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Pilgrimage and PowerThe Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765-1954$

Kama Maclean

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195338942

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195338942.001.0001

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(p.225) Appendix

(p.225) Appendix

Pilgrimage and Power
Oxford University Press

Following is a brief overview of the most important features of melas in Allahabad for readers unfamiliar with the festival, its participants, and its rituals. The Kumbh Mela is in fact a series of festivals that rotate between the holy cities of Haridwar, Ujjain, Nasik, and Allahabad (Prayag); the festival visits each of these cities on a cyclic basis, over a twelve‐year period. Of all of the Kumbh Melas, Allahabad's is the biggest today, followed by Haridwar's (the other two, held in wet and hot seasons, respectively, and are smaller gatherings). There is no one way of observing the Kumbh Mela—indeed, its attraction is that it draws a vast range of interpretations and practices that might be accommodated under the broad religious observances that are today designated as Hindu. Despite the diversity of devotion at the mela, there is a loose structure of events, pujas (devotions), discourses, happenings, and snans (bathing) that together define the event.

The Triveni Sangam

Allahabad is known among the faithful as Tirtharaj, the king of all pilgrimage places, where the Ganga, Yamuna, and the Saraswati rivers converge to form the triveni sangam (literally, the intertwining braid of three). Bathing in the confluence of these rivers is thought to cleanse one of all sins; as such, bathing is the core religious activity for pilgrims coming to Allahabad. At the triveni, the Yamuna river is subsumed by the Ganga, which continues to flow to the ocean in Bengal. A third river, the Saraswati, is variously described as “mythical,” invisible (adrishya), or underground; although the Saraswati appears on no map, she is believed by worshippers to meet the other two at the confluence (see the deification of the three rivers in figure 3.1). Bathing at the triveni is an ancient practice that is believed to deliver various (p.226) rewards, such as the attainment of heaven, freedom from all sins, immortality, and the benefits of performing the complex ashvamedha and rajasuya sacrifices together. Bathing at the triveni is recommended in the Rgveda, Mahabharata, Skandapurana, Padmapurana, Matsyapurana, and several other texts, including the relatively recent Kumbhaparva Mahatmya.1 The fruits of bathing in the sangam are magnified on the occasions of a Kumbh or Ardh Kumbh, when amrit, or the nectar of immortality, is believed to be present in the waters. Pilgrims visit Allahabad throughout the year, but the month of Magh (which generally corresponds to January–February) is considered especially auspicious. Magh snan is not particular to Allahabad, and bathing in any holy river on Makar Sankranti (January 14) is valued in Hindu practices across a number of regions.2 An annual festival in Allahabad every year, known as the Magh Mela, attracts smaller crowds than the Kumbhs; devotional activities are run on a correspondingly smaller scale, and the presence of holy men is generally lower as well, as they tend to favor Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh melas.

Sadhu Akharas

Although not all sadhus attending the Kumbh Melas are formally affiliated with an akhara, the Kumbh festivals are a veritable institution for those who are. During Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh Melas, a number of sadhu akharas (groupings of sadhus) attend and reside in camps set up at the mela grounds (see figure 4.2). Here, various akharas will conduct initiations, yagnas, convene important meetings, perform impressive yogic feats, smoke ganja, meditate, and provide pilgrims with pravachans (lectures), darshan, and so on. Today, as historically important players in the convening and conduct of Kumbh melas, the akharas command and receive enormous respect from pilgrims, mela administrators, and others. There are six particularly auspicious bathing days during the Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh festivals, and on three of these days (Makar Sankranti, Mauni Amavasya, and Basant Panchami) the akharas are permitted by tradition to carry out shahi snans (royal bathing), in which they proceed amidst great pomp to the sangam to bathe. This is a great attraction and spectacle for pilgrims.

To speak of “the akharas” as a group assumes a unity that is not necessarily experienced between these ascetic organizations. At one level, the Dasanami (or ten‐named) akharas that attend the Kumbh melas are related, in that they all share a tradition of asceticism that hearkens back to Shankaracharya, a common mantra, a common core of fifty‐two founder‐sannyasins, and they all claim to uphold dharma‐raksha (protection of the faith).3 Perhaps the most frequent distinction made between akharas is “sectarian” (to borrow a Christian concept), distinguishing between Shaivite Gosains, Vaishnavite Bairagis, and Sikh Udasis. The deep and ongoing animosities between and also within the akharas find most frequent expression at the Kumbh Melas, in which the honor of entering the holy waters first is an index of an akhara's power, honor, and influence.4

There are thirteen sadhu akharas that formally attend the Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh Melas:

  1. Shaivite Akharas (seven): Mahanirvani, Atal, Niranjani, Anand, Juna, Avahan, and Agni;

  2. (p.227)
  3. Bairagi Akharas (three): Nirvani, Digambar, and Nirmohi;

  4. Sikh Akharas (three): Udasins of the Bara and Chota Panchayati Akhara, and Nirmal Akhara.5

In an attempt to mitigate dangerous sadhu rivalries in the late nineteenth century, the British tried to fix a static order of precedence for bathing at Kumbh Melas. One of the problems with the British system of freezing the order of bathing was that it did not anticipate fluctuations in akhara dynamics, and as a result it has been challenged and slightly modified several times. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, the Juna Akhara were counted as a “sub‐sect of the Niranjanis,” and at Allahabad melas bathed third, behind the Mahanirvanis and Niranjani Akharas.6 By 1918, a mela official noted that the Junas had increased in numbers as the Niranjani's numbers decreased; as a result of this, the Juna akhara was loath to follow the Niranjani at thirty paces, as was mandated, but instead loitered behind so far as to constitute a separate procession.7 Today, the Juna claim second bathing space in Allahabad (but first in Haridwar—the order is different for each Kumbh city).

While there are thirteen akharas who have been allowed to form shahi snans at Kumbh and Ardh Kumbhs, only six actual processions are allowed.8 For the Shaivite Akharas, this means that the smaller akharas are required to march behind one of the larger or more dominant ones; thus, the Atal join the Mahanirvanis, the Anand join the Niranjani Akhara, the Juna Akhara are followed by the Avahan and Agni. The Bairagis in theory were delegated the honor of marching together, which, records reveal, they have consistently objected to since the late nineteenth century, their preference being to create separate processions like the Shaivites. “None of the akharas give trouble except Bairagis,” noted an official in 1906. “The Nirbani Bairagis and the Digambar Bairagis are extremely jealous of each other, and the Nirmohis side with the Digambars.”9 On Basant Panchami in 1906, he continued, a fight broke out between the Bairagis, “but the Joint Magistrate, the District Superintendent of Police, the two Military Officers, and myself were present, swords were drawn by the cavalry, and the opposing forces of Bairagis rapidly retreated to their quarters, nine of the ringleaders being arrested who were subsequently tried and punished for rioting.”10 After this incident, the order of the Bairagi subsects was rotated so that each might enjoy precedence on one of the three shahi snans in Allahabad.

To give an idea of what these processions entailed, I quote an excerpt from the 1900 Ardh Kumbh Mela report, written by the British magistrate of Allabahad, who oversaw the arrangements. It was a comparatively small mela in 1900, an Ardh Kumbh the British had attempted to minimize due to fears of plague. This would have affected the number of sadhus who attended, as the government imposed various limits on travel and ease of movement, including “segregation of peoples coming from infected areas,” along with mandatory vaccinations, which generally served as disincentives to attend pilgrimage.11

The processions were made up as follows:

  1. I.Nirbani Akhara—the procession was led by eleven elephants bearing the banners of the akhara and musicians. Behind came 100 Nagas or (p.228) naked faqirs and about 100 other faqirs marching in double file. There were three or four palkis, containing the mahants and nishans or religious emblems.

  2. II. The second procession consisted of the Niranjani and Juna Akharas. The Niranjanis had about 8 horsemen, 3 elephants, and a couple of camels. There were about 60 Nagas. The Juna Akhara were inclined to lag behind the Niranjanis. The custom is that they should proceed close behind the Niranjanis. On the first day they loitered so much that they were practically two processions. On the other days this was avoided by putting a second officer to look after the Junas and see that they kept up.

  3. III. The Third procession, the Bairagis. These had no elephants, camels or horses. The banners of their three associations, Nirbani, Digambari, and Nirmohi—were carried on foot. There were about 500 Bairagis only. There are said to have been about 10 000 of them in former years, but, from talking to the men themselves and from seeing how greatly the native officials over‐estimated the numbers in crowds which I had myself counted, I suspect that this was an exaggeration.

  4. IV. The Chhota Panchaiti Akhara consisted of 13 elephants, a few horsemen, about 50 musicians and silver wand carriers, 240 faqirs and a couple of palkis.

  5. V. The Bara Panchaiti Akhara consisted of 13 elephants, with 96 musicians and attendants, 354 faqirs, and 22 disciples, and a couple of palkis with the mahant and the nishans.

  6. VI. The last procession, that of the Sikhs, was the smallest. There were 5 to 11 elephants on the different days, and about 100 faqirs with two palkis for the mahant and their granth.12

Pilgrims and Prayagwals

Pilgrims who bathe in the sangam generally rely on the services of the Prayagwals, the caste of river pandits who oversee the various rituals performed at the site. Many pilgrims have long‐standing relationships with the Prayagwals, established generations earlier, as attested by inscriptions in the Prayagwals' record books (bahis); pilgrims will look for their Prayagwal's distinctive flag as soon as they arrive on the site. Because long‐distance pilgrimage is to an extent an upwardly mobile activity, when pilgrims unconnected with a panda arrive, they may be matched to a Prayagwal through the agency of a tout or a boatman.

Pilgrims might be drawn to Allahabad for a range of reasons—to complete a vow, to perform a particular puja at the triveni, to scatter the ashes of a departed relative with due ceremony, or to attend an auspicious mela such as Magh or Kumbh. In any of these cases, the services of a Prayagwal are indispensable. Ceremonies performed by them at the triveni include shrad (worship and honor of ancestors), asthi visarjan (immersion of ashes), and benidan (giving to the triveni hallowed items such as flowers, milk, sindur). Pilgrims, particularly male pilgrims, may elect to have their heads shaved (mundan) (p.229) before these ceremonies, and barbers ready to perform these duties are stationed nearby. “A pilgrim to the Kumbh Magh mela has not carried out the essentials of his pilgrimage,” noted a British mela manager, “until he has been shaved, bathed at the Sangam, and visited the three temples of the Achaibat in the Fort, Beni Madho in Daraganj, and Bharatdwaj in Colonelganj.”13

Pilgrims generally vow to take up a simple lifestyle while on pilgrimage—they may fast, choose to eat only once a day, or abstain from elaborate meals, preferring only basic foodstuffs—those not already vegetarian abstain from meat, fish, and eggs while on pilgrimage. Thus the mela area is considered to be a strictly vegetarian zone (plans to incorporate a zoo into the mela carnival area in the 1960s were abandoned when it was realized that some of the animals would need to be fed meat). This pattern of fasting may be broken by feasting, particularly for sadhus and Brahmans, as it is a long‐standing tradition to feed these people as an act of piety.

Pilgrims may choose to stay for the entire month of Magh, living an austere but spiritually rewarding existence of fasting, bathing, performing pujas, and attending religious discourses—such pilgrims are known as Kalpavasis. This form of observance is less common today for a number of reasons. Despite its simplicity, it is expensive to embark on and requires a longer commitment, which many people who are dependent on the land or on daily labor incomes are unable to make. It was a form of religious observance that was best suited to days when travel to pilgrim sites was difficult, slow, and dangerous. Traditionally, the devout walked to places of pilgrimage, often with bare feet, as was enjoined in various texts, such as Tristhalisetu. Although this still happens today, pilgrims attending melas are much more likely to choose pragmatic forms of travel, commuting by rail or road (in trucks or tractors), arriving in Allahabad the day before a significant bathing day, and leaving promptly thereafter. During a Kumbh or Ardh Kumbh festival, the length of visit may be minimized by the prohibitive costs of staying at the mela area. Though governments provide as well as they can for pilgrims, demand is high, and food hawkers set their prices accordingly. The cold winter weather of January can be extreme (six pilgrims died overnight from hypothermia at the Ardh Kumbh in 2007), and standard pilgrim lodgings range from canopies, which people huddle beneath, to warmer straw‐floored tents.14 On the other hand, for those able to pay, or for prominent religious establishments or indeed, organizations such as the Allahabad Law Association, the camps can be lavish, the tents warm and thoughtfully designed with flush toilets, lawns, and manicured gardens.

While the above comments may help to lend context to the book's narrative, readers may find it useful to watch a documentary of the mela to get a better idea of its contemporary scale and nature. Although the emphases of such documentaries tend to suffer from the representational tendencies critiqued in chapter 1, the reader may still find it useful to view footage of the shahi snans.15 I also recommend (and was consulted during the making of) the 2007 National Geographic film documentary of the Ardh Kumbh in Allahabad, directed by Karina Holden, Inside Nirvana. (p.230)


(1.)  Precise details may be found in D. P. Dubey, “Significance of Ritual Bath at Prayaga,” Purana 33, no. 1 (January 1991): pp. 80–82.

(2.)  Interestingly, Makar Sankranti coincides with the festival of Pongol in the south and Lohri in the Punjab. It tends to mark the peak in the north Indian winter.

(3.)  Taran Ramrakha, “The Kumbh Mela and Dasanam Naga Sannyasins,” paper presented at Power, Politics, Pilgrimage: The Kumbh Mela, La Trobe University, July 4, 2002, p. 2.

(4.)  Akharas also come into conflict over real estate—particularly custodianship of temples in holy cities—and political patronage. In 1998, for example, one source of tension between was that different akharas supported different candidates for the position of Jyotirmath Shankaracharya. T. C. Ramrakha, “Dwaj‐dhari: flag bearers (Of Righteousness): Indian Asceticism and Hindu Nationalism in Contemporary India,” Ph.D. diss., University of Sydney, 2001, p. 102.

(5.)  J. N. Dvivedi, Kumbh Mela Prashasanik Report (Prayag: Government Press, 1989), pp. 65–66.

(6.)  A. B. Patterson, “Magh (Kumbh) Mela Report 1882”, Proceedings of the Government of the North‐Western Provinces and Oudh, Judicial Department, ARA, List 43, Basta 74, File 81, Serial 18, pp. 15–16.

(7.)  Letter from W. Gaskell, District Magistrate, Allahabad, dated May 20, 1918, to Commissioner of Allahabad Division, “Kumbh Mela at Allahabad 1918,” United Provinces Proceedings, General Administration Department, UPSA, File 401/1917 [sic], Box 143.

(8.)  Attempts of other monastic orders to create a seventh procession were consistently denied by the British. For example, in 1894 “the Gurudwaj Sikhs from Faizabad attempted to be allowed to form a seventh procession but permission was (p.307) refused.” Letter from P. Gray, dated May 10, 1894, in Kumbh Mela report, 1894, Misc (General) Proceedings, OIOC, P/4296, p. 83.

(9.)  H. V. Lovett, Magistrate of Allahabad, to Commissioner, Allahabad Division, “Report on the Allahabad Magh Mela (Kumbh) of 1906,” UPSA, Box 170, General Administration Department, no. 153/1906, p. 15.

(10.)  Ibid., p. 17.

(11.)  Letter from E. B. Alexander, dated June 14, 1900, in Magh Mela (Ardh Kumbh) Report, proceedings of the Government of United Provinces in the Miscellaneous Department, OIOC, P/5821, p. 1.

(12.)  Letter from H. C. Ferard, Magistrate of Allahabad, dated June 4, 1900, 1900 Magh Mela (Ardh Kumbh) Report, proceedings of the Government of United Provinces in the Miscellaneous Department, OIOC, P/5821, pp. 8–9.

(13.)  Lovett to Commissioner, p. 18.

(14.)   Allahabad Times, January 8, 2007. Thanks to Karina Holden for this reference.

(15.)  A three‐minute trailer may be viewed online at http://melafilms.com/pages/trailer_qt6.