The Kumbh Mela tradition, as it is still followed today, is for pilgrims to gather at one of four sacred cities (the Tirthas): Allahabad, Hardwar, Nasik and Ujjain. These four cities are believed to have special spiritual significance after a great heavenly battle happened in the skies above them. (See Mythology)
Following a roughly 12-year cycle dictated by the movement of Jupiter - the Mela moves between these four cities. The Kumbh Mela rotates every three years between the banks of the Godavari in Nasik, the Shipra in Ujjain, the Ganga (western name: Ganges) in Hardwar and the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati (the invisible river) in Allahabad. The Maha Kumbh, the biggest and the most auspicious fair, which falls every twelve years, is always at Allahabad. This is because the Sangam, or confluence of rivers, is considered to be particularly holy.

The first written evidence of a pilgrimage to Hardwar (one of the four sacred cities) is in an account by the Chinese pilgrim Huan Tsang on his visit to India in 629 AD. From this time, pilgrims gathered to bathe and Holy men began to form religious councils; but it is most likely the Kumbh Mela only became a gathering of substantial size in the mid 1700s. By the early 1900s, this had reached an estimated million people. These numbers have increased with each Maha Kumbh Mela to approximately 6 million in 1954, 7 million in 1966, 10 million in 1977, 15 million in 1989 and an expected 20-30 million in 2001.

However, Hindus suppose that the origins of the Kumbh Mela date back over 5,000 years. Naga Saints (Hindu saints) are believed to have made pilgrimages to Prayag (the ancient name for Allahabad) as far back as the 3400s BC. Then from the 1300s BC, Hindu history asserts that ritual bathing days for pilgrims were selected by the holy man Jyotish Maharishi.

The Kumbh, however, is more than an old tradition faithfully upheld for centuries - it is clear that it still has deep-rooted spiritual significance for the Hindu people. The Hindu faith is focused on the aim to become spiritually enlightened; and it is by bathing in the holy waters of the Ganges and connecting with holy men, that they can come closer to this aim.