© Ayash Basu | AUGUST 2019

Kumbh: Politics, power, and pilgrimage

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 a Kumbh is held every three years by rotation in four different cities — Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik — it is the Allahabad edition that captures the imagination of a billion Indians and millions worldwide. Prayagraj’s Kumbh is the “Monaco Grand Prix,” “Le Mans,” and “Indianapolis 500” of Hindu pilgrimage all rolled into one. And then some. The fifty-day long mela in 2019 saw over 200 million pilgrims with 30 million devotees gathered on the main bathing day. Yeah, 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 figured that Haridwar is to “Imola” and “Pau” what Allahabad 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 third century, the earliest mentions of a “Kumbh” mela there go back to only the mid-1800s. For centuries before that, the Kumbh mela took place in Haridwar and was 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 even the “Silk Route” that crossed the northern tassels of India, transforming Haridwar to a quasi-marketplace for religion, commerce, and combat. For close to 250 years, Haridwar was the singular Kumbh destination.

© Ayash Basu. 22 temporary pontoon bridges were built for 2019 Prayagraj Kumbh to ferry over 150 million pilgrims over the sacred rivers.

© Ayash Basu. 22 temporary pontoon bridges were built for 2019 Prayagraj Kumbh to ferry over 150 million pilgrims over the sacred rivers.

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 were multiple instances of tens-of-thousands left dead due to akhara conflicts in Haridwar in the late 1700s. Inevitably, the rising 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 from pilgrim-commerce at the Haridwar Kumbh had grown too big to ignore. 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. 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. 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. Historically, Nagas have been fearsome warriors, defending key Hindu temples and cities from Mughal attacks.

© 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.


Acknowledgment

All images used in this article 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.

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