Once during a time of material prosperity the higher virtues fell into decline, and as a result the elixir of life almost vanished from this earthly realm. All living beings and all aspects of nature became weak and pale. The Devas pleaded with the creator to recharge creation with fresh vitality, but were told that the elixir of life now lay buried in the depths of the ocean. The Devas reported this to all living beings, and so it was that gods, demons, and humans of all races and faiths joined forces to find and recover the elixir.
No one had the capacity or the wisdom to dispose of it except Shiva, who came forward and drank it at great risk to himself.
They set out to churn the entire ocean (which would cause the elixir to rise to the surface), and churn they did, laboring night and day. But to their dismay, the first fruit of their labor was not the elixir they were seeking, but a vial of poison so deadly that if it were released from its container it would scorch all creation. The search could not go on until this menace was removed, yet no one had the capacity or the wisdom to dispose of it except Shiva, who came forward and drank it at great risk to himself.
The churning resumed. But when the vessel containing the elixir finally appeared, everyone rushed for it, and to prevent it from falling into the hands of those who would keep it for themselves, Dhanwantari, the primordial physician, snatched the vessel and fled. In maneuvering to escape, however, he dropped three drops of the elixir: one fell on Ujjain, one on Nasik, and a third on Haridwar. At Prayaga Raja the crowd caught and overwhelmed Dhanwantari, and in the melee, all of the elixir spilled out and disappeared as soon as it touched the ground.
The elixir manifests its life-giving properties every twelve years when the sun is in the House of Capricorn.
Yet all was not lost. Because Prayaga Raja is a holy place, the elixir manifests its life-giving properties every twelve years when the sun is in the House of Capricorn. And because the elixir was originally contained in a kumbha (vessel), and the land itself now serves as the vessel, this twelve-year gathering at Prayaga Raja every twelve years is called Kumbha Mela, the spiritual gathering around the vessel.