. In his report on the 1870 Magh Mela, the Commissioner of Allahabad J. C. Robertson also stated that this year's fair was a "Koombh". This report is also the earliest extant source that mentions a procession of sadhus at Allahabad; this procession occurs only during a Kumbh Mela, and not during a Magh Mela.
Historian Kama Maclean hypothesizes that the 1870 Mela was the first fair at Allahabad to be called a "Kumbh Mela". Historically, the Magh Mela has been an important source of income for the Prayagwal Brahmins of Allahabad. The British attempts to profit from the Mela brought the Company into direct conflict with the Prayagwals. Even after the Company abolished the pilgrim tax in 1840, it continued to levy taxes on traders and service providers (such as barbers) at the Mela. Besides, the Prayagwals disliked the presence of Christian missionaries at the Mela. Before the outbreak of the 1857 uprising at Allahabad, they had been contributing to the unrest in Allahabad by spreading propaganda that the British aimed to convert Indians to Christianity. In June 1857, when soldiers of the Sixth Native Infantry mutined, the Prayagwals joined them. They destroyed local churches and the mission press. When General Neill entered Allahabad, he attacked Prayagwal settlements; several Prayagwals were hanged, and many others were forced to flee the city. After the rebellion was crushed, the British government confiscated their lands. Under these turbulent circumstances, no fair was held at Allahabad in 1858. The Prayagwals, in their bid to revive the importance of their tirtha and attract more pilgrims, could have adapted the "Kumbh" concept from Haridwar and applied it to their own Mela. Thus, the first known Kumbh Mela was held at Allahabad 12 years later, in 1870.