The melas that take place along India’s rivers are among the most striking forms of Hindu pilgrimage. Prayaga, the King of Tirthas, also is host to the greatest of all melas. Once a year, during the winter month of Magha, in January and February, the great sandy flood plain of the Triveni becomes a huge encampment of pilgrims. This is called Magha Mela, a monthlong
festival that brings in a steady flow of pilgrims from all over India. It is also a great convocation of gurus and pandits, saints and sadhus.
The mountains and rivers of India, along with the gods themselves, come to Prayaga during the month of Magha, joining the vast assembly of pilgrims, sages and saints. Bathing there in Magha is said to free one from rebirth, and so it is that even the gods yearn to come to Prayaga during Magha. The Matsya Purana tells us During the month of Magha, sixty thousand tirthas and six hundred million sacred streams are to be found at the confluence of the Ganga and the
Yamuna.” One particularly exuberant mahatmya from the Padma Purana claims that although Kashi bestows liberation by the illumining knowledge imparted by the taraka mantra given to all who die there, Prayaga bestows liberation even without knowledge! So it is that this place, they say, is the most sacred on the surface of the earth.
While the whole month of Magha is holy, there are three days when an especially large influx of pilgrims comes for the auspicious bath at Prayaga – the day of Makar Sankranti, when the sun enters the sign of Capricorn, the amavasya day, when there is no moon, and the purnima day, when the moon is full. Most auspicious of all, however, is to spend the whole month there, a
tradition that is called kalpavasa, said to bring the merit accumulated by Lord Brahma during his full lifetime, which lasts a kalpa – 432 million years.
Every twelve years, this Magha Mela becomes the Kumbha Mela, the world’s largest mass pilgrimage. The Kumbha Mela is rightly famous throughout the world for its incredible size, its sprawling encampments of followers of every sect and strand of Hinduism, its processions of sadhus who seem to appear from a multitude of monasteries, mathas and caves for the occasion.
Kumbh Mela is for pilgrims to bath at certain sacred spots on certain auspicious days. A large tented city is erected and pilgrims stay at tents owned by Pandas (religious and spiritual guides) and at various ashrams and hotels. Others will just camp on the ground or visit for the actual bathing day. Some of these bathing days are designated "royal." On all the major bathing dates, the naga sadhus (naked mendicants) will parade and bathe. On all other days there will still be people bathing, other events, and random Processions.