According to some scholars, the earliest surviving historical account of the Kumbh Mela, which took place in present-day Prayag, dates back to 644 CE, when then Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang described a river side festival organized by the emperor Shiladitya. The Magh Mela of Prayagraj is probably the oldest among all Kumbh melas, and finds references even in the Puranas.
Kumbh in History
The belief endorsed by the Akharas is that Adi Shankaracharya started the Kumbh Mela at Prayag in the 8th century CE, to facilitate a congregation of holy men from different regions.
The Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh, compiled in 1695 CE lists the following melas: An annual mela and a Kumbh Mela every 12 years at Haridwar, a mela held at Triyambak every 12 years, and an annual mela held at Prayag in Magh.
The accounts of the baptist missionary John Chamberlain from the 1824 Kumbh Mela, state that a large number of visitors came there for trade, and the fair was attended by “multitudes of every religious order”, including a large number of Sikhs.
The first British reference to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad occurs in an 1868 report, which mentions the need for increased pilgrimage and sanitation controls at the “Coomb fair” to be held in January 1870.
An inclusive festival
British civil servant Robert Montgomery Martin mentions about the 1858 Kumbh that visitors at the fair included people from a number of races and religions. Besides priests, soldiers, and religious mendicants, the fair was attended by several merchants, including horse traders from Bukhara, Kabul, Turkistan, Arabia and Persia. Several Hindu rajas, Sikh rulers and Muslim Nawabs visited the fair. A few Christian missionaries also preached at the Mela.