The Kumbh Mela, one of the most sacred pilgrimages in Hinduism, and among the most emblematic symbols of India, is currently taking place at Haridwar on the banks of the river Ganga. Shaped by faith, mythology, astrology and social currents over a long course of history, the festival is considered the largest religious gathering of its kind in the world, and forms a part of UNESCO’s “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” list. The faithful believe a dip in sacred waters can deliver absolution from sins and liberation from the cycle of life and death, and crores from across the country, as well as lakhs from abroad, visit the mammoth congregation in the four cities of Haridwar, Prayagraj, Nashik and Ujjain in a cycle of 12 years.
The modern history of a ‘timeless’ festival
Historians have found it difficult to attribute a single starting point to the Kumbh Mela. They insist, however, that the ambiguity and perceived agelessness of the festival is what gives it sanctity in the eyes of followers.
In ‘Making the Colonial State Work for You: The Modern Beginnings of the Ancient Kumbh Mela in Allahabad’ (Journal of Asian Studies, 2013), Prof. Kama Maclean of Australia’s University of New South Wales notes how it is “widely believed” that the Kumbh Mela is an ancient religious festival and that its “ageless” roots “lie obscured in time immemorial”.
Maclean is among the researchers who argue that the Kumbh Mela, as it is known today, has taken shape in recent centuries, in contrast to the popular belief that it is rooted in antiquity.
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Prof. James Lochtefeld, who specialises in Hindu pilgrimage at Carthage College in the US, has written about how the four melas are justified by a charter myth that has been “grafted” upon the significantly older and well-known Hindu tale of the Samudra Manthan. He writes in “The Construction of the Kumbha Mela“ (South Asian Popular Culture, Vol. 2 Issue 2, 2004) that while the Samudra Manthan episode is corroborated by multiple Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the next part of the story – which claims to explain the origin of the Kumbh Mela– finds no mention in any of the same ancient works.
This appended part recounts how the sacred Kumbh (pitcher) was handed over to the gods, their subsequent 12-day flight, and the splashing of Amrit (nectar) at four locations in India.
Lochtefeld infers from the story’s absence from ancient texts: “The simplest explanation is that Kumbha Mela was not an important festival when these texts were being composed, if it existed at all. As it became a popular cultural practice over time, the Kumbha Mela needed a charter to give it mythic sanction, and the latter part of the story – the part that fixes the Kumbha Mela – was grafted onto the well-known story of the tortoise (Kurma) avatar.”
This reasoning finds support from Prof. DP Dubey of the University of Allahabad, who too holds the add-on myth as well as most of the information on the Kumbh Mela as based on “oral tradition and hearsay”. “It appears that this epic-Puranic myth was verbally grafted some time to provide the tradition of the Kumbh Mela with a respectable antiquity,” Dubey writes in an article on Sahapedia.
Maclean writes that the various stories associated with how the festival began (involving Dhanvantari, Durvasa and Garuda or Indra) have been applied “relatively recently”. However, the historian warns against dismissing these stories, since “belief accounts for a considerable portion of what holds together the Kumbh Mela.”
So, when could the Mela have started?
Dubey locates the Kumbh cycle originating in an organised form in Haridwar around the 12th century, and links it to what some researchers call “Gangaisation”– a culture of honouring the North Indian river beginning during the Gupta Empire of the 4th-6th centuries.
According to Lochtefeld, the words “Kumbh Mela” first find mention in the ‘Khulasat-ut-Tawarikh’, a late 17th-century Persian gazette written by Sujan Rai during the reign of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. A general account of the empire’s several regions, it says the following about the festival at Haridwar:
“Although according to the holy books the river Ganges should be worshipped from its origin to its end, yet Haridwar is described as the greatest of all holy places on its banks. Every year, on the day when the sun enters the sign of Aries – which is called Baisakhi – people from every side assemble here.
“Especially in the year when Jupiter enters the sign of Aquarius (otherwise named Kumbh) – which happens once every 12 years – vast numbers of people assemble here from remote distances. They consider bathing, giving alms, and shaving the hair and beard at this place, as acts of merit, and the throwing of the bones of the dead into the Ganges [as the means of] salvation of the deceased”– [Lochtefeld quotes from Sir Jadunath Sarkar’s 1901 work ‘The India of Aurangzib’.]
Another Persian gazette from 1759, Rai Chatar Man Kayath’s ‘Chahar Gulshan’, records the grand festival: “Mela at Haridwar in Baisakh: the largest gathering takes place in the year in which Jupiter enters the sign of Aquarius, and is called the Kumbh Mela. Lacs of laymen, Faqirs, and Sanyasis assemble here.”
Lochtefeld points out that both these texts explicitly mention other festivals that are now considered part of the Kumbh cycle– describing the current Nashik ceremony as Simhastha Mela and the one at Prayag as Magh Mela. These terms remain in use even today– at Prayag, the annual Magh Mela becomes the Kumbh Mela every 12 years, and at Nashik, Simhastha is still the alternative name used for the grand festival.
Maclean, too, argues that the Kumbh Mela was “applied to” Prayag’s Magh Mela in the mid-19th century by priests. “No governmental record before the 1860s that I have consulted mentions the word Kumbh in any of its variant spellings in relation to melas in Allahabad, nor have these records ever mentioned that every 12 years the mela in Allahabad had any special significance,” she writes.
At Ujjain, the festival is believed to have started by a royal initiative as late as 1740. According to a volume published for the city’s 1992 Mela, Ujjain began to host the Kumbh after Ranoji Shinde, the founder of the Gwalior Maratha dynasty, invited ascetics who were approaching Nashik at the time to attend that city’s Mela. The festival at Ujjain is thus considered an extension of Nashik’s Mela, and like the Nashik fair, it is also called the Ujjain Simhastha.
Lochtefeld like Dubey holds Haridwar to be the original site, since it is only here that the astrological sign Aquarius (Kumbh) decides the time of the festival.
And then, how did the Mela start taking place in its current form?
Despite being a congregation of multitudes, the main actors at the Kumbh Mela are the Akharas (literally meaning wrestling grounds) or warrior ascetic bands from across the sectarian spectrum– including Shaiva Sanyasis, Vaishnava Bairagis, Udasis and Sikh Nirmalas.
“At each of Kumbha Mela’s holiest moments, these akharas have exclusive rights to the most important bathing places, which are closed to the public. The akharas process to these bathing places in festive processions known as shahi snans (‘royal baths’), in which they bear weapons, banners, and accoutrements of royal authority,” writes Lochtefeld.
Because the sequence in which the Akharas proceed to the Shah Snans reflected their primacy vis-a-vis others, decisions around the bathing order often caused violent disputes in which thousands died. The bloodiest such incident is believed to be Haridwar’s 1760 Kumbh Mela, in which a contemporary European account records Sanyasis killing 18,000 Bairagis.
Governments first entered this equation as arbitrators, and slowly went on to become the Kumbh’s principal organisers. The earliest known instance of this happening is from Nashik’s 1789 Mela, which too saw considerable bloodshed. Stepping in to maintain order, Peshwa rulers shifted the bathing place of the Bairagis from the old city’s Ram Kund sacred tank to the neighbouring pilgrimage town of Trimbakeshwar. The same arrangement stands to this day.
A similar exercise of government power was seen at Ujjain, in which its Maratha ruler made all ascetics bathe together– the Bairagis at one side of the river and the Sanyasis on the other.
During British rule, the bathing order began to further crystallise as the colonial rulers bound the Akharas by legal agreements to ensure that violence was rooted out, a model that the current Mela administrations have inherited. Naturally, the Akharas were forced to work within limits imposed by the British, and through this process the festival received affirmation by pilgrims at large.
Thus, in the years preceding Independence, British colonial rule left a significant impact on the festival, from logistics to the Mela becoming more affordable for visitors due to the advent of railways.
And the British benefited in various ways by exercising power over the pilgrimage. Because of its popularity, they recognised that the festival was a carrier for “news, rumours, sedition, and eventually nationalism, and they consistently sought to control the pilgrimage”, Maclean writes in her 2008 book ‘Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954’.
Sure enough, the Melas served as hotbeds during the Independence struggle. Being religious gatherings, they doubled up as perfect avenues for build up a nationalistic sentiment without interference from colonial authorities.
“…the colonial state and the colonized had different ideas about what the Kumbh Mela represented; for the former, it was a potentially dangerous festival that demanded tight regulation and control, whereas for the latter it was a sacred sphere in which foreign interference was deemed intolerable,” Maclean notes.
It was also at this time that the Mela at Prayag began to eclipse Haridwar’s, thanks to the former’s location on the densely populated Gangetic plain. As per the Imperial Gazetteer of India, the Haridwar Kumbh drew over 20 lakh followers on every occasion from 1796 to 1867, and Prayag only received more than 10 lakh visitors for the first time in 1894.
Prayagraj is now by far the biggest of all four Kumbh Melas. In 2019, the Ardh Kumbh was attended by some 24 crore people, including over 10 lakh foreign tourists, according to official figures. (Haridwar and Prayagraj also host the Ardh (Half) Kumbh Mela, which is held every six years.)
Demonstrating political might
As was true during the colonial era, governments in charge of the four melas after Independence have used them as a means to exhibit their heft, as have political figures who have sought to associate themselves with the Kumbh for its deep symbolism.
Lochtefeld notes in ‘The Kumbha Mela Festival Processions’ (South Asian Religions on Display, Routledge, 2008): “…in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the religious emphasis was mixed with trade, and in the twentieth century with politics’’ which includes promoting the festival as a global tourism event.
This has included the top echelons of politics, starting with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who in 1954 visited the Prayag Kumbh Mela, according to Maclean’s book. In fact, in his will, Nehru wrote, “I have been attached to the Ganga and the Jumna rivers ever since my childhood and, as I have grown older, this attachment has also grown”, and expressed the desire that his ashes be scattered at the confluence point of the three rivers.
At the 2019 Prayagraj Ardh Kumbh, PM Narendra Modi and President Ramnath Kovind both visited, with Kovind becoming the second head of state ever to visit the Mela since the inaugural holder of the office, Rajendra Prasad, did so first in 1953. Another interesting presence that year was that of PM Pravind Jugnauth of Mauritius, a country where half the people are Hindus.
“The present Kumbha Mela is an enormous platform in terms of drawing and holding public attention, and this will inevitably entail political considerations,” Lochtefeld told indianexpress.com in a email response. “Conflicts over controlling the festival in the early 20th century reflected the larger anti-colonial struggle at the time. In Independent India (or the new Uttarakhand state) a smooth and accident-free Mela could be spun as reflecting good governance and administrative competence. Of course, this media platform also provides individual public figures with a ready-made publicity opportunity.” He added how in 2019, the Lok Sabha election year, any public action could be parsed for electoral or political messages. “In summary the Kumbh has carried political overtones and messages for a long time, and this will surely continue.”
Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954 By Kama Maclean
Making the Colonial State for You: The Modern Beginnings of the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad
By Kama Maclean (Paper)
The Construction of the Kumbh Mela, South Asian Popular Culture, 2004 By James Lochtefeld
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