Wednesday, Aug 10, 2022

Child Of 1857

An Australian historian discounts the idea of an eternal, unchanging Kumbh and accords it a post-Mutiny vintage

Child Of 1857 Bishwadeep Moitra

Kumbh: A Modern Myth?

  • Archival records put the Allahabad Kumbh Mela as a post-Mutiny phenomenon
  • The prayagwals, or Brahmin pandas, created the legend to slip past British controls
  • No mention of it in the Puranas or travellers' accounts; first reference appears in government records only in 1868
The ash-smeared Naga sadhu in his chandelier-lit tent at the Kumbh Mela has something in common with Jawaharlal Nehru. Like India's first PM, he too claims Allahabad's mega bathing festival—which still attracts hundreds of thousands of sants and their devotees in a month-long carnival of ear-splitting mikes and gaudy wedding bands leading mile-long processions of floats, elephants, horses, cars, tractors and martial sadhus brandishing swords and clubs—is so old that its origins are "lost in an unknown antiquity", as Nehru put it. But a young Australian historian has just knocked the bottom out of that popular assumption. Far from the puranic legend of the victorious god with his hard-won pot of amrit stopping by here en route to paradise, Allahabad's Kumbh Mela, says Kama Maclean, owed its invention to an overzealous post-Mutiny British government. "It's less than 150 years old," says Maclean, who spent over six years scouring archives, newsreports and administrative notes both in Allahabad and in London's India Office Library for her forthcoming book, Power and Pilgrimage: The Allahabad Kumbh Mela.

The puranic legend, argues Maclean, was forcefully grafted on to a pre-existing local bathing festival called the Magh Mela in order to circumvent an increasingly repressive British government; and to convince authorities that the local celebration had religious sanction. The British, says Maclean, had a love-hate relationship with the annual winter fair ever since they took control of Allahabad in 1806. Afraid of cholera epidemics that felled their soldiers in the fort facing the mela, and daunted by the sheer magnitude of the administrative work it involved, the magh mela was still a tax collector's dream come true. Even beggars had to pay a pilgrim's tax of one rupee each for a holy dip, at a time when a family could live on a rupee for a month.