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According to myth, at the beginning of time, the Gods and demons once fought a great battle for a kumbh or pitcher, containing the nectar of immortality. The battle lasted 12 days, during which both sides tried to seize the pitcher. Lord Vishnu finally got his hands on the pitcher and spirited it away, but during his flight, four drops of nectar fell to earth, at Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik, and Ujjain. These are the four tirthas (fords of a river), where the devout can cross from the finite world to divine realms.
This event is commemorated every four years by the Kumbh Mela, held at each tirtha in turn. The name Kumbh Mela comes from the mythical kumbh, and the festival is held in January because Kumbh is the Sanskrit name of the House of Aquarius. The Kumbh Mela held in Allahabad is the greatest and holiest of all, and is termed the Maha Kumbh Mela, in honor of the fact that this city is termed TirthRaj, the King of pilgrimage sites. This is because Allahabad is the site of the Sangam, or confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.
The Kumbh Mela has been celebrated since the second century BC. The Chinese traveler, Xuan Zhang (Hieun Tsang), visited the Mela in the Seventh Century BC and left the first-ever written record of it. His account mentions the presence of Buddhists and Jain monks at the Mela, beside Hindu priests.
The last Maha Kumbh Mela was held in Allahabad in 1989. It is estimated that 15 million pilgrims gathered for the celebration. This earned the meal a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records as the greatest recorded number of human beings assembled with a common purpose in history. During the Mela, a huge temporary camp covering hundreds of acres is set up for pilgrims, and temporary bridges are laid between the river banks to enable pilgrims to cross over. At the auspicious time, the pilgrims all enter the river to cleanse themselves of their sins. The Mela also draws large numbers of Hindu priests, sadhus, and member of various religious orders. Sadhus of all denominations come to the Mela to meet and re-establish contact with their orders. Many orders perform their initiations during the Mela and for the Naga Babas, this is the only time when they are initiated. They are also the first to bathe in the water at the auspicious time of Kumbhayog.
The Naga Babas are a sect of ascetic sadhus, who take vows of poverty and chastity. They typically live as solitary travelers, relying on charity for their needs. They are the most militant of the sadhus and have defended Hinduism in the past.