The quest for immortality draws thousands to this holy site once every twelve years.
MILLIONS OF YEARS AGO, the most powerful beings in the universe, known as the devas (demigods) and the asuras (demons), fought in the heavens over a pot of immortal nectar. During their twelve-day battle, some of the nectar spilled onto four places in India: Allahabad and Hardwar in Uttar Pradesh, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, and Nasik in Maharashtra.
According to the Vedic texts, a day in heaven equals a year on earth. So once every twelve years the nectar still pours onto these four sites, during certain planetary configurations. At these times, millions of people come to partake of the nectar by bathing in the holy rivers and drinking the sacred water. These gatherings of pilgrims are known as the Kumbha Melas ("festivals of the pots").
When the Kumbha Mela was held at Nasik last year, from August 14 to September 20, more than two million pilgrims bathed there in the holy river Godavari.
The Puranas, or Vedic histories, say that the Godavari was created by Lord Siva for the sage Gautama, who wanted to bathe in her sacred waters to atone for accidentally killing a cow. To fulfill the sage's wish, Lord Siva dashed his matted hair (which carries the Ganges) against the mountain known as Brahma Giri, and some water from the Ganges sprang forth. This "Ganges of the south" the Godavari is also known as Gautami, in honor of Gautama.
It is said that Lord Siva once told all the sacred lakes and rivers on earth that for their own purification they should go to the Godavari during the Kumbha Mela, just as the demigods do.
The city of Nasik is on the western side of the Godavari. Here Laksmana, the divine brother of Lord Ramacandra, cut off the nose of Surpanakha, the sister of the demon Ravana. Nasik means "nose," and thus the city gets its name.
Across the Godavari from Nasik lies the place known as Pancavati. Here Lord Ramacandra and His wife, Sita Devi, lived with Laksmana during their exile. Near Pancavati is the cave where Sita hid while Rama battled fourteen thousand Raksasas (cannibals).
Nearby is Tapovana, a place of penance and meditation where great sages used to practice austerities. Here the Godavari River meets the Kapila Ganges. And close by is Kapila Tirtha, where the Supreme Lord in His incarnation as Kapila Muni taught His mother, Devahuti, about devotional service. Now, during the festival, Tapovana is the site of the main Kumbha Mela village, a cluster of about three thousand camps of sadhus and pilgrims.
The Kumbha Mela Bath
It is said that by bathing in the Godavari while the nectar falls one gains as much merit as by bathing in the Ganges for sixty thousand years.
During the Kumbha Mela, pilgrims bathe in the Rama Kunda area of the Godavari and at a place called Triambikesvara, about forty-five kilometers away. Triambikesvara, sacred to Lord Siva, is said to be the origin of the Godavari River. From here the Godavari flows across India and enters the Bay of Bengal at Rajahmundry in the state of Andhra Pradhesh.
On the first of four special bathing days during the 1991 Kumbha Mela, fifty thousand sadhus took part in the shani snan ("royal bath") at Rama Kunda. About two hundred recognized asramas marched, in assigned order, to Rama Kunda for this first bath. The head of each asrama sat atop an elephant, a horse, a truck, a jeep, a car, or a tractor, while his disciples and followers marched behind, chanting mantras. In all, about 800,000 sadhus and pilgrims bathed on that day.
On the main day of the festival, the parade of sadhus grew to 100,000, and the number of bathers passed a million and a half.
The ISKCON camp, on the main road to Rama Kunda, was crowded with visitors day and night. Every day, devotees passed out three hundred kilos of hot, tasty halva and hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Srila Prabhupada's books. At night, devotees filled the air with the chanting of the maha-mantra, the great chant for spiritual realization Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
Jaya Vijaya Dasa, from America, is the leader of ISKCON's Padayatra in India, with which he has been walking since 1985.
Maha-mantra Dasa, also from America, is the director of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust Library Party for India.