Kumbha Mela has gained international fame as "the world's most massive act of faith." Pilgrims come to this holy event with such tremendous faith and in such overwhelming numbers that it boggles the mind. Faith is the most important thing for the pilgrims at Kumbha Mela, they have an "unflinching trust in something sublime".
To understand the significance of the Kumbha Mela and the important role that it plays in the spirituality of India, it is helpful to know something about the background of the sacred Ganges River. The devout believe that simply by bathing in the Ganges one is freed from their past sins (karma), and thus one becomes eligible for liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Of course it is said that a pure lifestyle is also required after taking bath, otherwise one will again be burdened by karmic reactions .The pilgrims come from all walks of life, traveling long distances and tolerating many physical discomforts, such as sleeping in the open air in near freezing weather. They undergo these difficulties just to receive the benefit of taking a bath in the sacred river at Kumbha Mela.
They came by the millions! Some arrived on overcrowded trains carrying five times their normal capacity. Some came by bus, by car, some by ox drawn carts, and others rode on horses, camels, and even elephants. The rich and famous chartered private planes and helicopters, while the less affluent came on foot carrying their bed rolls and camping equipment in heavy bundles on their heads. Wave after wave, they formed a veritable river of humanity that flowed onto the banks of the Ganges at Allahabad to celebrate the greatest spiritual festival ever held in the history of the world, the Kumbha Mela.
The ancient origin of the Kumbha Mela is described in the time honored Vedic literatures of India as having evolved from bygone days of the universe when the demigods and the demons produced the nectar of immortality. The sages of old have related this story thus: once upon a time, the demigods and demons assembled together on the shore of the milk ocean which lies in a certain region of the cosmos. The demigods and demons desired to churn the ocean to produce the nectar of immortality, and agreed to share it afterwards. The Mandara Mountain was used as a churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, became the rope for churning. With the demigods at Vasuki's tail and the demons at his head, they churned the ocean for a 1,000 years. A pot of nectar was eventually produced, and both the demigods and demons became anxious. The demigods, being fearful of what would happen if the demons drank their share of the nectar of immortality, stole away the pot and hid it in four places on the Earth: Prayag (Allahabad) Hardwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. At each of the hiding places a drop of immortal nectar spilled from the pot and landed on the earth. These four places are believed to have acquired mystical power, and festivals are regularly held at each, Allahabad being the largest and most important.
Besides the Ganges, there are also two other sacred rivers located at Allahabad, the Yamuna and the Saraswati . The Yamuna, like the Ganges has its earthly origin in the Himalayas. The Saraswati, however, is a mystical river which has no physical form. Its is believed that the Saraswati exists only on the ethereal or spiritual plane and is not visible to the human eye. This holy river is mentioned many times in India's sacred texts such as the Mahabharata and is said to be present at Allahabad where it joins the Yamuna and the Ganges.
This confluence of India's three most sacred rivers at Allahabad is called the sangam. The combined sanctity of the three holy rivers, coupled with the spiritual powers obtained from the pot of nectar of immortality, has earned Allahabad the rank of tirtharaja, the king of holy places.
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. Furthermore, it is said that when one takes a bath at the sangam during the Kumbha Mela, the influence is one thousand times increased.