Three months after a Kumbh Mela was organised at the little-known town of Tribeni in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, a number of pilgrims line up on the ghats for an early morning dip in the river. About 400 to 500 visit every day, as they have done over the years.
Harihar Ghosh, a shopkeeper, who is arranging his wares as he opens shop, says the crowds grow at Tribeni on every ‘holy’ day, and adds that he expects pilgrims during the forthcoming Manasa Puja (for the snake goddess). “Usually there are people from Odisha and Jharkhand as well, but I cannot spot them today,” says Mr. Ghosh. A municipal worker sitting at a crematorium amid the burning pyres on the ghats is quick to point out a photo-friendly spot to click the expanse of the Hooghly river.
In February, during Magh Sankranti, the shopkeeper, the municipal worker, and residents were witness to the second Kumbh Mela at this location, the first one held here in 2022. The local administration says crowds of about three lakh gathered in the Bansberia municipality that has a population of one lakh (as per the 2011 Census). The people of the town and those making a living on the ghats are getting used to this sudden yearly spurt in tourism.
Tribeni, located 46 km upstream of Kolkata on the western bank of the river Hooghly, found itself on the Kumbh Mela map out of nowhere, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned that it had been celebrated here 700 years ago. Like the sengol, this urban legend has been accepted and adopted by locals, politicians, tradespeople, those who believe in a Hindu revival, with particularities of regional practices gradually being faded, in a totalising narrative.
During the February 2023 Kumbh Mela, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) cultural wing, Sanskar Bharati, hosted multiple events every day. The State BJP leadership along with local leaders of other parties came to Tribeni to participate in the festivities too.
The call for the Kumbh
The Kumbh Mela, or the festival of the sacred pitcher, was brought onto UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017. UNESCO describes the mela as the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth, during which participants bathe or take a dip in a sacred river. It says that the festival is held at Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik every four years by rotation.
But on February 26, 2023, during a ‘Mann Ki Baat’ episode, Mr. Modi said, “Shriman Kanchan Banerjee, who lives in America, has drawn my attention to one such campaign related to the preservation of heritage. I congratulate him. Friends, this month, Tribeni Kumbho Mahotsav was organised at Bansberia of Hooghly district in West Bengal. More than 8 lakh devotees participated in it... But do you know why it is so special? It is special, since this practice has been revived after 700 years.”
The Prime Minister added that various historical documents suggest that this region was once a centre of Sanskrit education and Indian culture and many saints consider it a holy place for a ‘kumbh snan’ (a holy bath) on Magh Sankranti.
While the endorsement of the Kumbh by the Prime Minister raised eyebrows, particularly among locals who had not heard of this cultural ‘heritage’, West Bengal has, over the past few years, seen a number of instances when religious ceremonies have been suddenly foisted on localities and locals.
A month after the Kumbh at Tribeni, the State celebrated Ram Navami with great fanfare. Processions were taken out across West Bengal and at certain places, including Howrah, where the processions triggered communal flare-ups, the police administration was busy greeting people on social media on the occasion of Ram Navami.
From 2016-2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and organisations affiliated to it have been organising Ram Navami celebrations. Since then there has been unrest each year during this time. In 2019, the Opposition party won 18 out of the 42 Lok Sabha seats in the State.
In April this year, the Calcutta High Court intervened after communal clashes during Ram Navami processions at Howrah, Hooghly, and Dalkhola. It directed deployment of Central forces during Hanuman Jayanti celebrations.
As the State government struggled with maintaining law and order in the last week of March and first week of April, the question was how these religious events with little cultural connection to the State had found political ground.
“We wanted to develop a tourism circuit around Tribeni. Along with the Tribeni ghats, we have old temples like the Hanteshwari Kali temple”Aditya NeogiMunicipality chairperson and Trinamool Congress leader
The biggest draw of pilgrims to West Bengal is the Ganga Sagar Mela, where the Ganga meets the sea. About 30 lakh pilgrims who had descended on Sagar island, between January 10 and 17, this year were surprised to see a Varanasi-style Ganga aarti being organised near the Kapil Muni Temple.
For the past several years, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee has been demanding a ‘national mela’ status for the festival. Soon after the Ganga Sagar festival, Ms. Banerjee inaugurated a Ganga aarti at Kolkata’s Baje Kadamtala Ghat on March 3.
Every evening around 7 p.m., 11 priests dressed in saffron robes, facing the western bank of the river, perform circular clockwise motions with their brass lamps accompanied by chanting. Those in the crowd of about 100 are mostly people waiting to board long-distance buses from Kolkata’s Strand Road.
When the Kumbh Mela was held at Tribeni in Hooghly, the organisers also held a Ganga aarti. A barge was brought to a point where a narrow stream called Saraswati flows into the Ganga and the aarti was performed at that conjunction. Since then, every Monday, people of Tribeni flock to the Ganga aarti on the narrow ghats, recently tiled afresh with marble.
Golekesh Majumdar, a resident of Tribeni who lives only 50 metres from the riverbank, says the Kumbh, a new phenomenon, has the support of the Trinamool leadership. The 79-year-old veteran, son of former Congress MLA Byomkesh Majumdar, points out that he has participated in several meetings where local Trinamool leaders were present.
Bansberia Municipality, under which Tribeni falls, is run by the Trinamool Congress. The municipality chairperson and party leader Aditya Neogi says that the civic body lent support to the Kumbh “to ensure financial stability” to the municipality. “We wanted to develop a tourism circuit around Tribeni. Along with the Tribeni ghats, we have old temples like the Hanteshwari Kali temple,” he says.
Mr. Neogi has promised better arrangements for next year’s Kumbh. The ‘success’ of the Tribeni Kumbh — both in terms of visitors and people delving into their Hindu identity — has also brought competition. In February 2023, on the eastern bank of the river at Kalyani in North 24 Parganas, another Kumbh Mela was organised. Locals of Tribeni say the Kumbh organised on the other bank of the river drew more people.
“Be it Ram Navami or Ganga aartis, or even the Kumbh, the Trinamool has never opposed it; rather it has tried to imbibe these traditions and organise events itself”Biswanath ChakrabortyPolitical science teacher, Rabindra Bharati University
The larger picture
Biswanath Chakraborty, who teaches political science at Rabindra Bharati University, says none of these religious events — Ganga aarti, Ram Navami, Hanuman Jayanti, or the Kumbh Mela — should be looked at in isolation.
“It is part of the overall politics of the Trinamool Congress. Unlike the so-called secular parties which have opposed attempts by the BJP and its allies to saffronise and organise Hindu festivals, Mamata Banerjee has tried to absorb and later appropriate such attempts. So, be it Ram Navami or Ganga aartis, or even the Kumbh, the Trinamool has never opposed it; rather it has tried to imbibe these traditions and organise events itself,” he says.
Prof. Chakraborty has been watching this phenomenon unfold since 2016 and says it has helped the Trinamool reap electoral dividends.
Subhapratim Roychowdhury, who is part of a research group Aamra and has been studying communal conflicts in the State, points out that almost half the processions of Ram Navami are sponsored and supported by the Trinamool Congress leadership.
While Tribeni is slowly embracing a new identity built around an imagined pilgrimage, elderly residents are puzzled. “There has been no evidence of any Kumbh at Tribeni,” 92-year-old resident Ajay Kumar Badhyopadhyay says, repeating his statement forcefully three times. He points towards 96-year-old Bhadreshwar Bhattacharya, who says the belief is that “Tribeni is part of Adisaptagram, an ancient settlement of seven villages on the banks of the Hooghly. People have been coming here to take a dip in the Ganga for centuries. There used to be a mela of Uttarayan. But even when we were kids, we never heard any mention of a Kumbh Mela.”
Weeks after the Kumbh Mela was held at Tribeni, a controversy erupted when Canadian anthropologist Alan Morinis alleged that his research paper, ‘Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition: A Case Study of West Bengal’, was doctored by those propagating the idea of a Kumbh Mela or Kumbh Mahotsav at Tribeni.
Prof. Morinis claims that someone with an agenda got hold of his dissertation and reworded the page where he had discussed Tribeni. “I had written that every period of solar transition (sankranti) was ‘auspicious for a bath in the Ganges’. The original phrase appeared in brackets; the forgers removed my words and fit within those brackets the words: ‘a Kumbh mela was held here in the past,” Prof. Morinis wrote in The Telegraph on May 18.
Journalist and author Snigdhendu Bhattacharya was the first to point out the elaborate planning that went into the making of the Tribeni Magh snan (the ritualistic bath) into a Kumbh Mela. “The organisers used Prof. Morinis’ Oxford thesis as the source of information, and even shared a screenshot of the purported page. I downloaded the paper from the University’s website to see what else he had written and spotted the doctoring,” Mr. Bhattacharya said.
The journalist also found that Boston resident Kanchan Banerjee, whom the Prime Minister had praised, was part of the West Bengal BJP’s ‘NRIs for Shonar Bangla’ campaign ahead of the 2021 Assembly election.
Mr. Neogi admits that Mr. Banerjee has leanings towards the BJP but says that they get along well. “He (Mr. Banerjee) agreed that politics and political banners will not be brought up while celebrating the festival,” the Trinamool leader adds.
About 400 metres from the ghats of Tribeni, there is a shrine and mosque, known as the Dargah of Zafar Khan Gazi.
Away from the din of the ghats, only a few visitors light incense sticks here and a handful gather quietly for afternoon namaz at the grand stone structure that predates most of the colonial architecture of the Hooghly and Kolkata.
A board put up by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) says, “This tomb is the earliest extant mausoleum in eastern India built in 1335 CE.” On the west are tombs of Zafar Khan Gazi, his two sons and a daughter-in-law, while the graves of another son and grandsons are located on the east.
The structures of both the mosque and the dargah have stone carvings of what appears to be religious iconography from Hindu and other religious traditions. This has become a talking point after the Kumbh Mela began.
When asked whether the dargah will be part of the tourism circuit, Mr. Neogi fends off the query vaguely. “Why not, but there is a controversy and there are different opinions about it. The place is under ASI,” he says.
But the municipality chairperson admits that attempts are on to shift the venue of the Kumbh Mela from the football ground next to the dargah to a 29-acre plot, which is under the Department of Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation, so that communal harmony is not disturbed.
Despite the attempts to doctor his research on Tribeni having been caught and called out, Prof. Morinis is not hopeful that the situation on the ground will change. “When the agenda is communalist, rationality has little place and so I expect things to continue on course,” he said.