It is widely believed that the Allahabad Kumbh Mela is an ancient religious festival or that it is “ageless”, that its roots lie obscured in time immemorial. Editorials and articles in the press at mela time (every twelve years) lyrically emphasize the continuity of the pilgrimage throughout India's past, find inspiration in its durability and changeless character, and marvel at the anachronism of an ancient festival thriving in the modern world (“The Kumbh Mela”, Pioneer, 17 February 1918; “Editorial”, Leader, 16 January 1942; “Pilgrim's Process”, Times of India, 24 January 2001). There is no better example of this than the oft-quoted section of Jawaharlal Nehru's will and testament, in which the avowedly secular modernist explains his desire to have a portion of his ashes scattered at the triveni sangam, the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers and the site of the Kumbh in Allahabad:
I have been attached to the Ganga and the Jumna rivers ever since my childhood and, as I have grown older, this attachment has also grown. The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people. … She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga. … And though I have discarded much of past tradition and custom, and am anxious that India should rid herself of all shackles that bind and constrain her and divide her people, and suppress vast numbers of them, and prevent the free development of the body and the spirit; though I seek all this, yet I do not wish to cut myself off from that past completely. I am proud of that great inheritance that it has been, and is, ours, and I am conscious that I too, like all of us, am a link in that unbroken chain which goes back to the dawn of history in the immemorial past of India. That chain I would not break, for I treasure it and seek inspiration from it.
Kama Maclean ([email protected]) is Lecturer in the School of History at the University of New South Wales.