The story goes... Indra, the God of Rain, once God of Heaven, received a garland as a gift from the sage, Durvaras, but slighted the old man by giving the garland his elephant who threw it to the ground. Durvaras cursed the god in his anger and todl him that his kingdom would be overwhelmed by ruin, Almost immediately, Indra's powers began to wane, strange and frightening sights were seend and the god fearing that they would lose their immortality and the asuras would invade Kailash, the Hindu Olympia, appealed to Vishnu for help.
The Lord Preserver advised them to unite with their foes, the evil demons, collect herbs and plants and cast them into the sea of milk and churn the ocean to produce amrit (source of all strength and immortality). They were to use the sacred mountain, Mandara for a churning stick, the serpent Vasuki, wound around the mountain as a rope and in the oceans midst, Vishnu himself, present in tortoise form, became a pivot for the churning staff. And the Vishnu said, "I will take care your foes shall share your toil, but not partake in its reward, or drink the immortal draught." And so the gods pulled the serpent's head and the demons his tail and Mandara swivelled rapidly back and forth. And, as the sea of milk frothed and bubbled, it brought forth the sacred cow, fountains of milk and butter and Parijata, (the tree of paradise) with its fragrant blossoms. The moon rose out of the ocean and settled on Shiva's head. A terrible poison then burst from the waters and threatened to destroy the earth. Shiva, it is said, opened his mouth and received it in his throat. So virulent was the poison that it turned Shiva's neck blue, giving him one of his many names, Neelkanth, the blue-throated.
As the waters began to calm, Dhanavati, the physician of the gods appeared, bearing the kumbh (pot of the life-giving powerful nectar). The gods reached for the nectar and the demos too lunged forward. War was inevitable. Vishnu called forth Divine Sri, Goddess of Beauty. Enthralled, the demons watched mesmerized as the peerless beauty rose out of the waters, seated on a lotus. Vishnu passed the pot of nectar to the gods, thus restoring their immortality.
The story onviously symbolizes the victory of good over evil, with of course a little guile and cunning to weigh the balance in the favour of the good. The legend is also a part of the complex Hindu repertoire of the creation of the world and, at another level, reveals the Hindu preoccupation with the powers of medicine and the concepts of mortality and immortality.
Millions of people from all over India come to bathe in the waters of the sacred Sipra during the Kumbh Mela. The air is thick with incense, the clang and tinkle of temple bells, and the cries of the food vendors a decibel or two higher than the general din. The noise, the jostling, and the dirt during the festivals are not for the squeamish of the claustrophobic. But, as the wish of every devout Hindu is to visit each of the seven sacred cities at least once during his lifetime, Ujjain is always full of pilgrims and there is a festival every month. Picturesque, colourful, the devout come and go, sometimes a handful, sometimes in their hundreds. The throng the ghats early in the morning, bathe, pray, make offerings of coconut and flowers to the Sipra and feed lentils and nuts to the sacred tortoises (that mill round the steps leading to the river). And in the evenings, millions of lighted divas (tiny clay lamps with twisted cotton wool wicks in oil), are floated on the river while from the temple one hears the priests chant the thousand names of Shiva.