Blogs (Articles)

The Yogi and the Kumbh: Tampering with tradition for no reason

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on January 9th, 2018 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment

Rajesh Kochhar

Gathering of the Faithful: Life at India's Colossal Kumbh Mela, 1953

For more 1953 Kumbh pictures see 



UNESCO has announced its decision to include the Kumbh Mela in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Ironically, at about the same time, the UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has announced his government’s decision to unnecessarily and thoughtlessly change the traditional Kumbh nomenclature

Kumbh Mela is celebrated at four river-side cities: Hardwar, Prayag (Allahabad), Trimbak-Nashik, and Ujjain.  The event recurs every 12 years. Half way through that is after six years Ardh-Kumbh is celebrated. On a longer time scale, after 12 cycles that is after 144 years Maha-Kumbh occurs (only at Prayag).

To fix our ideas we may note recent dates. Allahabad celebrated the Kumbh in 2013 and will be organizing Ardh-Kumbh in 2019. Kumbh was celebrated at Trimbak-Nashik in 2015 and at Ujjain in 2016. The same year Haridwar hosted Ardh-Kumbh.

The timing of Kumbh Mela is fixed astronomically. The celebration is in honour of the planet Jupiter which has an orbital period of about 12 years. For the event to occur, Jupiter should be in a specified zodiacal sign (rashi). Since Jupiter spends a year in a rashi, timing of the festival is made precise by referring to the Sun (and the Moon). For describing the apparent path of the Sun the zodiacal list is headed by Aries (Mesha). For some reason, in case of Jupiter the most important rashi is Aquarius (Kumbha).

The term Kumbh has come to be used in two distinct senses: to denote the rashi proper and as a general description for the congregation. Strictly speaking there is only one Kumbh, namely the one at Haridwar when Jupiter is actually in Aquarius. The congregations at Nashik and Ujjain are not Kumbh but Simhasth because Jupiter is in Leo (Simha) in both cases. That is why the twin events are never more than a year apart. Simha rashi is important because it is mid-way in Jupiter’s 12-year orbit. The Prayag congregation is peculiar. It celebrates Makar Samkarnti (Maghi) every year. Kumbh takes place   when in addition Jupiter is in Mesha or the succeeding Vrishabh (Taurus).

While releasing the logo for the Prayag 2019 event, UP Chief Minister facetiously asserted that since there was nothing incomplete in Hinduism, Ardh-Kumbh would be designated Kumbh, and the Kumbh Maha-Kumbh!  There is nothing incomplete or vague about six being half of 12. The UP executive fatwa raises many problems. In Yogi Adityanath’s scheme, no unique term is left to denote the 144 year event. Secondly, since the order cannot be implemented retrospectively it will create confusion between the description of past and present congregations at Prayag. Thus, a Kumbh was celebrated in 2001 and 2013 and is again being celebrated in 2019. Finally, since UP Chief Minister’s writ runs only in UP, pan-Indian description would be fragmented with Prayag following a different nomenclature for its Kumbh than the three other locations.

Assemblage of a large number of people at a single place for a limited period of time poses great challenge on various fronts: law and order, crowd management, sanitation, hygiene, pollution control, healthcare, etc. A government should focus on these issues. As a matter of policy it should desist from unilateral action on matters involving tradition, culture, and religion.

There are calendrical matters that would benefit from government interest.  Because of differences among traditional astronomers, Kumbh was celebrated in Prayag in 1965 as well as 1966. UP government should call a meeting of traditional panchang makers, Sanskrit scholars and modern astronomers to ensure that there is unanimity on the timing of  the Kumbh. At a more fundamental level, there is need to remove the error that has accumulated in the Vikrami calendar over the past 1500 years. Thus Makar Samkranti (14 January) is still celebrated as Uttarayana (northward turning of the Sun) while winter solstice has already taken place on about 21 December. UP government should persuade the central government to initiate action to restore precision to Vikrami calendar and bring the calculated sky in consonance with the observed sky.

Confusion should not be created where there is already clarity. Initiative should instead be aimed at bringing clarity where confusion prevails.





Rajputs, their women, & Muslim rulers

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on January 6th, 2018 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment–muslim-rulers/524111.html

A casteist outfit, the Rajasthan-based Sri Rajput Karni Sena’s objection to the movie ‘Padmavati’ is somewhat surprising because the Rajputs acquitted themselves honorably in this period. The Delhi Sultanate was relatively a new thing and the Rajputana rulers were still hopeful of challenging it militarily. They fought valiantly till the end and their women took their own life to protect their honour.

Mughal-Rajput marriages

As time passed, Rajputs became increasingly disadvantaged. Babar defeated the Rajput confederacy led by Rana Sanga of Chittor. His widow Rani Karnavati’s appeal to Humayun for help against the Gujarat Sultan failed to elicit any prompt response. The rules of the game changed with Akbar. Rajput rulers became allies of the Mughals, but at a price. They were asked to send their daughters to the imperial harem. The practice lasted 150 long years, from 1562 to 1715.

From Jodha Bai to Indira Kanwar

 The first Rajput girl in the Mughal zenana was a daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber, known variously as Jodha Bai, Hira Kunwai or Harkha Bai, who was married to Emperor Akbar. Given the secular image of Akbar, the marriage has been presented as an inter-religious affair. Movies and television serials have romanticised this particular pair, but the reality, in general, was different. It is noteworthy that Mughal chronicles do not record Hindu names of Rajput wives; they know them only by their Muslim titles. While the Rajput wives in the Mughal harem would probably have met their male blood relatives, it is unlikely that they ever visited their parental home.The last incidence of a Mughal-Rajput marriage is particularly unsavoury; it belongs to an era when the Mughal power had precipitously declined. In 1715, Maharaja Ajit Singh of Marwar was compelled to marry off his daughter Indira Kanwar to Emperor Farrukhsiyar. The Maharaja showed no fondness for his Mughal son-in-law. He, in fact, was instrumental in Farrukhsiyar’s dethronement and assassination. Indira Kanwar was converted back to Hinduism and brought to Jodhpur with all her property. It was the first ever instance of a Rajput princess being “restored to her own people after she had once entered the imperial harem.” The daughter was obviously nothing more than a pawn in her father’s politicking.

Karni Sena’s aim

The Karni Sena has violently reacted to ‘Jodha-Akbar’ and ‘Padmavati’. One shudders to think of its reaction if someone were to make a movie on Indira Kanwar. The Karni Sena’s avowed aim is to consolidate the Rajput vote with a view to striking a hard bargain at the next General Election. Keeping the vote bank politics in mind, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has argued: “Why insist upon a film if it is hurting the sentiments of a particular caste?” Pandering to populism, the governments of Rajasthan, Haryana and MP have banned the film even without waiting for a decision by the certification board.The Karni Sena president has demanded that the film be cleared by the erstwhile ruling family of Mewar. This is a pernicious principle. Every Hindu has a caste. Historical personalities cannot be considered as the property of their present-day caste descendents. If Maharana Pratap can be a national hero, why can the others not be seen from a general perspective?

History and art

The National Film Certification Board has announced that historians would be included in the panel that views ‘Padmavati’. Such a move can serve no useful purpose. History is a tricky subject; it cannot be written without implicating the historian. Not all historical facts are recorded nor are all points of view accommodated. What is considered important today may not even have been considered worthy of notice in the past. Alauddin Khalji’s chronicler Amir Khusro records the jauhar committed by the queens and other women in the Ranthambore Fort which was conquered in 1301. It was the first description of the custom in Persian. Two years later, the Chittor fort was reduced under similar circumstances but no jauhar is mentioned. It will be wrong to conclude from this that no jauhar took place. The absence of mention does not constitute proof of absence. Muslim chroniclers may not have been overly enthusiastic about recording the goings-on in the Rajput camp. It is probable that Amir Khusro’s interest was in reporting a new phenomenon to his readers. Once the purpose had been served, there was no need to report the incident again. If the womenfolk in Chittorgarh did not take their own life, what happened to them? If they had been taken to Delhi, surely the Sultanate historians and chroniclers would have found it worthy of mention. It is pointless to speculate whether Padmini or Padmavati was a real person or not. There would have been a chief queen in Chittor even if we do not know her real name.Suppose Jayasi had set his epic in Ranthambore rather than in Chittor. There would have been no controversy on the historicity, but the impact of the epic would have been the same as now.No movie can ever be made based solely on the inputs provided by chroniclers and historians. Even if names, dates and events are authentic, characters will have to be fleshed out, tensions created and drama enacted. As the high court has said, a movie should not be pre-judged. The decision on its release should be awaited and respected. More importantly, a nation should be able to look its past in the eye without feeling discomfited. It should allow its artistes and creative persons to function in an atmosphere free of fear.

Google’s thoughtless doodle on Nain Singh, the 19th century camouflaged trans-Himalayan explorer

Posted in Blogs (Articles) on October 25th, 2017 by Rajesh Kochhar – Be the first to comment


As a gimmick, Google temporarily amends its logo to commemorate events, anniversaries, and the like. It calls the  altered image a doodle, Google must have a research team at work to identify country-specific dates. It must also have at hand the services of a powerful public relations network, because a new doodle invariably becomes a news story.

The original meaning of doodle is ‘a rough drawing made absent-mindedly’. Google doodles show sophistication in drawing, but can be thoughtless and unhistorical as can be seen from the commemoration of 187th birthday of the trans-Himalayan surveyor, Nain Singh.

The British colonial Empire made use of Indians whenever needed. This role was necessarily marginal. It was exaggerated after Independence, and now in the global age, dominated by Google, it is being unhistoricized as can be seen from the

Trigonometrical Survey of India that began rather modestly in 1800 very soon transcended its colonial utility to emerge as a vast and ambitious exercise of great geographical, geodesic, and geo-political significance. Indians were hired as mathematical calculators but were debarred from actual survey work within the country, for security reasons. There was however one type of survey which the Indians alone could do. And that was clandestine exploration of Trans-Himalayan regions, where Europeans would have been immediately spotted and put to trouble if not death.

The proposal by colonial surveyors  for a systematic clandestine survey of the Trans-Himalayas by the Indians was put forward in 1861. For Tibetan survey Hindus from the mountainous region were chosen because they could pass off as Buddhists while for Central Asia Muslims were the natural choice. With characteristic British thoroughness and disdain, the Indian surveyors were only taught how to take observations, but were not taught how to reduce the data lest they cheated. Although they were given jagirs, scientific medals, and titles like Rai Bahadur and Khan Bahadur, official records did not mention their personal  names. They were referred to as Pundit (irrespective of caste), Havildar, Mirza, etc., or by alphabets and dashes.

Nain Singh was known as the Pundit. His cousin ( not brother as mentioned in records) Kishen Singh was officially known as Krishna. His name was spelt backwards, and the first and the last letter were written down separated by dashes to create his codename: A__k.

On 25 May 1868, Nain Singh was awarded  a gold watch, worth thirty guineas, by the Royal Geographical Society. And yet he was almost irrelevant at the award ceremony. Nain Singh was not named. He was the  ‘wily’ and ‘skilful ‘ ‘Pundit employed by Captain Montgomerie’. The real hero for the Geographical Society was  Montgomery. The Pundit ‘ had proved himself in every way worthy of Captain Montgomerie’s selection’. For this, ‘tribute of gratitude and admiration’ was due to him. Others before him had employed the native agency ‘for the purpose of acquiring political and statistical information’. However, it was Montgomerie, who ‘discovered that they could use a sextant or a theodolite as well as Europeans. That was really a most valuable discovery.’ It was now hoped that further explorations would be carried out by ‘native enterprise directed by English enterprise’. Nain Singh was further honoured in 1877, when  the Society conferred its coveted  Victoria or Patron’s medal .

More substantially, the Government allotted him a jagir in the plains. He was also  created Companion of Indian Empire.

During 1865 and 1866, Nain Singh as a pioneer trans-Himalyan covert explorer made a 1200-mile route survey. During this survey  he traced the route of Brahmaputra from its source near Lake Manasarovar to Lhasa. In addition, he fixed the altitude of 31 distinct locations including Lhasa.  He also made observations of temperature of air and boiling water , by which heights of 33 points were fixed. He also provided  ‘ Notes as to what was seen, and as to the information gathered during the expedition’. For this and subsequent field work, he disguised himself as a Tibetan lama, equipped with a fake rosary and a fake prayer wheel. He had to go to extreme lengths to hide his true identity. He tried to keep aloof from others so that he could focus on counting his paces. He could make his astronomical observations only at night when no one was around.

Nain Singh Rawat’s 187th birthday

Google’s carelessly conceived doodle shows a tall dark man in a European dress, a frock coat and tight trousers. He has a tripod in front of him and is observing the Sun in full glory. If  Nain Singh had dressed like that and observed like that in Tibet, he would have been jailed or expelled. There then would have been nothing to be googled or doodled about him.