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  • Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765–1954
  • Christian Lee Novetzke
Pilgrimage and Power: The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, 1765–1954. By Kama Maclean (New York, Oxford University Press, 2008) 344 pp. $74.00

This book is a dazzling account of the evolution of the modern Kumbha Mela in Allahabad. The study exemplifies empirical narrative history, engaging, to some extent, the anthropology of pilgrimage and postcolonial theory about religion, politics, and the colonial state. Maclean's method is archival, with reference to discourse and visual cultural analysis. The book is enlivened by the author's delightful, often humorous prose.

Maclean's central argument is that Allahabad's yearly religious mela (gathering) prior to 1760 was an important pilgrimage event but was not a Kumbha Mela, the massive gathering that today can only be adequately photographed by nasa. However, Maclean shows that within a century, Allahabad became not just a Kumbha Mela location but the premier location—the first Kumbha Mela in Allahabad taking place in 1870 (99). The basis of Maclean's claim is the lack of any reference—whether in English, Hindi, Sanskrit, or any other language—to the Allahabad mela as a Kumbha Mela before this time. Her argument is, as she admits, an argument from silence, but it is persuasive nonetheless. The story of the rise and subsequent use of the Allahabad Kumbha Mela in political and public culture is the crux of this sparkling historical account, which touches upon modes of colonial resistance, British surveillance and control, the manipulation of colonial policies by various Indian elites, and the way in which politicians use pilgrims.

Maclean traces British attempts to manage, coerce, and simply to [End Page 174] comprehend the Allahabad mela in the context of several forces—the influence of Allahabad's Hindu elites who served (and directed) the needs of pilgrims; the often-violent sadhus or holymen, who are the hallmark of all Kumbha Melas; and other North Indian nationalist elites and English-language journalists who saw in the mela a license to challenge colonial authority in the name of "religious" freedom. The book concludes with a chapter about the postcolonial Kumbha Mela, focusing almost exclusively on the 1954 Kumbha Mela in Allahabad that saw hundreds of pilgrims killed in a stampede. Maclean deftly uses this chapter to demonstrate continuities with the former colonial government's approach to the mela, as well as its English-medium public-sphere representations.

The sources for this work are predominantly from the colonial archive or from English-language media; Maclean states that pilgrims have not left much of a durable archive (16). She does use some non-English evidence such as the "mela sources," writings from Allahabad's "vibrant community of publishing houses" (17, 126), and the vast material of the Hindi public sphere only sparingly. Her focus on English records gives the impression that she locates "power" primarily in the colonial state and its media outlets, even though her narrative suggests that local Hindu elites, other nationalist elites, the Hindi press, and the mass of humanity involved in Allahabad were the major forces behind the modern Kumbha Mela.

Maclean is less interested in a theory of power than in vividly displaying power in all its glorious imperial ambivalence. Her introduction offers some sense of her theoretical orientation, and the first chapter gives an excellent and pedagogically useful survey of how the Kumbha Melas have been used in various English-language public spheres, especially in visual culture (photographs, picture books, etc.). For those interested in postcolonial theory, Maclean's book is a treasure of illustrations, and for those who like their historiography empirically rich and narratively coherent, this book will delight. [End Page 175]

Christian Lee Novetzke
University of Washington


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