The Yogi and the Kumbh: Tampering with tradition for no reason

Rajesh Kochhar

Gathering of the Faithful: Life at India's Colossal Kumbh Mela, 1953

For more 1953 Kumbh pictures see 



UNESCO has announced its decision to include the Kumbh Mela in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Ironically, at about the same time, the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has announced his government’s decision to unnecessarily and thoughtlessly change the traditional Kumbh nomenclature

Kumbh Mela is celebrated at four river-side cities: Hardwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Trimbak-Nashik, and Ujjain.  The event recurs every 12 years. Half way through that is after six years Ardh-Kumbh is celebrated. On a longer time scale, after 12 cycles that is after 144 years Maha-Kumbh occurs (only at Prayag).

To fix our ideas we may note recent dates. Allahabad celebrated the Kumbh in 2013 and will be organizing Ardh-Kumbh in 2019. Kumbh was celebrated at Trimbak-Nashik in 2015 and at Ujjain in 2016. The same year Haridwar hosted Ardh-Kumbh.

The timing of Kumbh Mela is fixed astronomically. The celebration is in honour of the planet Jupiter which has an orbital period of about 12 years. For the event to occur, Jupiter should be in a specified zodiacal sign (rashi). Since Jupiter spends a year in a rashi, timing of the festival is made precise by referring to the Sun (and the Moon). For describing the apparent path of the Sun the zodiacal list is headed by Aries (Mesha). For some reason, in case of Jupiter the most important rashi is Aquarius (Kumbha).

The term Kumbh has come to be used in two distinct senses: to denote the rashi proper and as a general description for the congregation. Strictly speaking there is only one Kumbh, namely the one at Haridwar when Jupiter is actually in Aquarius. The congregations at Nashik and Ujjain are not Kumbh but Simhasth because Jupiter is in Leo (Simha) in both cases. That is why the twin events are never more than a year apart. Simha rashi is important because it is mid-way in Jupiter’s 12-year orbit. The Prayag congregation is peculiar. It celebrates Makar Samkarnti (Maghi) every year. Kumbh takes place   when in addition Jupiter is in Mesha or the succeeding Vrishabh (Taurus).

While releasing the logo for the Prayag 2019 event, UP Chief Minister facetiously asserted that since there was nothing incomplete in Hinduism, Ardh-Kumbh would be designated Kumbh, and the Kumbh Maha-Kumbh!  There is nothing incomplete or vague about six being half of 12. The UP executive fatwa raises many problems. In Yogi Adityanath’s scheme, no unique term is left to denote the 144 year event. Secondly, since the order cannot be implemented retrospectively it will create confusion between the description of past and present congregations at Prayag. Thus, a Kumbh was celebrated in 2001 and 2013 and is again being celebrated in 2019. Finally, since UP Chief Minister’s writ runs only in UP, pan-Indian description would be fragmented with Prayag following a different nomenclature for its Kumbh than the three other locations.

Assemblage of a large number of people at a single place for a limited period of time poses great challenge on various fronts: law and order, crowd management, sanitation, hygiene, pollution control, healthcare, etc. A government should focus on these issues. As a matter of policy it should desist from unilateral action on matters involving tradition, culture, and religion.

There are calendrical matters that would benefit from government interest.  Because of differences among traditional astronomers, Kumbh was celebrated in Prayag in 1965 as well as 1966. UP government should call a meeting of traditional panchang makers, Sanskrit scholars and modern astronomers to ensure that there is unanimity on the timing of  the Kumbh. At a more fundamental level, there is need to remove the error that has accumulated in the Vikrami calendar over the past 1500 years. Thus Makar Samkranti (14 January) is still celebrated as Uttarayana (northward turning of the Sun) while winter solstice has already taken place on about 21 December. UP government should persuade the central government to initiate action to restore precision to Vikrami calendar and bring the calculated sky in consonance with the observed sky.

Confusion should not be created where there is already clarity. Initiative should instead be aimed at bringing clarity where confusion prevails.





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