PHOTOS AND TEXT © Ayash Basu | JULY 2019

Kumbh Mela: India’s journey through time

About this time last year, preparations for the 2019 Kumbh Mela had entered their final phase. After all, it was a Kumbh in Allahabad (now Prayagraj), host to the largest human congregation on the planet. Despite the fact that the Kumbh is held every three years by rotation in four different cities — Prayagraj, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik — it is the Prayagraj (Allahabad) edition that captures the imagination of a billion Indians and millions worldwide. But perhaps not mine. For sure, not in any spiritual or religious way. My allusions to the Kumbh have typically seen two Bollywood brothers getting separated at the Mela and reuniting at the climactic scene to bash up the baddie. My notions of the Kumbh not withstanding, the noise from the media following 2013’s Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj has been deafening. For the spiritually inclined, Kumbh translates to “the nectar of immortality and nirvana.” But the visually inclined, i.e. photographers from all over the globe, have swarmed to India over the last decade to find their own nectar — the illusive Naga sadhus, the royal baths, the ceremonial sacrifices and the masses of pilgrims — for assignments, news stories, projects, and workshops. After all, Prayagraj’s Kumbh is the “Monaco Grand Prix,” “Le Mans,” and “Indianapolis 500” of Hindu, or any pilgrimage all rolled into one. And then some. The 55-day long Mela in 2019 saw over 200 million pilgrims with 30 million devotees gathered on the main bathing day alone. Sure, take a minute to absorb those numbers!

But was this always the case?

Having spent my undergraduate years not too far from Haridwar and being somewhat aware of its celebrated standing in the Indian pilgrimage circuit, I associated the Kumbh most to this city. Maybe because all Kumbh Melas in Bollywood movies took place in Haridwar and present-day Bollywood has abandoned the Kumbh sub-plot entirely, so it is hard to keep up. It took me some time to realize that Haridwar is to “Imola” and “Pau” what Prayagraj today is to “Monaco” and “Monza.” In fact, while records of an annual fair in Allahabad, known as the Magh Mela date back to the 3rd century (the first Puranas), the earliest mentions of a “Kumbh Mela” there go back only to the late-1800s. For centuries before that, the overriding Kumbh Mela took place in Haridwar and was undeniably controlled by akharas — religious sects of sadhus, who were astute traders and fearsome warriors. The Kumbh provided a forum for them to meet and trumpet their wares as well as war skills. Over time, mercantile opportunities became bountiful and boundless, attracting traders from as far as the “Silk Route” that crossed the northern tassels of India, transforming Haridwar to a quasi-marketplace for religion, commerce, and combat. For at least 300 years before things got industrious in Prayagraj, it was Haridwar that hosted the definitive Kumbh Mela.

© Ayash Basu. 22 temporary pontoon bridges were built for 2019 Prayagraj Kumbh to ferry over 200 million pilgrims over the sacred rivers of Ganges and Yamuna.

© Ayash Basu. 22 temporary pontoon bridges were built for 2019 Prayagraj Kumbh to ferry over 200 million pilgrims over the sacred rivers of Ganges and Yamuna.

Let’s rewind a few centuries

In the quest to maneuver religious discourses, settle disputes, collect taxes on pilgrims, animals, and merchandize, things often got fatally violent between the Vishnu-worshipping Bairagi akharas and the more dominant Shiva-worshipping Gosains. There have been multiple instances of tens-of-thousands left dead due to akhara conflicts in Haridwar in the late 1700s, leading to dips in attendance from pilgrims. Now, we all know that savvy investors wait for downturns to adjust their portfolios in the hopes of making a killing when the tide turns. Inevitably, the then rising British East India Company saw itself well-positioned to insert itself into Kumbh proceedings, despite the headaches of dealing with the enormous bedlam of a religious crowd.

First, revenue potential from “pilgrim-commerce” at the Haridwar Kumbh was too big to ignore. Seriously, “p-commerce” was a real thing almost two centuries before “e-commerce!” Second, the region around Haridwar and the fertile Ganges had been ceded to the Company by 1801, thereby necessitating a close watch on entitled and empowered warrior sadhus, who in their large numbers could pose military level threats. “Diminish their influence at the Kumbh and weaken their clout overall,” was an underlying objective. Lastly, the British being able to tame the Mela with a blanket of security and structure fortified the significance of their presence — and perils of their absence — in the collective psyche of pilgrims, who started showing up in even greater numbers, tremendously boosting the Company’s balance sheet.

© Ayash Basu. Ash-smeared Naga sadhus warming up for morning prayers at 3 a.m. Historically, Nagas have been fearsome warriors, defending key Hindu temples and cities from Mughal attacks.

© Ayash Basu. Ash-smeared Naga sadhus warming up for morning prayers at 3 a.m. Historically, Nagas have been fearsome warriors, defending key Hindu temples and cities from Mughal attacks.

© Ayash Basu. Fourteen akharas are formally invited to the Kumbh but only six bathing processions are allowed. Consequently, smaller akharas often march behind or team up with larger ones in historically determined pairs. Here, the Anand akhara joins forces with the influential Niranjan akhara before they embark on their royal procession.

© Ayash Basu. Fourteen akharas are formally invited to the Kumbh but only six bathing processions are allowed. Consequently, smaller akharas often march behind or team up with larger ones in historically determined pairs. Here, the Anand akhara joins forces with the influential Niranjan akhara before they embark on their royal procession.

© Ayash Basu. First-bathing rights at each Kumbh are decided according to akhara hierarchy and influence; trident and spear wielding sadhus charging down to the Sangam for the holy bath is one of the most awaited events at the Kumbh.

© Ayash Basu. First-bathing rights at each Kumbh are decided according to akhara hierarchy and influence; trident and spear wielding sadhus charging down to the Sangam for the holy bath is one of the most awaited events at the Kumbh.

© Ayash Basu. Nothing gets in between Naga sadhus and their holy bath on Mauni Amawasya. They will march through and over anything and anybody in their way. Select photographers and media personnel capturing their march do so at their own peril and must stay a step ahead of the sadhus to avoid certain physical altercations.

© Ayash Basu. Nothing gets in between Naga sadhus and their holy bath on Mauni Amawasya. They will march through and over anything and anybody in their way. Select photographers and media personnel capturing their march do so at their own peril and must stay a step ahead of the sadhus to avoid certain physical altercations.

The British, without an iota of comprehension of the religious aspects of the Kumbh undertook the role of ‘Event Managers,’ making fastidious investments towards crowd safety, public sanitation, and pilgrim-experience. These investments yielded huge dividends in the form of tax revenues from “p-commerce.” But more importantly, the Kumbh proved its utility as an information broadcasting network. After all, there was no other platform where millions assembled from all over the country with the disposition to receive sermon and discourse. The strategy — insert “sermon of your choice,” which will trickle down to the heartland of India as pilgrims return and talk about their experience — in fact worked. Akharas became “social networks,” and prominent sadhus their “influencers.” Interestingly, a lot of districts in the Northern Provinces (most populous and fertile region of India) were being ceded to the East India Company at the turn of the 19th century. The most strategic of these acquisitions came 400 miles downstream from Haridwar — a town by the name of Allahabad, including a 16th-century fort at the Sangam - confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna, built by Emperor Akbar himself.

What could be better than a religious pilgrimage on the banks of a sacred river?

Beyond a doubt, a religious pilgrimage at the confluence of two sacred rivers on which the bulk of India’s trade flowed, along with an impenetrable fort to house British garrisons. While Allahabad did not match Haridwar’s “p-commerce” market size at the time, it did hold religious significance and had been home to the smaller Magh Mela. Slowly but deliberately, the epicenter of the Kumbh started to flow downstream on the Ganges to its meeting point with the Yamuna. At the same time, despite the Company’s proactive strategy and established track record in regulating the Kumbh as Event Managers, “nationalistic” sentiments were brewing thick and fast amongst Indian minds. The Kumbh’s growing religious and esoteric nature raised questions around its governance by Firangis - white foreigners who didn’t belong. “Religion should be one area where Indian autonomy remains unchallenged,” they argued. A gross negligence of this religious sentiment by the British led to incidents culminating in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 (look it up if you want to know more). The British subdued the mutiny but suffered heavy losses, most notably along the Ganges in Kanpur and the Yamuna in Agra. Yet, Allahabad stood strong; such was the strategic advantage of Akbar’s fort at the Sangam. Just a year later, in 1858, Allahabad was made capital of the entire Northwestern Provinces of British India.

© Ayash Basu. A scene from Prayagraj train station. Tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive everyday in specially run trains from all over India.

© Ayash Basu. A scene from Prayagraj train station. Tens of thousands of pilgrims arrive everyday in specially run trains from all over India.

© Ayash Basu. Kalpavasis are long-term pilgrims who lead a very austere life, often living on one basic meal a day. Feeding a Kalpavasi is often considered an act of piety and is a common site at the mela.

© Ayash Basu. Kalpavasis are long-term pilgrims who lead a very austere life, often living on one basic meal a day. Feeding a Kalpavasi is often considered an act of piety and is a common site at the mela.

© Ayash Basu. Millions get to the Kumbh despite dire financial circumstances. For the entire duration of the Kumbh, every pilgrim is guaranteed at least two meals a day from akharas, volunteers, and other public service groups. For many, the Kumbh is the only time when they don’t have to worry about getting fed.

© Ayash Basu. Millions get to the Kumbh despite dire financial circumstances. For the entire duration of the Kumbh, every pilgrim is guaranteed at least two meals a day from akharas, volunteers, and other public service groups. For many, the Kumbh is the only time when they don’t have to worry about getting fed.

From a profit machine to a broadcasting powerhouse

The events and losses from 1857 made sure that the British would hold no nonchalant postures at the Kumbh; order, safety, and sanitation remained key priorities. This had an unforeseen consequence — more people started showing up in greater numbers. The East India Company’s investments grew in proportion and while the previous profit levels could not be maintained, the information distribution merits expanded manyfold. The main message being around the benefits of Colonial rule in India and the advances of Western society. This started to attract the attention of regional Hindu politicians as a counter-measure and by the late 1800s, Allahabad was fertile ground for elite, national level politics.

In 1870, Allahabad hosted its first Kumbh Mela.

There was no other platform to communicate with India’s masses with such relative ease. This intersection of pilgrimage and politics was foundational to the Indian freedom movement. It is no coincidence that the locations of India’s greatest festival and the home of the Indian National Congress were the same. It is also no coincidence that the Allahabad University, Allahabad High Court, and northern India’s press headquarters were setup within a short span of time. From the late 1800s, Allahabad was where India’s soul amassed and if the nationalistic agenda had to be amplified, this was the place to do it.

© Ayash Basu. A section of Prayagraj on the banks of the Ganges and the Yamuna turns into a tent city. About 20 million pilgrims could be accommodated at any given point in time. Many pilgrims make arduous journeys over days and weeks on foot to come here for a holy dip.

© Ayash Basu. A section of Prayagraj on the banks of the Ganges and the Yamuna turns into a tent city. About 20 million pilgrims could be accommodated at any given point in time. Many pilgrims make arduous journeys over days and weeks on foot to come here for a holy dip.

Kumbh as an economic engine and more

Fast forward to the 21st century. Despite India’s recent economic boom, several regions — especially in the northern and central interiors — are cash strapped. The Kumbh, with its continued growth, is a colossal boost to the local economy. At the 2013 Prayagraj Kumbh, an investment of $200 million by the Central and State Governments generated returns of over $2 billion. In the 2019 edition, the investment was tripled to $600 million with a projected impact of $16 billion. These are gargantuan numbers for a festival and work to benefit an entire ecosystem. The 55-day festival sustains many households for months, possibly years. Financial implications aside, both the 2013 and 2019 Prayagraj Kumbhs have underscored the city administration’s triumph in organization and logistics and serve as beacons of national pride. A living heritage of humanity, the Kumbh is a case study in several interdisciplinary studies — public health, design, supply chain, infrastructure engineering, security, communications, and business. Both Harvard Graduate School of Design and Harvard Business School have crafted meaningful research and prototypes in urban planning and business based on the Kumbh. For example, HBS Professor Tarun Khanna offers insightful commentary on the application of Big Data at the Kumbh.

My time at the Kumbh earlier this year was captivating in many ways. I don’t find frequent opportunities to visit India so my last few trips have been somewhat more consequential. In addition, my first-time immersion at a festival of this magnitude was a multi-sensory experience. Even for someone who grew up in India, the sheer scale and occasion of the Kumbh were jaw-dropping. The first-hand interactions with so many people from the heartland for whom “it’s just about faith” was soul-stirring. It is amply evident that the Kumbh is now a global benchmark for events at scale. The Olympics, Grand Prix, and FIFA look at Kumbh as a model and for inspiration, and in due time the notion of “pop-up cities” might well be a reality. As I write this, minds are at work in Haridwar to plan and prepare for the 2021-22 Kumbh. Media reports suggest $700 million in funding has already been secured. Time will tell if I go. I certainly would love to. It is a city close to my heart. It is where the Kumbh story began. My search for nectar isn’t one for nirvana, rather for re-visiting memories from my early twenties.

© Ayash Basu. Weary feet at rest. I was at the Kumbh for 6 days with no pilgrimage intentions and still ended up walking 120K steps over 42 miles according to my iPhone’s Health app. That’s an average of 20K steps and 7 miles a day. These feet have done way more than that for much longer, without proper footwear - only to realize a belief and a desire for a dip in the holy waters of the Sangam.

© Ayash Basu. Weary feet at rest. I was at the Kumbh for 6 days with no pilgrimage intentions and still ended up walking 120K steps over 42 miles according to my iPhone’s Health app. That’s an average of 20K steps and 7 miles a day. These feet have done way more than that for much longer, without proper footwear - only to realize a belief and a desire for a dip in the holy waters of the Sangam.


Acknowledgments

All images were made with the Leica M10p and the Leica 35mm Summilux ASPH lens. The simplicity, form factor, and ISO performance of the M10p along with probably what is one of Leica’s most versatile lenses, proved to be a joy to shoot such a momentous event. This was my very first full shoot with this camera, which only added to the excitement of being at an event like the Kumbh. Zone focusing is a charm and the only way I was able to get some of the images included above. The M10, including its “p” and “d” variants is hands down Leica’s best M camera to date, in my view. THANK YOU Leica Camera USA for your support.

While writing this article and brushing up on my knowledge of Indian history with specific emphasis on the Kumbh, the following sources were extremely useful:

  • Sacred Journeys - The Anthropology of Pilgrimage. © Alan Morinis 1992

  • Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires. © William Pinch 2006

  • The Sacred Geography of Prayaga. © National Geographic Journal of India 1985

  • Pilgrimage and Power. © Kama Maclean 2008

Lastly, infinite gratitude to whichever Bollywood writer penned the line - “Hum dono bhai Kumbh ke mele mein bichade the (Us two brothers got separated at the Kumbh).” You Sir/Madam, are a genius.