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Seeing, being seen, and not being seen: pilgrimage, tourism, and layers of looking at the Kumbh Mela.


The black and white photograph is of a group of peasant women, wrapped in coarse woolen shawls against the January cold. (1) They look at the camera blankly--or is that with hostility at the camera's intrusion? Deliberately drained of color, the image seems as though it could have been taken a century ago. One woman, the central figure, is wearing dark sunglasses, and has been no doubt chosen as a focal point because her middle-class accessory stands out as the image's only signpost to modernity. The photograph, "Kumbh Mela Women," was taken at the Allahabad Kumbh Mela in 2001. It is copyrighted. It is "collectable," and apparently, a wise addition to an investment portfolio. (2) It is also an example of how images of the traditional (often synonymous with "the religious") have become desired, frame-able objects, fine art mementos to our own modular, more complete modernity. It was images such as this (and this is a comparatively benign example) that raised a long-standing issue for managers of the Kumbh Mela in 2001: did photographers have a right to enter the mela grounds and take photographs as they pleased? How did the presence of international media crews affect the festival, and the ways in which people perform their rituals? Many sensational photographs were reproduced around the world of the festival (usually featuring spectacularly naked holy men, or women bathing, struggling to conceal their bodies with their wet saris), prompting questions about who had the right to attend, photograph, and represent the event.

The Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela is a series of festivals that rotate between the Indian holy cities of Haridwar, Ujjain, Nasik, and Allahabad (Prayag); the festival occurs in 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, and as such is the focus of this article. Allahabad is known among Hindu 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). (3) 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. Bathing at the triveni is an ancient practice that is believed to deliver various rewards, including freedom from all sins. (4) The junction of the two rivers makes a stunning landscape, as noted by Tulsidas in the sixteenth century: "Beautiful is the meeting of the white and the dark (rivers of the Ganga and Yamuna). Tulsi's heart leaps with joy at the sight of the waves." (5)

While the triveni is considered auspicious all year round, it is more so on the occasions of a Kumbh or Ardh Kumbh, when amrit, or the nectar of immortality, is believed to be present in the waters. On these occasions, every twelve and six intervening years, respectively, large crowds are attracted to the sangam, of ordinary pilgrims as well as of bands (akharas) of holy men (sadhus). The Guinness Book of Records credits the Kumbh as being "the greatest recorded number of people assembled with a common purpose," with an estimated twenty million pilgrims present in Allahabad on January 30, 2001. (6) The influx of record-breaking crowds naturally creates a lot of media interest, although the emphasis is rarely on the spectacular arrangements made by the mela authorities to manage the festival as safely as possible.

The 2001 Kumbh Mela was widely lauded in the Indian press as the "first Kumbh Mela of the Millenium." This temporal theme--of the mela, as a traditional (and many believe, ancient), religious observance triumphantly surviving into the modern age--was one that was also celebrated in the international press, although there it took on very different connotations. In my own country of Australia, the Kumbh Mela occupied front-page space as a human interest story, where color photographs were reproduced of pilgrims and holy men bathing. The public consuming this news was one that believed that the world was gradually becoming more secular as modernity continued to advance (9/11 had yet to force a reconsideration of the popularly accepted thesis that societies necessarily secularize as they modernize). By contrast, here was India, still mired in rituals, carried out regardless of the degree of inconvenience to the pious. The average Australian was unable to relate to the deep religiosity that drew record-breaking numbers to the sangam, early on a cold January morning, to bathe in water described as "unfit for humans." (7) The media fixation on levels of undress at the Kumbh triggered Eurocentric conceptions of civilization and propriety, and appealed to a prurient sensibility. (8)

Travelers have long been attracted to the Kumbh Mela to observe and enjoy the unique congregation of people before them, (9) and the presence of the media at the mela can be seen as an extension of this. John Urry argues that media technologies enable a "time-space compression," allowing for "virtual travel through the internet, imaginative travel through phone, radio and TV." (10) This allows for pleasurable travel experiences to be mediated without exposure to the hazards and expense normally involved in international travel. This is pertinent for an event like the Kumbh Mela, where prospective tourists are warned that they risk exposure to "malaria, Giardia, tuberculosis, food poisoning, water contamination, Being trampled by Naked Sadhus, hepatitis, typhoid, rabies, Japanese encephalitis and plague," (11) simply by turning up. While hazardous travel is styled among some travel subcultures as valiant, this remains an impressive and not entirely exaggerated list of perils to face. Among pilgrims, the difficulty of the journey is believed to be rewarded with an equivalent portion of spiritual reward, but the risk-averse traveler may find compensation less quantifiable, however exciting the experience. Thus, the presence of the media at the mela largely operates to facilitate a tourist gaze, telescoping events at the Kumbh and feeding them to various markets. Not all media coverage of the mela is necessarily objectionable--media technologies can indeed enhance the pilgrimage experience, enable iconography and worship, (12) and foster understanding and remembrance of the event--however, the extension of the tourist gaze at the mela has been seen largely as an unwelcome phenomenon. (13)

Mass-mediated photographic representations (often reproduced without sufficient explanation, or even any enlightening captions) allow for the Kumbh Mela to be interpreted as a quaint religious observance, performed by unmodern, superstitious, and irrational Indians. Ultimately, this serves only to reinforce global relationships of cultural dominance, which is entertaining and gratifying to a Western audience. (14) But the question must be asked: how does the ubiquitous presence of photographers affect the religious observances of the faithful? (15) This became a major issue in 2001, as press photographers transgressed the passes which demarcated the limits that they were allowed to photograph in, walking among the bathing crowds, zooming in on and/or confronting them, mid-ablution, with their lenses. This raised several issues regarding not just the misrepresentation of the Kumbh Mela as an anachronistic, exotic festival, but also of the honor of pious women (who go to the sangam to perform a religious ritual, and are in the process beamed across the world in their wet saris), and the correct performance of ritual (photographers entered the hallowed waters before sadhu akharas, in order to get the best possible shots, in defiance of custom that allows the holy men precedence in bathing). Given the relative rarity of a Kumbh Mela, the eagerness on the part of those performing the rituals to do so properly is great, although this is matched by the media's determination to capture the event.


And yet the issue is not as straightforward as it seems. The Kumbh Mela is rightly billed as "the Greatest Show on Earth," (16) not just for its sheer numbers but for the unique assemblage of people and events. The performance of sadhus at the Kumbh Mela is done explicitly for an audience. Pilgrims attend the Kumbh to see and experience both religious and secular aspects (cumulatively known as tamasha or spectacle) of the event. Respectful visual exchange, or darshan, is an integral part of the Kumbh Mela, although this is very different from the journalistic gaze that was in evidence at the mela in 2001. However, compartmentalizing darshan and gaze is not straightforward. Below, I draw out some of the complexities and "layers of looking" at the Kumbh Mela in order to contextualize the nature of audience and performance.

Very broadly speaking, there are two main participants at the Kumbh Mela: Sadhus (Hindu holy men) and pilgrims. (17) Pilgrims attend the Kumbh Mela to bathe in the holy sangam, to perform religious rituals, and also to see (take darshan) and perhaps associate (satsang) with holy men and gurus. Sadhus are renunciates; at the time of their initiation, they are declared socially dead to their kin, and are disassociated from their former life. Throughout their yogic practices, they continue to articulate their realization that life is transitory. Smearing their bodies with sacred ash (vibhuti) is a reminder that the body will, in the passage of time, become ash. Displays of indifference to pain--lying on thorns, wearing spiked shoes, enduring extremes of heat and cold, performing incredible feats of penile strength, or otherwise deforming the body (all of which can be seen at the Kumbh)--proclaim their transcendence from bodily sensations. Sadhus are, as a result of these life-denying austerities, inherently powerful beings, capable of bestowing blessings on the pilgrims who seek their audience. Such holy men are all at once mesmerizing and intimidating, enchanting and awesome; their inherent shakti (power) connoted in the term (often derisively used in the English media) "Godmen." Such a term is frequently used to indicate that not all holy men are as detached from the world as they seem, although there are genuine renunciates to be found.

Kumbh festivals are a veritable institution for sadhus, a time when they emerge from ashrams, or leave their peregrinations and congregate. During Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh Melas, a number of sadhu akharas (groupings, or sects, of sadhus) reside in camps set up at the mela grounds for approximately six weeks. Here, they conduct initiations, ceremonies, convene important meetings among themselves, perform impressive yogic feats, smoke ganja, meditate, and provide pilgrims with pravachans (lectures), opportunities for 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 and mela managers. There are six particularly auspicious bathing days during the Kumbh and Ardh Kumbh festivals, and on three of these days the akharas by tradition carry out shahi snans (royal bathing), in which they proceed amid great pomp to the sangam to bathe. This is a great attraction and spectacle for pilgrims. The Mela Authority in Allahabad estimated that in 2001, some 180,000 sadhus attended the Kumbh Mela.

Sadhus style themselves as "kings of the mela." It is difficult to appreciate the importance of this, and of their processions (see above), without an understanding of the sadhus' historical role in society. Historically sadhus were powerful players in Indian society, their spiritual powers augmented greatly by worldly ones. For sadhus doubled as traders, carrying small but valuable wares with them as they traveled along pilgrimage routes around the subcontinent. (18) In addition to this, sadhus were known to be fierce warriors, a skill they probably picked up as a means of protecting their trade, and they frequently found work as mercenaries. (19) With the arrival of the East India Company, the sadhus' specialization in the areas of trade and defense (occupations amply covered by the East India Company itself) was seen as a threat, and through a range of measures, including warfare, (20) the British sought to limit the power and influence that the sadhus enjoyed. (21) As sadhus were increasingly reduced to begging, they came to be construed as vagrants by government, who could not "countenance recalcitrant sadhus wandering about the countryside, armed, dangerous, often naked, and claiming to represent an alternate locus of authority." (22) The sadhus' militant identity was relegated to a ceremonial one, which only found expression in religious arenas such as the Kumbh Melas, where one can still see remnants of their militant past today. Sadhus have maintained their primary role at Kumbh Mela festivals, as one of the remaining arenas in which their former glorious past is celebrated. As a result, the various sadhu akharas jealously guard the rituals and privileges that they enjoy at Kumbh Mela festivals.

As a pilgrimage fair, held in an expansive, open space, the Kumbh Mela has historically attracted pilgrims from a range of castes. There is little historical evidence to suggest that social exclusion, of the kind famously practiced by many temples, (23) was practiced at the mela. (24) This level of openness has allowed for the presence of onlookers, from colonial administrators, Protestant missionaries, Mughal travelers, to tourists.

Being seen

Sadhus attend Kumbh Melas partly to make themselves available to the broader Hindu public, to allow them to take "darshan," to reverentially see but also perhaps respectfully interact with them, to seek instruction or advice in their spiritual lives. The implication of darshan is that the glimpse of the object is a powerful thing, and therefore "beholding" the revered is a religious experience in itself. Lawrence Babb argues that darshan is essentially a visual exchange, where "visual interaction between deity and worshiper establishes a special sort of intimacy between them, which confers benefits by allowing worshipers to 'drink' divine power with their eyes, a power that carries with it--at least potentially--an extraordinary and revelatory 'point of view'." (25) Darshan can be "potentially beneficent [for the devotee], but can also be also destructive," if the worshiped is displeased or offended by what is seen. (26)

Given the importance of darshan to the mela experience, the camps at the Kumbh Mela are arranged in such a way to allow public access. In addition to the thirteen akharas who are formally recognized by the mela authorities, there is a range of other popular gurus and organizations who are allocated camps in the mela grounds, and who also extend darshan to pilgrims. All of these groups compete for recognition with impressive tents, which in the evenings boast impressive electrical light shows, plays, bhajans (devotional songs), and discourses. The manner in which the sadhus are seen is usually carefully managed, particularly by the sadhu's akhara or followers. It is unwise to take a sadhu's photograph without his permission, and it is proper to leave a token of respect (generally monetary) at his feet; I have seen photographers shouted at and chased away for taking liberties or being disrespectful, and I have seen sadhus consent to being photographed. In 2007, at the Ardh Kumbh, I requested permission from a sadhu in the Juna Akhara camp to take his photograph; this was gracefully assented to. Immediately after I took the photograph, I was shooed away by the sadhu's indignant associates (the resulting image is below). Some akharas, most notably the Juna, have become incredibly media savvy, and negotiate exclusive rights with photographers and media teams. (27) Sadhus appear to be aware of the currency that their photograph represents to freelance photographers and journalists, (28) and they justly put a price on this. Darshan as an interaction has also morphed beyond the traditional forums of exchange and is frequently mediated through photography (in "photo-iconography"), television, cinema, and the Internet (29) (see Figure 1).


In addition to receiving pilgrims in their camps, sadhu akharas can be witnessed in splendid formal processions en route to their shahi snans (royal bathing), adorned with garlands, bearing ceremonial weapons and accompanied by all manner of regalia. For the holy men, being seen in these formations is important, for the assembled audience dignifies and adds meaning to their performances. Historically, the different akharas have been highly competitive (to the point of warfare, as records from Kumbh Melas in Haridwar in the late 1700s show), (30) and while today hostility still exists between akharas, actual conflict is largely avoided, partially as a result of British intervention in the late-nineteenth century, which codified and set in stone the manner in which processions could be conducted. The shahi snans are meticulously planned by the mela authorities, whose task it is to see that the processions are managed safely and with minimal conflict (31) (see Figure 2).


Tensions between the akharas continue to find manifestation at Kumbh Melas in disputes over the manner in which processions are carried out, the relative grandness of each procession, the forms of costuming that may be used, the number of signs which might be carried and so on. Since the late-nineteenth century, as a means of managing conflict between akharas, the British codified the order of precedence of each of the monastic orders, in which the most powerful and influential akhara was given the right to enter the waters first. (32) Another historically contentious issue is the practice established by some akharas of parading naked (naga) at the mela. This was a point of dispute among not only the British, but also the sadhu akharas themselves. The British, in the interests of imposing a form of "public decency," had banned public nudity in 1840, but nudity within the religious arenas remained a gray area, due to a British consensus that to interfere too much in religious practices was liable to excite disaffection. (33) In Allahabad, there were several wistful attempts, usually articulated by British newspaper editors or missionaries, to eliminate naked processions, but these petitions were not taken seriously by administrators who were more interested in managing the mela with reference to good sanitation and crowd control.

Nakedness within Hindu ascetism is considered to connote a high form of detachment from the material world; thus nudity (known as digambar, "wearing the sky" in some monastic traditions) has become an important marker of achievement, and by extension, status. The right to be naga (naked) within ceremonial contexts has historically been jealously guarded by certain akharas. In 1861 and 1872, a fight erupted at a mela in Nasik when Nirmali sadhus, in imitation of a rival sect, stripped and attempted to walk naked in procession to the Godaveri. The Nirmalis were challenged by their rivals and by British managers of the mela interested in keeping the peace. (34)

In 1954, during the first Kumbh Mela to be held in Allahabad after independence, inadequate crowd control and poor planning led to an incident in which several hundred pilgrims died. (35) There were many causes and contributing factors, but the problem was compounded by large numbers of pilgrims who sat down to watch the processions of the nagas, creating massive congestion in an area in which space was at an absolute premium, on a day in which six million people were present. In the subsequent inquiry, it came to light that some of the naga akharas had inflated their numbers by paying men to join their naked processions, as a way of literally "stealing a March" on their competitors. (36) It was also found that some sadhus of one akhara had attacked a group of pilgrims who had crossed into their procession, causing the crowd to panic and flee, creating the conditions for the tragedy. (37) The official inquiry lamented the amount of capital placed on the naked processions by both pilgrims and akharas, and declared that they should henceforth be banned. (38) This, as were colonial attempts to clothe naga sadhus, was ultimately unenforceable, and thus naked holy men continue to be a feature of Kumbh Mela festivals, where they are followed with great interest by the media. The creation of a dedicated Mela Authority in Allahabad, and the generous funding of mela management initiatives has meant that there has been no major crowd mishap at an Allahabad Kumbh since 1954.

Naga sadhus were a major feature in media coverage of the Kumbh Mela in 2001. Rarely was there sufficient context or captions provided which might explain the cultural and historical meaning of being naga; media outlets across the world were mostly content to publish sensational images of naga sadhus, allowing for the nagas to be misinterpreted as bohemian, libertarian and erotic. The demand for such photography was such that every major press agency in the world was represented in the media camp and at the bathing ghats, in addition to innumerable freelance photographers. After the first major bathing day it became apparent to mela authorities and sadhu akharas alike that the media presence was a problem. (39) Not only was the media proving to be unregulatable in their frenzy to get the best possible photograph possible, but the manner in which the resultant photographs were representing the festival was also called into question. It soon became apparent to the akharas that much of the photography being taken was not dignifying. According to the mela organiser, Jiwesh Nandan, many sadhus began to strongly object to photographers after the widespread publication of a photograph of a sadhu using a mobile phone. (40) In Canada it was reproduced with the caption, "Hello, Vishnu?"; mockingly implying that the holy man had a direct line with the Maintainer of the Universe. (41) The media truly overstepped their welcome when a contingent of photographers, in their determination to get the best possible photograph, entered the waters before the holy men on Makar Sankranti, the first bathing day at the mela, which features a shahi snan procession (see Figure 3).


Objections about the nature of media representation was first raised in Britain, where Channel 4 was criticized by British Hindus who argued that their interpretation of the mela was skewed. A spokesman for Britain's National Council of Hindu Temples complained
 When I saw the documentary, it seemed as though Hinduism was all
 about smoking ganja. For 70 percent of the time, they're talking to
 sadhus who are smoking ganja and doing nothing else. The person who
 sees the footage will ask, "Is this what Hinduism is about?" I'm not
 saying that what they portrayed does not happen, but this is not
 normal, mainstream Hinduism. No one explained what the Mela is really
 about. (42)

Similarly, Francois Gautier, a journalist for La Figaro who had himself been covering the mela, censured his colleagues for replicating colonial stereotypes in their coverage:
 The western press was probably unconsciously and without ill intent
 reflecting the images of a colonial India: mysterious pagan rites,
 naked sadhus, teeming masses praying to an alien God. In many
 European countries, the Kumbha Mela is only worth thirty-second spots
 on television news, showing visuals of the mela. Will the cliches
 created by Herge and Kipling forever haunt India? (43)

Just as colonial discourses about "heathen beliefs" instilled a sense of shame in those who maintained them, such contemporary media representations of the festival threatens to distort the public piety at the Kumbh. Elements of the media were aware of this--the Times of India's daily poll asked its readers, "Has the media hype over the Kumbh Mela affected its religious significance?" (44)

Not being seen

There are trails of evidence which suggest that unwelcome attention at bathing ghats in the past have changed the way in which women in particular observe ritual bathing. According to an incredulous account from the 1830s by a British tourist, C.J.C. Davidson:
 It is one of the duties of the female devotees to bathe daily at the
 Ghat, before hundreds of men--stark naked! Shut up the book.
 Impossible! Yes, quite impossible, but perfectly true!--and, to tell
 the plain truth, (which I must as a traveler,) they seemed to be in
 no particular hurry in the ablutions, but rather seem to consume a
 good deal of time in looking round and smiling, ducking and diving,
 in as graceful attitudes as they could practise. (45)

Recent scholarship on public bathing at ghats suggests that concerns about female chastity while bathing in wet, clinging cloth, remained a public concern nearly a century later, (46) indicating that women had ceased the practice of bathing naked, most likely in response to the presence of mesmerized voyeurs such as Davidson. In the 1880s Constance Cumming observed how strange it was that many Indian women, when seen in public, would briskly draw a cloth over their heads and faces, but apparently had no reservation in bathing in sheer, clinging cloth at the mela's ghats. (47) It did not occur to Cumming that these devotions were deemed private, and were not intentioned for her gaze. It is understood by participants at bathing festivals that some things are to be seen, and some things are not to be seen; a cultural nuance that is observed in the breach by a number of onlookers, who deploy their cameras with as much salaciousness as C.J.C. Davidson did a pen in the 1830s. (48)

Objections to voyeuristic photography at the Kumbh Mela dates back to the early twentieth century. Mela managers were challenged with the issue in newspaper editorials such as this one, from 1918:
 Anglicised Indians, globe-trotting foreigners, missionary
 propagandists--these human butterflies were found flitting from scene
 to scene eagerly taking snapshots either to delight a drunken brood
 of fashion hunters, or to win a prize from a an illustrated magazine
 or to write a catch-penny "peep at the Indian land" with pictures of
 crude folks and grotesque manners. Prompt and adequate punishment
 should be meted out to those who take photographs of the bathing
 pilgrims at Tribeni. (49)

It was not until 1940 that a formal ban on photography at the ghats was legislated, in the United Provinces Melas Act in 1940, an Act remains in place today and indeed was invoked in 2001, after commissioner of Allahabad, Sada Kant, disparaged the media for taking "a lewd, titillating, and immoral view of the mela." (50) A Public Interest Litigation was submitted by a number of interest groups, including the akharas, demanding that the High Court limit the exposure of the Kumbh Mela crowds to the media. The Allahabad High Court responded quickly, banning the media from the bathing ghats, forcing camera crews and freelancers to stay within strictly prescribed limits on subsequent bathing days. (51) Denying open media access to the "greatest show on earth" led to a protest by photographers aligned with the National Union of Journalists, in the course of which some were injured by police. (52) Other photographers defied the ban, attempting to smuggle their cameras under their clothes, ignoring the censure of individuals in the crowd who objected to the lens being pointed at them. (53) On the biggest bathing day, January 24, sadhus from the Juna Akhara discovered four Western photojournalists at the ghat and "almost drowned them and smashed their expensive equipment." (54)

Tourism and spectacle at the Kumbh Mela

Above I have drawn attention to the way in which the Kumbh Mela is predominantly represented in the media, generally with scant explanation or contextualisation of the event, and presented in such a way that is entertaining and titillating to a western audience. This overly sober reading of the festival, however, neglects a major element of the Kumbh, which is known among the faithful as being a great tamasha (spectacle)--the mela's associated fair. While first and foremost the Kumbh Mela is today thought of as a religious event, in the early nineteenth century it was in fact much more diverse experience. The word "mela" translates as "festival"--Kumbh devotions have historically been augmented by the presence of a fair. (55) The easy juxtaposition of religious and leisure activities on the one site bemused a number of British observers, such as J. Talboys Wheeler in the 1860s, who was bewildered to note that a
 thousand and one non-descript scenes [...] meet the eye at a Hindoo
 fair; the jumbling up of the pilgrimages of the Middle Ages with the
 civilisation of the nineteenth century; the conjurers, jugglers,
 faqueers, women and children in countless numbers, the hundreds of
 vehicles, the endless stalls, idols and lucifer matches, books and
 sweetmeats, brass pots, gilt lamps, cedar pencils, toys, note paper,
 marbles, red powder, and waving flags. (56)

The implication here is that a Hindoo fair it is not simply (or "properly") religious. A late-nineteenth century movement sought to address critiques such as this. Aimed at controlling the character of the festival (and ultimately, its administration), a loose affiliation of local interest groups sought to make the mela a more strictly religious affair, protesting against elements which were deemed of questionable spiritual value. However, the mela element was well entrenched, and so there is mention of twentieth century melas hosting plays of Faust, wheels of fortune, displays of the great Indian Rope Trick, an impressive range of exhibitions, joy rides, fun parks, zoos, and displays of wax effigies intended to rival those of Madame Tussaud. (57) At recent melas, a favorite and recurrent attraction has been a daredevil and his "Wheel of Death," a sideshow involving a car driving around a small, purpose-built stadium at disconcertingly high speeds until it is perpendicular to the ground, at which point the driver makes a universal "look, no hands" gesture out of the car window; a feat which really has to be seen to be fully appreciated. Some tamashas have a quasi-religious value, such as exhibitions of "auspicious" five-legged cows which are mentioned in nineteenth century accounts of the mela, (58) and a joy ride at the 2007 Ardh Kumbh, "Ma Ganga Devi Yatra," which resembled a roller coaster, except the car moves at a more dignified pace up a construction representing Mount Kaliash, to the source of the Ganga, concluding not with a rush, but a darshan of Shiva and his divine consort Parvati.

Pleasure-oriented activities at the Kumbh Mela such as these blur the lines between religious pilgrimage and leisure. Mela managers in the 1940s, under pressure from conservative religious interests including the sadhu akharas, responded to this by positioning the non-religious elements on the fringes of the mela area, (59) where the attendant fair can still be found today. (60) It also clear that pilgrims have always incorporated an element of tourism into their religious journeys. Pilgrim guides written for the Allahabad-bound from the early twentieth century offer extensive religious and ritual advice, but also recommend tourist attractions such as the High Court, University, Mughal monuments, and Anand Bhavan, the home of the Congressman Motilal Nehru. (61) Today, Anand Bhavan stands as a museum to the Congress and its role in the independence movement and it admits considerable numbers of pilgrims during mela times. (62)

While Indian pilgrims seem to cross the boundary into tourism rather seamlessly, the transition from Indian tourist to pilgrim is perhaps not so fluid. The term pilgrim, in historical and contemporary usage, emerges as a word loaded with meaning; it connotes an innocent, even ignorant subject who defies all obstacles to perform a religious duty. It is not surprising that when questioned by researchers, many people, implicitly understanding the humble and somewhat subaltern currency of "pilgrim," define their purpose at any given pilgrimage site as "tourist." (63) Going to extraordinary lengths for the sake of religiosity is seen as an unmodern undertaking, leading to a disavowal of pilgrimage as a legitimate activity. And yet surges of wonder and epiphany have also been known to overtake the most secular of onlookers. (64)

Alternative tourism

Erik Cohen distinguishes between pilgrims and tourists, arguing that whereas pilgrims are consciously traveling toward the center of their conceptual universe in their place of pilgrimage, the goal of travelers is to move away from their center to find the Other. (65) In this scheduled confrontation with difference, it is thought that tourists come to "find themselves." (66) Foreign travelers over the centuries have found that the triveni was such a place where such difference could reliably be found, as a British newspaper in 1918 advised, "at the Kumbh Mela one sees persons often read about in books of "experiences" but much more rarely seen." (67) Below, however, I want to register that the distinctions between pilgrim and tourist are not always easy to discern, and that it is possible to experience an event like the Kumbh across both modalities. As Doron argues, "tourists' motivations and experiences, whether domestic or foreign, should not be conceived in binary terms, such as sacred and profane." (68)

In 2001, the mela administration encouraged tourism to the Kumbh Mela, advertising it in such a way to make it appeal to the alternative tourist:
 Who will like to miss this hallowed and rare occasion where amid the
 atmosphere pregnant with Vedic hymns, Mantras, chiming bells, incense
 and flower fragrance in the "city of huts and tents," a dip in the
 holy Sangam will certainly be an everlasting memory. The glory of the
 festival is in that feeling of brotherhood and love which lets
 millions live on the banks in harmony. (69)

Kumbh Mela is now broadly advertised in a number of tourist manuals, and is listed as one of the 100 Things to Do Before You Die, a guidebook of "must-have" experiences for serious adventurers and enthusiasts of the "unique and the off-beat." (70) The backpacker's bible, Lonely Planet, recommends that the intrepid traveler endeavor to hire a boat at the sangam "with Indians on pilgrimage" on board, so that their experience of the mela is as "authentic" as possible; there is no consideration of how this might impact the pilgrims, who in all likelihood have traveled long distances at great expense to perform their rituals. (71)

According to the Mela Authority in Allahabad, there has been a rise in recent years in the number of foreign tourists attending the mela with a religious sensibility, in 2001 the number of foreign tourists was estimated at 100,000. (72) For foreign travelers, taking on the subjectivity of a pilgrim involves an affirmative form of Orientalism, and a critique of their own society which they perceive as spiritless and materialistic. (73) While there is a sizable contingent of New Age and hippie-style travelers among this contingent, they distinguish themselves from tourists by their attempts to become involved in mela rituals. Some of these, it is true, also suffer from misconceptions, such as the young dreadlocked Mexican woman who, following the example of naga sadhus, threw off her clothes, smeared her body with mud from the river and was surprised to be arrested for indecent exposure. (74) A photograph of the incident shows that her performance was watched by the crowds with what appears to be a mixture of amazement, mirth, and scorn. (75) Her performance was later disparaged by the Commissioner of Allahabad as evidence of Westerners "defying Indian traditions with their lifestyles" which added to the chorus of complaint against open access to the ghats. (76)

It is clear that some of these modes of performance are not, try as they might, normative ones, as many Westerners attempt to align themselves with the behavior of the sadhu akharas, rather than mimicking pilgrim behavior. However, it is also evident from that some travelers are accepted by some sadhu akharas, and have arguably become accepted as legitimate contenders at the mela. Among Kumbh photographs published in the media in 2001 there was a virtual sub-genre featuring Westerners performing religious and social rituals, such as sharing a chillum with sadhus, worshipping alongside nagas, and wearing saris or matted dreadlocks, and so on. (77) Additionally, there are several genuine Western converts to Hinduism who have taken up the lives of sadhus, who habitually attend the Kumbh along with their respective akharas. (78) A Swedish woman, Uma Giri, has been initiated into the Juna Akhara, and has lived with them for the past thirty years. Uma has featured in several documentaries, suggesting that her nationality has transcended limits that her gender might normally impose. (79) In 2001, the Indian media in particular directed much attention toward Westerners in pilgrimage mode, from the silly to the very serious, implying that there is something appealing about this form of mimicry in reverse. (80)

To return to "Kumbh Mela Women," the photograph with which I began: While there is good reason to be concerned about the gaze of the disembodied photographer and the morphing of these (unconsenting?) women into collectable art, how might we read the stare of the women, in particular, the one on the left of the image, who glares at the stranger holding the camera? Hasn't the voyeur become a part of the spectacle? What did these women take away from the exchange between them and the photographer? We can't know the answer to this question. But it is important to bear in mind that "the existence of uneven power relations does not necessarily entail the subordination and passivity of the subaltern other." (81) During the 2001 Kumbh Mela, a popular discussion board hosted by the Kumbh Mela Project included a post by a foreign traveler who complained about a group of pilgrims who had gathered around him, staring incredulously and interminably at (he presumed) his black leather jacket. (82) This is an example of how pilgrims themselves--many are from villages and regions unfrequented by the tourist trade--are doing some gazing of their own, and in the process making as many assumptions about Western culture as foreign tourists are about India.

The very public nature of the sangam has historically allowed for the admission of outsiders, and it is not necessarily the case that these are unwelcome or intruding. There clearly are some objectionable ways of looking at and representing the mela. However, as long as the Kumbh continues to attract crowds in excess of thirty million over the course of a month, the primary focus of the mela administration will be to manage the festival with reference to the health and safety of pilgrims, and not to be distracted by a sorting exercise of legitimate and illegitimate participants. The Kumbh is not the only religious event to experience this problem, in an era where religiosity is interpreted by the mainstream as an anachronism and therefore a spectacle. Pilgrimages to Glastonbury and Stonehenge have been transformed in recent decades, as New Age travelers seek a place among "genuine" pilgrims and irritated locals. (83) These distinctions, I have argued above, are not always clear. In his coverage of the Kumbh in 2001, India Today journalist S. Prasannaraja commented that "the sadhu, the saint, the sinner, the sinned, the voyeur, the karma junkie, the New Age yogi ... all of them have come together to turn the spiritual into a maha-spectacle of the millennium." (84) Nonetheless, those who have the power to represent the mela would do so better with reference to its social, cultural and historical contexts, and with some respect to the people who observe it.


(1.) See the photograph, Dupont, Stephen "Kumbh Mela Women" at (last accessed January 26, 2009).

(2.) Jenkins, Diana, "The Smart Art," The Australian, Smart Money Section, June 2, 2007.

(3.) While it is the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers that pilgrims bathe in, the Saraswati river is believed by the faithful to meet the other two rivers underground.

(4.) See Maclean, Kama, Pilgrimage and Power, Chapter 3 for details on the history of the mela.

(5.) Kavitavali 8:144. Cited in Dubey, D. P., "Scared Complex of Prayaga: The Myth of Triveni," in Gopal Lallanji and D. P. Dubey, eds., Pilgrimage Studies: Text and Context, Allahabad: Society of Pilgrimage Studies, 1990, p. 144.

(6.) For all of the record book's concern for accuracy, this is a mistake; the biggest bathing day in the 2001 mela, Mauni Amawasya, fell on January 24. The figures are consistent with other estimates of the number of people present on the day. Craig, Glenday, ed., The Guinness Book of Records 2008. Barcelona: HiT Entertainment, 2007, p. 125.

(7.) Kremmer, Christopher, "Tempting Fate or testing faith?," The Age, January 24, 2001, p. 11. Results of tests on the sangam waters are indeed disconcerting. What is neglected in media reportage is the generally impressive health record and care provided to pilgrims at the contemporary Kumbh Melas.

(8.) One freelance photographer admits that he was trying to capture on film "fat and sagging stretch marked granny breasts" because "there is a market for them in England." Stevens, Bennett, "Snap Happy and the Nagas," in Sean O'Reilly, Larry Habegger, and James O'Reilly, eds., Hyenas Laughed at Me, and Now I Know Why, Travellers' Tales, 2003; partially reproduced at (accessed January 21, 2009).

(9.) Thus there are references to the sangam by Mughal travelers, see Iqbal Husain, "Hindu Shrines and Practices as Described by a Central Asian Traveller in the First Half of the 17th Century," in Irfan Habib, ed., Medieval India 1: Researches in the History of India 1200-1750, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 141-53.

(10.) Urry, John, "Globalising the Tourist Gaze," paper delivered at the Cityscapes Conference, Graz, November 2001, at (accessed January 27, 2009).

(11.) Kumbh Mela Project, (accessed January 18, 2001).

(12.) For example, an Uttar Pradesh government website offered a cyber-bath experience for those unable to attend the Kumbh. (last accessed January 15, 2001).

(13.) "How the Media Covered the Mela," Hinduism Today, May/June 2001, (last accessed January 27, 2009).

(14.) This may sound extreme, but when compared to recent Australian media coverage relating to India's rise as a major global economy, a certain tone is discernible: "India Jumps Queue" (on the Indo-US nuclear deal), The Weekend Australian, 23-24 July, 2004; and the front page story: "Where our jobs went: the Indian call centers undercutting our workers," Daily Telegraph, October 10, 2006, p. 1.

(15.) The point must be made that the photographers in question are not entirely international, many are indeed Indian freelancers. See Maclean, Pilgrimage and Power, pp. 45-53, for an in-depth discussion of issues relating to media representation at the mela.

(16.) This was the title of a 2001 Documentary; and also a 2007 book by J. S. Mishra; and a phrase invoked in several newspaper articles; "Media as Target," Hindustan Times, January 23, 2001; S. Prasannarajan, "Kumbha Karma," India Today, January 22, 2001, p. 51.

(17.) There are also sadhavis, holy women, although these are relatively fewer in number and lower in profile than their male counterparts. See (accessed January 26, 2009).

(18.) Kolff, D. H. A., "Sannyasi Trader-Soldiers," Indian Economic and Social History Review 8 (1971), p. 214.

(19.) Pinch, William R., Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires, London: Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 15.

(20.) Chatterjee, Suranjan, "New Reflections on the Sannyasi, Fakir and Peasants War," Economic and Political Weekly 19, no. 4 (January 28, 1984): pp. PF2-13.

(21.) Pinch, William R., Warrior Ascetics, p. 15.

(22.) Pinch, William R., Peasants and Monks in British India, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996, p. 25.

(23.) See, for example, a recent news story: Mohapatra, Debabrata, "Priests 'purify' temple after foreigner enters premises," Times of India. January 17, 2009, (accessed January 25, 2009).

(24.) See Maclean, Kama, Pilgrimage and Power, p. 275.

(25.) Babb, Lawrence A., "Glancing: Visual Interaction in Hinduism," Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Winter, 1981), pp. 387-401.

(26.) Babb, "Glancing," p. 392.

(27.) Thus at the Ardh Kumbh Mela in 2007, a documentary maker from a well-known media company negotiated exclusive film-only rights with the much-feted Juna Akhara, famous for its naga sadhus and urdh-bahu sadhu. Amar Bharati (who has held one hand up for some thirty years, to the point that his arm has withered away). This meant that rival media teams were shouted at and chased away from the Juna camp; any footage they took was "unauthorized."

(28.) For example, an exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago, "Sacred Waters: India's Great Kumbha Mela Pilgrimage," by the photographer Jean-Marc Giboux. (January 19, 2009).

(29.) There is a range of scholarship on this, for example Jain, Kajri, Cods in the Bazaar, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007; Ramaswamy, Sumati, ed., Beyond Appearances? Visual Practices and Ideologies in Modern India, Delhi, 2003; Brosius, Christiane, and Melissa Butcher, eds., Image Journeys: Audiovisual Media and Cultural Change in India, Delhi, 1999.

(30.) Captain Hardwicke, Thomas, "Narrative of a Journey to Sirinagur," Asiatic Researches 6 (1799): p. 318.

(31.) A major exception was in 1998, at the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, where a dispute between the Juna Akhara and the mela administration led to the mobilization of state paramilitary forces. See Llewellyn, J. F., "Kumbh Mela: Festival of Discord," 1999, unpublished manuscript.

(32.) The order is different for each of the Kumbh cities. See Maclean, Pilgrimage and Power, pp. 226-7.

(33.) Ghurye, G. S., Indian Sadhus, Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1964, pp. 98-9.

(34.) Maharashtra State Gazetteers: Nasik District, Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 1975, p. 964.

(35.) See Maclean, Pilgrimage and Power, chapter 6.

(36.) "Sadhus Hired to Parade Naked," Leader, April 1, 1954, p. 1.

(37.) Kumbh Tragedy Inquiry Committee, Report of the Committee Appointed by the Uttar Pradesh Government to Enquire into the Mishap which Occurred in the Kumbha Mela at Prayaga on the 3rd of February 1954, Allahabad: Government of India, 1955, p. 63.

(38.) Kumbh Tragedy Inquiry Committee, Report, pp. 122-3.

(39.) See the memoirs of the mela officer in charge, Nandan, Jiwesh, Maha Kumbh: A Spiritual Journey, New Delhi: Rupa, 2002, p. 87.

(40.) The AFP image can be seen at "Hindu Festival Goes High-Tech," (accessed January 28, 2009), or see Maclean, Pilgrimage and Power, p. 35.

(41.) Personal communication, Mathieu Boisvert, July 4, 2002. Some sadhu akharas are wealthy and therefore have access to modern conveniences. The contemporary organization of the akharas is complex and obviously technologies assist this.

(42.) "How the Media Covered the Mela," Hinduism Today, May/June 2001.

(43.) Gautier, Francois, "Spot the Monkey at the Kumbh," Indian Express, January 29, 2001 (accessed January 27, 2009).

(44.) Times of India, January 14, 2001, p. 1.

(45.) Davidson, C. J. C, Diary of Travels and Adventures in Upper India, London: Henry Colburn, 1843, vol. 1, p. 85.

(46.) Gupta, Charu, Sexuality, Obscenity, Community. Women, Muslims and the Hindu Public in Colonial India, New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2001, p. 26. See also the 1930s illustration "Bathing Ghats and Purdah," on pp. 148-9.

(47.) dimming, C. F. Gordon, In the Himalayas and On the Indian Plains, London: Chatto & Windus, 1884, p. 89.

(48.) For example, see the images of Jeremy Hunter in Sacred festivals, London: MQ Publications, 2003, pp. 29-31, which include a group of women bathing, struggling in vain to cover themselves. See also the photograph by Pamela Constable, in "Women of India: Lives of Sacrifice and Devotion," SAIS Review, Summer 2004; 24, 2; p. 74.

(49.) Advocate, March 17, 1918, Selections from Indian-Owned Newspapers of the United Provinces, no. 12 of 1918.

(50.) "Lewd Charge Causes a Splash in the Ganges," The Age, Green Guide, January 25, 2001.

(51.) "HC Frowns at Kumbh Bathing Scenes on TV," Hindustan Times, January 17, 2001.

(52.) Roy, Arindam, "Scribes Vow to Shun Kumbh Administration," Hindustan Times, January 21, 2001; Rahul Bedi, "Hindu Sect Forces out Westerners," Age, January 13, 2001, p. 22.

(53.) Stevens, Bennett, (accessed January 21, 2009).

(54.) "Media as Target," editorial, Hindustan Times, January 23, 2001.

(55.) Thus a distinction can be made between "yatras" and "melas," both of which are forms of pilgrimage but the former is thought of as a much more sober and austere practice. Ann Gold argues that a mela is "primarily a site for amusement, offering an array of visual, sensual distractions." Gold, Ann Grodzins, Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988, p. 303.

(56.) Wheeler, J. Talboys, "Introduction," in Bholanauth Chunder, Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India, London: N. Trubner, 1869, vol. 1, p. xxiv.

(57.) See Maclean, Pilgrimage and Power, pp. 121-58.

(58.) Prayag Samachar, January 11, 1894 in Selections from Vernacular Newspapers, 1894, p. 29.

(59.) "Magh Mela: Question of Imposing Restrictions on Non-Hindus in Entering the Sangama Area," proceedings of the Government of the United Provinces, General Administration Department, Uttar Pradesh State Archives, Lucknow (UPSA), File no. 98 (8)/1941, Box 614.

(60.) The reasons for keeping the fair at the edge of the mela grounds today is more likely more pragmatic than ideological. The crowds at Allahabad melas since 1954 have been so large and unwieldy that to concede valuable space to any other purpose than crowd management in peak bathing areas simply equates to an unwise use of space.

(61.) Dubey, Daya Shankar, Gangarahasya, Prayag, 1942, p. 217.

(62.) "Over two lakh people to visit Anand Bhavan," Times of India, January 20, 2001.

(63.) Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan, "Religion and Circulation: Hindu Pilgrimage," in R. Mansell Prothero and Murray Chapman, eds., Circulation in Third World Countries, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985, p. 247.

(64.) There are many examples of this in travel writing; such as Dhaliwal, Hardeep, "A Pilgrim's Journey," which begins, "I never expected to be a pilgrim, it just kind of happened. Growing up in Canada in a secular Sikh family, I've never known anything about Hinduism or pilgrimages ..." at (January 29, 2009).

(65.) Cohen, Erik, "Pilgrimage and Tourism: Convergence and Divergence," in Alan Morinis, ed., Sacred Journeys: The Anthropology of Pilgrimage, London: Greenwood Press, 1992, p. 58.

(66.) This is the underlying assumption in Diana Illes and Daljit Gandhi, Finding Your Self in India: A Travel Guide for Personal Journeys of Discovery, Melbourne: Lothian Books, 2001.

(67.) "The Kumbh Mela," Pioneer, February 17, 1918, p. 5.

(68.) Doron, Assa, "Encountering the 'Other': Pilgrims, Tourists and Boatmen in the City of Varanasi (Banaras)," The Australian Journal of Anthropology, 16(2), 2005, p. 165.

(69.) "Millennium's First Kumbh at Allahabad," UP Tourism pamphlet, n.d [2000].

(70.) Freeman, Dave et al., 100 Things to Do Before You Die: Travel Events You Just Can't Miss, Dallas: Taylor Publications, 1999, pp. 178-9.

(71.) Bryn Thomas et al., India, Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 1997, p. 431.

(72.) These figures come from the UP Government's Kumbh website, (last accessed September 14, 2002).

(73.) Matthiesson, Josephine, "Doing the India Trip: Myths and Paradoxes of a Travel Culture," M.A. thesis, Department of History, University of Melbourne, 1999, p. 18.

(74.) Pradhan, Sharat, "Sangam attracts young and old," at (January 29, 2009). Naga is a very specific form of being naked, generally the result of years of practice, with the object of revealing to the world that one is above bodily sensations, including arousal. Consequently, it does not extend to women.

(75.) See India Today, January 22, 2001, p. 52.

(76.) Roy, Arindam, "Scribes vow to shun Kumbh administration," Hindustan Times, January 21, 2001; Rahul Bedi, "Hindu Sect forces out Westerners," The Age, January 13, 2001, p. 22.

(77.) For example, "Photo Essay: Kumbh Mela," Rashtriya Sahara, February 2001; "Kumbh Karma," India Today, January 22, 2001; Karoki Lewis, "Maha Kumbha Mela Photoessay," Biblio, January-February 2001.

(78.) See Dolf Hartsuiker's "Foreign Sadhus," at (accessed January 20, 2009).

(79.) See Holy Men and Fools, a documentary by Michael Yorke, UK, 2005; and National Geographic's In Nirvana, of 2007.

(80.) Cf. Homi K. Bhabha, "Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse," in The Location of Culture, New York: Routledge, 1994.

(81.) Assa Doron, Caste, Occupation and Politics on the Ganges: Passages of Resistance, Ashgate, 2008, p. 18.

(82.) The discussion board is no longer on the site

(83.) Bowman, Marion, "Drawn to Glastonbury," in Ian Reader and Tony Walter, eds., Pilgrimage in Popular Culture, London: Macmillan, 1993, p. 43.

(84.) Prasannarajan, S., "Kumbha Karma," India Today, January 22, 2001, p. 51.

This paper was presented in an earlier form at the Annual Conference on South Asia at the University of Madison Wisconsin, 2005, with thanks to the panel participants and audience for their feedback and comments. It is an extension of the arguments presented in Kama Maclean, Pilgrimage and Power: the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, chapter one. Thanks are due to Assa Doron for his comments on the present article.
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Author:Maclean, Kama
Publication:Cross Currents
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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