Kolkata: Hindu right-wing organisations, a tampered research paper, and a prime ministerial endorsement are driving the effort to “revive” a kumbh mela—a term associated with Hindu pilgrim sites that attract millions—in West Bengal, a state that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to wrest from the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
“Friends, this month, ‘Tribeni Kumbho Mohotsav’ was organised in Bansberia of Hooghly district in West Bengal. More than eight lakh devotees participated,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said during his radio talk Maan Ki Baat on 26 February.
“But do you know why it is so special? It is special, since this practice has been revived after 700 years,” said Modi. “...unfortunately this festival which used to take place in Tribeni, Bengal, was stopped 700 years ago. It should have been started after independence, but that too could not happen.”
Modi congratulated Kanchan Banerjee, a Bengali who lives in the US, and the Tribeni Kumbho Porichalona Shomiti for not only keeping a tradition alive but also “protecting” India’s cultural heritage.
Speaking of the Tribeni area, Modi said, “Various historical documents suggest that this region was once a centre of Sanskrit, education and Indian culture. Many saints consider it a holy place for kumbh snan [holy bath] on Magh Sankranti [the last day of Bengali calendar month of Magh, in mid-January].”
The venue of the ‘revived’ fair was barely a few hundred metres from a 13th century Islamic structure, Zafar Khan Ghazi’s dargah. The Reclaim Temples website lists the dargah as an Islamic structure allegedly built after destroying a temple. The website raises funds for so-called temples to be rebuilt at the same sites.
The efforts to ‘revive’ the kumbho mela, as it is called in Bengali, indicate a deeper churn of politics and Hindutva forces at work. In facilitating its revival, the TMC has given wings to a right-wing brainchild, knowingly or unknowingly.
Aditya Neogi, the chairman of the TMC-run Bansberia municipality, claimed credit for organising the kumbho mela, two weeks before the PM’s message.
“We started last year but we had to keep it a small affair because of corona (Covid-19 pandemic-related restrictions in gathering), Neogi said, addressing the audience on 12 February 2023, the inaugural day of the three-day kumbho mela. "This time, with the help of some social organisations and some religious ones, we carried out a wider campaign.”
“We appealed to people to make it a success keeping it above politics. I congratulate the gathering today on behalf of Bansberia Municipality,” he added.
Tapan Dasgupta, local TMC MLA from Saptagram constituency and former minister in Mamata Banerjee’s government from 2016-21, shared the dias with Neogi. Kanchan Banerjee, whom Modi lauded, was present. Neogi described Banerjee as the person who guided them on everything, through video calls from the US.
Article 14 has found that an academic paper, circulated as the sole source attesting to the kumbh mela taking place historically in Tribeni, was tampered with. Those whom Neogi referred to as social organisations and researchers are mostly people linked to Hindu right-wing organisations and some directly with the BJP.
The Hindu right-wing effort to ‘revive’ Hindu festivals, whether fictitious or real, near sites where Hindu temples were allegedly razed, is playing out in states beyond West Bengal. For instance, in Left-ruled Kerala, a festival was ‘revived’ in Muslim-majority Malappuram district after an alleged break of 250 years.
Traditionally, the kumbh mela, which UNESCO describes as ‘the largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth’, takes place rotationally at four sites every three years—Haridwar and Prayag in Uttar Pradesh, Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh and Nasik in Maharashtra.
Smaller fairs occuring at longer intervals—the Pushkar kumbh in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra once in 18 years and the Bhadbhut mela in Gujarat once in 12 years—are not nationally known.
The Tribeni kumbho in West Bengal is slated to take place every year, to mimic the annual event of the alleged original festival. The February 2023 kumbho is the second one to be held.
Suggestions by Hindu right-wing organisations to revive a kumbh mela in West Bengal began in 2019.
At a Vishwa Hindu Parishad event on 14 August 2019, at a Kolkata auditorium, Mohit Ray, a Bengal BJP veteran and someone closely associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)’s Bengal think-tank, said that a kumbh mela could be initiated in Tribeni.
“The place is a Tribeni, or confluence. In Uttar Pradesh, Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati meet. In Hooghly’s Tribeni, Ganga (Bhagirathi-Hooghly), Jamuna (not the same as north India’s Yamuna) and Saraswati (not the same as north India’s elusive Saraswati) separate,” Roy said in a speech at the event where this reporter was present.
“I think there is a need to initiate a Prayag Yatra (type of event) in Tribeni and to build a (temple restoration) movement around the dargah and the mosque of Zafar Khan Ghazi,” said Roy.
Thunderous applause and cries of Jai Shree Ram greeted Roy’s suggestions.
Neogi told Article 14 that in January 2022 local Hindutva activists and NRI Bengali ‘researchers’, including Kanchan Banerjee, persuaded him and vice-chairman, Amit Ghosh, that a kumbho mela used to take place in Tribeni until 700 years ago. They advocated reviving it to launch the town on the religious tourism map and receive funds from the Centre’s Namami Gange project.
At a press conference on 8 February 2022, Hindutva activists Manas Bhattacharya, Shyamanjan Sur, Brajen Roy and Sadhan Mukherjee, sitting next to TMC’s Bansberia civic chief and deputy chief, cited a Canadian anthropologist’s academic work about the kumbho of the past.
“Alan Morinis wrote a famous book called Hindu Pilgrimage With Particular Reference to West Bengal. In page 74 of the book, he wrote that a kumbho snan of greater grandeur than Gangasagar (in Uttar Pradesh) used to be held in Tribeni… he wrote that kumbho snan took place here till 1319,” they said. “Later, books by Rakhaldas Banerji, Jadunath Sarkar and Binoy Ghosh have mentioned the same. You can well understand its importance.”
“We have got to know, not from any Tom, Dick and Harry’s writings but an Oxford University research paper, that a kumbho mela used to be held here until 700 years ago,” they said. “The restoration of the kumbh mela will revive the glory of the town.”
In a leap from the low-key first revival, the February 2023 kumbho was supported by the Union ministry of culture. Most of the cultural events at the venue were performed by Sanskar Bharati, the cultural wing of the RSS. Words of applause from PM Modi were followed by a 60-minute show on All India Radio, run by the Union ministry of information and broadcast.
There is no evidence to support the Hindu right’s claims that Zafar Khan Ghazi razed a Hindu temple to build a dargah and mosque. The mosque is the oldest surviving one in Bengal.
The mosque and dargah, an Archeological Survey of India (ASI)-protected site, have stone carvings with Hindu, Buddhist and Jain motifs. In the ASI’s words, “In the construction of both the Mosque and Dargah profuse use of carved stone members of various religious affiliations are noticed.”
According to journalist and author Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who has been following the Hindu right for over three decades, stories of these “revivals” from West Bengal and Kerala perfectly fit the “Babri masjid–Ram temple template”.
Mukhopadhyay said that finding stone carvings with Hindu motifs in a mosque did not “necessarily prove” the mosque was built after destroying a temple. Using materials from existing dilapidated structures for building anew was a common practice of that time.
“Even the Supreme Court in its Ayodhya verdict pointed out while some building material may have been used from previous structures, there was no definite evidence that a temple was demolished to build the Babri Masjid,” said Mukhopadhyay, whose latest book, The Demolition and The Verdict: Ayodhya and The Project to Reconfigure India, was published in 2021.
Initiatives like the kumbho revival are aimed at perpetuating the narrative painting Muslims as ‘barbaric invaders’ who destroyed past Hindu achievements, said Mukhopadhyay.
“Following the same template, they are picking up stories that may, or may not, have happened and then adding various elements to them to create a completely new mythology of Hindu victimhood,” said Mukhopadhyay. “Previously, they were talking about Islamic invasions only in north and western India, but these developments show they have extended it to eastern and southern India as well.”
Hindu right-wing groups publicised the revival of the kumbho through a Muslim-baiting narrative. In the run-up to the first mela in 2022, social media messaging linked the end of Bengal’s kumbho to Zafar Khan Ghazi destroying a Hindu temple.
On 12 February 2022, a day before the inauguration, a Facebook post from the page of the BJP-backed platform Paschimbanger Jonyo, which Mohit Ray heads, read: “703 years ago, Zafar Khan Ghazi converted Tribeni’s Vishnu temple into a mosque. The Kumbho bathing and the fair stopped from that time. After 1319, the fair is going to resume this year.”
A Tampered Source, Fabricating History
Investigations by Article 14 revealed that the version of the Oxford University paper circulated by the mela’s organisers as the historical source attesting to a kumbho mela in Tribeni’s past, was manipulated.
There is no historical evidence of a kumbho mela itself. None of the historians that Hindutva activists referred to in the February 2022 press conference described above—Rakhaldas Banerji’s Bangalar Itihas volumes 1 and 2, nor Jadunath Sarkar’s The History Of Bengal: Muslim Period—1200 To 1757 (Vol II), nor Binoy Ghosh’s Paschimbanger Sanskriti—mention any kumbho mela, or rather any bathing festival at Tribeni during that time, or at any point of time, that used to take place and had to be stopped.
The paper being circulated was allegedly a copy of Morinis’ 1979 thesis submitted for his Ph.D degree. The relevant passage said, “Besides Gangasagara, only Tribeni, located within Bansberia town in Hooghly District, has a claim to antiquity… Tribeni was also once a great seat of Sanskrit learning, but is now in decline. At the present time, the principal attraction of Tribeni is the sacred Ganges River, as is reflected in its annual festival calendar, which celebrates every Sankranti (auspicious for a bath in the Ganges), the festival of Varuna, the god of water, held in Chaitra month (March-April), and the celebration of Dasahara in Asadha month (June-July) in honour of the Ganges.”
Nowhere in Morinis’ thesis, as it appears on the university’s website, does he mention a kumbho mela in Tribeni, nor does the year 1319 appear anywhere.
However, a screenshot from page 74 of the 470-page paper that did the rounds on WhatsApp—and of which chairman Neogi claimed he was one of the recipients—had one small and crucial change.
From the paragraph quoted above, the bracketed words ‘auspicious for a bath in the Ganges’ was erased, and in its place was inserted the following, within brackets: “a kumbha mela was held here in the past.”
This changed paper did not remain limited to social media forwards. In his ‘From Chairman’s Desk’ note, Neogi claimed after the first fair: “In recent days historians have revealed some evidence that the famous kumbh mela and sahi kumbh snan was observed at Tribeni Saptarishi Ghat near about 702 years ago. Due to aggravation of some religious conflict and Muslim incursion in the medieval period the said kumbh snan was stopped and it lost its fame.”
The altered text also found its way into a short book by the fair’s organisers. Titled Bonger Tribeni Songom O Kumbho Mahatmo (Bengal’s Tribeni Confluence and the Importance of the Kumbh), the 48-page book in Bengali devotes 28 pages to a long article by Ashok Gangopadhyay, a retired schoolteacher from Tribeni. Gangopadhyay quoted the altered text to justify the past existence of the kumbh in Tribeni.
In support of the claim that the fair was stopped in 1319, Gangopadhyay quoted from an essay by Haimanti Banerjee that appeared in the fair committee’s 2022 souvenir: “Muslim invaders took over Tribeni during the early phase of their conquest of Bengal, also referred to as the Turkish conquest of the thirteenth century, (and) 703 years back, Jafar Khan Ghazi converted a Vishnu temple to a Mosque, and from that time, Kumbha-shan and Khumbha Mela ceased. After 1319 Khumbha Snan was held a few times on and off. But eventually, it was permanently terminated."
Haimanti Banerjee did not cite any source for this information.
Asked to comment on the discrepancy between Morinis’ thesis on the official website and the version that was circulated, chairman Neogi told Article 14, “How do I know that the Oxford research paper is tampered? I trusted Gangopadhyay, who is a respectable teacher and researcher of local history. I will surely ask him but you should ask him too.”
In turn, Gangopadhyay, a Bengal government Shiksha Ratna awardee, told Article 14 that he believed the quotation he used was the original. When told that the paper on the university’s website had no mention of a kumbh in Tribeni, he shared a PDF of the whole 470-page book, in which page 74 had the altered version.
“I did not download the PDF myself,” said Gangopadhyay. “Someone gave it to me. I will try to download it from the website to check for myself and also ask the person who shared the PDF with me about the discrepancy.”
Gangopadhyay refused to say who gave him the PDF.
Asked how he arrived at the decision that a kumbh used to be held and was stopped due to Islamic aggression, Gangopadhyay said, “The period from 14th to 16th century is a dark chapter in Bengali history. Very little is known of the period. Buddhists had fled to Nepal, Hindus had fled, too. We have to assume in the absence of information.”
Kanchan Banerjee, in his two-page write up carried with Modi’s Mann Ki Baat speech, published by the ministry of information and broadcast, wrote that “the Maghi Sankranti, which is now called the kumbh mela, was a big event in the Tribeni region”.
Banerjee went on to write, “We also found that around the year 1298, there was an invasion in that area by the Turkic forces and they tried to take over the prosperous Saptagram, which was a business and educational hub and a city of temples. Local kings fought them off bravely but when they returned around 1313-1315 the Turkic forces took over the region and destroyed the temples. And this mela never happened again for nearly 700 years.”
Asked to share the sources of this information, Banerjee did not respond to WhatsApp messages from Article 14.
Hindutva Politics At Work
Kanchan Banerjee, originally from Burdwan district of West Bengal, and living in Boston, the US, with his wife, Haimanti, was an active member of the BJP’s 2021 Bengal assembly election campaign involving NRI Bengalis.
He came to campaign physically in West Bengal, coordinated an online session involving Shiv Prakash, the BJP’s national joint general secretary (organisation) who doubled as the co-mender of the party’s Bengal unit, and stood next to Prakash at the launch of the NRIs for Sonar Bangla campaign.
After the 2021 assembly election, in which the BJP got only about one-fourth of the state’s assembly seats, he played an instrumental role behind the launch of a Kolkata-based NGO named Bangla Abar.
It is through Bangla Abar that the Tribeni Kumbho initiative was taken. It has Sanghamitra Chaudhuri, the BJP’s South Kolkata district unit president, as its president, and Sadhan Mukherjee as secretary. Mukherjee played the key role on the ground, in association with members of a Hindutva organisation, Rashtriya Samhati.
“We do the social work through Bangla Abar and the religious work through Tribeni Kumbho Porichalona Samiti,” Sadhan Mukherjee told Article 14.
Kanchan and Haimanti Banerjee are on the board of directors of Boston Centre of Excellence for Health and Human Development (BoCE). They are described as healthcare technology experts and certified Yoga trainers on BoCE’s website.
Banerjee is the author of a 2022 book, titled The Crash of A Civilisation, in which he claimed that Islam, Christianity and the Left destroyed the ‘main gene’ of Bharatiyata (Indianness). Vice President Jagdeep Dhankhar launched the Bengali edition of the book in July 2022, when he was West Bengal’s governor.
The 2023 kumbho generously featured Hindu right-wing organisations, particularly the RSS. The first day’s events included, apart from speeches by sadhus and organisers, a speech by Kamali Soren, known for her work towards ‘reconverting’ tribal christians into Hinduism who was awarded Padmashree in 2021, and musical events by Sanskar Bharati, the cultural wing of the RSS. Kalyan Chakraborty, prachar pramukh or campaign chief of the Bengal chapter of the RSS farmers’ wing, Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, delivered a speech on ‘Bhobishyoter Tribeni Bhabna’ (Thoughts on a future Tribeni.)
There was a dance performance by Gaudiya Charukala Bharati, a ‘performing arts school’ closely associated with Sanskar Bharati that frequently performs at events organised by Sangh Parivar organisations, such as ABVP, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and Bharat Sanskriti Nyas. Another performance was by the RSS-backed organisation, Bangiya Sanatani Sanskriti Parishad. This organisation came to the limelight last year claiming it was not Mughal Emperor Akbar but Hindu king Shashanka who started the Bengali calendar.
Propagating Kumbh Melas, Temple Politics
Reviving kumbh melas, justified by narratives of razed temples by Muslim rulers, is emerging as a pattern. A similar effort took place in 2019 in Malappuram district in CPI(M)-ruled Kerala, where the BJP has not been able make political gains despite a strong presence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) family of organisations.
The Thirunavaya Maghamaka Mahotsava was claimed to have been last held in 1776 and “due to the rampant riots and invasions, the festival ceased to be conducted”.
The site of the ‘revived’ festival was barely a kilometre away from the lost ‘Thirunavaya Thali Mahadeva temple’, purportedly one of the 108 shiva temples established by Lord Parasuram in Kerala and destroyed by ‘Muslim invaders’. This temple finds mention only on a “Reclaim Temples” website and social media handles.
The key person behind the ‘revival’ of the 18th century fair in Kerala was Dinesh Tirur, whose book Thakarkkapetta Kshethrangal or Destroyed Temples of Kerala was launched during the 2019 revival of the festival.
It is through funds raised by the Reclaim Temples website that two volumes of Tirur’s book in Malayalam and the English translation of the first volume were published. The 2022 edition had Goa governor P S Sreedharan Pillai, a former RSS leader and former Kerala BJP, as the chief guest.
The main difference between the events in Kerala and West Bengal—both states ruled by parties opposed to the BJP—was that the one in Kerala found no backing of the local ruling party or the local administration, whereas the TMC-run local municipality in West Bengal gave the organisers all the support they needed.
Asked if they realised that the party backed a programme that Hindutva forces conceived and executed, TMC’s Dasgupta, the local MLA, told Article 14, “We had no idea initially but got some hints after the BJP state unit president Sukanta Majumdar visited the site and gave a speech. I went there seeing Paramatmananda Maharaj in the forefront and he is a non-political person. We will make further inquiries.”
“When these people came up with the idea of reviving a past event, and told me about the prospect of economic gains of religious tourism, we thought, rather than creating an issue by opposing it, why not be part of it and have some control?” said Neogi.
It remains to be seen who is actually in control.
(Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an author and independent journalist based in Kolkata, writing on politics, history, human rights, environment, climate change and culture.)
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