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How Kumbh in Prayagraj (earlier known as Allahabad) came about ?

Volume: 12, No: 12 ; December-2018

2019 will see the largest human gathering in Prayagraj (earlier known as Allahabad) at Kumbh – a religious bathing festival that attracts saints, ascetics and hordes of devotees. For quite some time we were inquisitive about how had this festival been managed when India was a British colony, what happened to it during the uprising of 1857, or how did it survive the cruelty of Aurangzeb against all communities except his own ? This article tries to unearth a few facts and trace the evolution of ‘Kumbh’ in Prayagraj. 

The religious mela, i.e., a fair in Prayagraj has not only survived, but also evolved with the passage of time. It is said that when Aurangzeb took over the throne, he tried to put an end to this regularly organised religious congregation in Allahabad every winter, which he thought was a futile activity and did not confirm to his beliefs. Upon doing so he had to face the stiff resistance of the Naga Sadhus, each of whom was brave and armed with a trishul, i.e., a trident. Aurangzeb not only was taken aback seeing the ash smeared naked sadhus, braving the chilly winter and bathing in chilled river early in the morning, but also decided not to touch them as they were devoid of valuables. This fact has been recorded by Khafi Khan in his book titled ‘History of Alamgir’.

Going through the records, the myth was broken about the existence of the event of Kumbh in the ancient times. An annual affair known as Magh Mela with its roots in Prayag then existed. Upon reading Nehru we find that the religious event of Kumbh is nowhere mentioned in the Puranas and that its origin is “lost in an unknown antiquity”. Of course, there exist enough evidences to prove that the Magh Mela has been organised every year in Prayagraj. Then, the size of its gathering not only differed, but also often grew with each passing year. 

One theory takes clue from the fact, that religious priests, ascetics and pilgrims stopped at Prayag, but that was only a break while heading to Haridwar, another seat of Kumbh. Akharas (The word ‘Akhara’ means a wrestling ring. However, here Akhara refers to the community formed in the 8th century by Adi Shankracharya. There are primarily two Akharas. While one follows Lord Shiva, the other follows Lord Vishnu. Later in the 12th century another Akhara by the name of ‘Udaseen’ came into existence. This was by the Sikhs) moved in processions like celebrating caravans during the event of Kumbh. Then, they also peg tents, cook together and take community bath together. Later at the culmination of the event, while some of them scatter to lead their own lives, others go up in the Himalayas to spend time in caves and forests. Mela, as it is associated with commerce and in the olden times, it is said that the Akharas fought among themselves for supremacy and the winning Akhara was allowed to tax the pilgrims during the mela. This theory points out to the fact that the stakes in Hardwar Kumbh were quite high as compared to Allahabad. Haridwar involved trade of horses, elephants, camels and cattle, while in Allahabad it were only low cost items, such as utensils and clothes that were traded. Surely the religious freedom with mela in Allahabad grew manifold and there was this yet another place where religion could be expressed. Allahabad, then became yet another turf for sadhus to express their religious freedom and assert themselves defiantly in the British India.

Next, a somewhat love-hate relationship existed between the British and the Indians. Both saw each other with skepticism and at times their relationship gave an impression that they loved each other quite a lot, while at times it was inherent hatred that came forth. Anyway, this matter is out of context here and requires an entirely different debate.

Coming back to the point, at first the British perceived the congregation as a compulsive headache to be managed. This was owing to not only the large size of the gathering, but also the great excitement of bathing in the Holy Ganges with which the people were charged up. After the Treaty of Allahabad was signed between the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam – II (he fought against the British along with Suja-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Awadh in the battle of Buxar) and Robert Clive, the Commander-in-Chief of the British East India Company in the year 1765, Allahabad, in a way, came under the British governance. The situation was thus as the power to collect taxes as an imperial tax collector vested in the Company. Then, the Company upon realising the strategic position of Allahabad and that the place can serve well as a gateway for further expansion, officially took over it in the year 1801.

After the British took over Allahabad Fort, life-threatening cholera struck the British troops in the fort. The fort is located near the site of this annual fair which happens on the banks of the river Ganges, near the confluence of the three rivers, Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati (known as ‘Sangam’). At first the British were not sure if they can manage this large congregation at this annual fair. However, son they realised a huge economic opportunity here. They began taxing the pilgrims and charged a sum of rupee one as tax to bathe in the holy water during this fair. Rupee one was then considered quite an amount at that time and was enough to survive for a month. Hence, this move triggered resentment among the locals and the pilgrims alike. Nevertheless, instead of witnessing any improvement, the state of affairs worsened with the introduction of more rules to effectively manage the economic affairs during the tenure of the mela. As a matter of fact, almost every religious event has a commercial aspect attached to it and so this mela was no different. Thus we can safely say that the organised system of holding large religious fairs such as this one in Allahabad, was introduced by the British in the beginning of 19th century.

With the intervention of British in the religious fairs, Christians too started camping here for various reasons. Some came as visitors to closely view Hinduism in action, some came to do business and yet some came as missionaries to spread Christianity. The intervention by the British was perceived, often, as interference in religious affairs by the visiting Hindu priests and pilgrims. Naga Sadhus have been considered as the principal part of this congregation and they specifically took offence to this interference. It is said that once a Christian missionary threw a stone at one such Sadhu only to prove that Nagas are normal human beings and thus, feel the same human pain and agony.  

Year 1857 was the year of unrest in North India. It was the year of the uprising against the British, and Allahabad as a consequence, was not left untouched either. In fact, the mela then served as an instrument to strongly communicate a message. Using this instrument, more than 1400 people revolted against the British in this region. They took control of the bridge on the Ganges which connected trans and sis Ganges. Next, they also attacked the churches in Allahabad to vent their anger on. The prevalent out of control unrest was also instigated by the priests at the annual fair then. The situation became so hopeless that the British Collector of the city of Allahabad described it as “British power is to close this year”. It was only after the intervention of Col James Neill that the situation was finally brought under control. He set out for Allahabad from Benares (now Varanasi) on 9th June, 1857 and ordered the British troops to hang anyone whom they suspected as a rebellion. This move deterred the rebels and cleared the city of them. Then, to showcase their retaliation, the British also confiscated a massive land in Allahabad around the river bank. In fact today, this piece of land constitutes the vast mela grounds of Allahabad. The mela was, following the crush of the uprising by the British, not organized out of fear in January/February of 1858.

However, the fear subsided by 1859 and the mela started taking shape once again. From 1860s the defiance against the British rule grew. The moral victory of the people of Prayag over the British was symbolically reflected in the flags of the religious community and the Akharas. The sentiment to gain freedom from the British rule attracted more Indians to this annual religious event. The religious focus assumed a blend of social and political forms. “It is not difficult to divine, from the scowls and mutterings of men as Europeans pass by,” writes an English journalist covering the mela in 1860, “what they would do if they dared.” – They surely couldn’t do much at that time, but this was a beginning of a thought process. It was then when the people of Allahabad formed an association and registered it with the British Government. The association ensured the residents of the city the freedom to follow their faith and perform associated religious rituals without any interference. As a part of this formation every 12th Magh Mela was given the name of Kumbh Mela. This exercise was, in a way, a successful attempt to counter the British rule and some unacceptable regulations laid by the British. In 1868, the phrase ‘Kumbh Mela’ was first mentioned in writing by the then Deputy Commissioner G.H.M. Ricketts in his administrative report, while before that there seems to be no mention of this name in any records and it was only referred as ‘Magh Mela’ or so a part of research suggests. Delving into the mind-set of the British administrators, they might have felt relieved upon knowing that this annual fair in Allahabad that used to put most of the government machinery to work every year, would now be a big affair only once in twelve years. While rest of the years it may not draw that large a crowd.

In 1858, it was in Allahabad that Earl Canning read the proclamation of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, transferring the reigns of India from East India Company to the British Crown. It was this one day that Allahabad became the capital of India. Then In 1877, Allahabad was declared the capital of United Provinces of Agra & Awadh, remaining so through 1920. It was after the uprising of 1857, in later part of 1858 that British really wanted to regain the lost trust of Indians and then Kumbh became one such mega event to garner the support.

If we read and analyse the account of Hsiuan Tsang (also known as Xuanzang and sometimes spelt as ‘Hsuan Tsang’), the great Chinese traveller who visited Prayag in 643 CE mentions about a fair that was held there, without mentioning its name as, ‘Kumbh’. In fact he goes on further to state, that Emperor Harsha organised it and that it was an event around Lord Buddha.

Chaitanya, a Bengali mystic had visited this fair in Allahabad and translations of his work would read ‘Kumbh’, though if one examines the original Bengali text, it becomes evident that Chaitanya visited Magh Mela and it was not referred as ‘Kumbh Mela’ distorted later in the edited versions of his work.

Fanny Parkes’ who visited Allahabad in 1830, does not refer to the fair as ‘Kumbh’. She has referred it as a ‘mela’. Later, her work when edited explains ‘mela’ as ‘Kumbh’. Not wrong though, as editor wanted to make readers relate to it more closely and understand it better.     

‘Ardh Kumbh’ for example, just lost its prefix ‘Ardh’ (meaning half) in 2019, as now it is being projected as being at par with the ‘Maha Kumbh’, if not bigger. Maha Kumbh happens every twelve years, while the last Maha Kumbh happened in 2013, technically this 2019 is the ‘Ardh Kumbh’, occurring at six year interval. Thanks to the Chief Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, who himself is a Mahant (head-priest) and follows Shivaism. Yogi Adityanath conceptualised the renaming of ‘Ardh Kumbh’ to ‘Kumbh’ thereby giving it a larger form, similar to the main ‘Kumbh’ after being elected to power in the state. – This is how events evolve with time, names change and magnitudes enlarge with the change of political guards.

Today, the elected governments of free India and the state of Uttar Pradesh do just that, making Kumbh an event to garner trust of voters and boast about how successfully they manage this mega show after its over, and of course if managed well. In 2013 it attracted 120 million visitors and this mega event finds mention in UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Many events, especially those related to faith are better left unexplained. How intelligently and keeping in line with sentiments Jawahar Lal Nehru in his book ‘Discovery of India writes about the origin of Kumbh : “lost in an unknown antiquity”.      




Check out Tornos’ Experiences at Kumbh-2019.



Credits : On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India, Discovery of India, Kama Maclean, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, London's India Office Library, State Archives, Gazetteers 


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