New Delhi: On May 18, 2023, the Indian daily The Telegraph published an op-ed by Canadian anthropologist Alan Morinis who alleged that the Hindu supremacists had doctored a part of his 1979 PhD thesis to claim that a major Hindu pilgrimage (Kumbha Mela) was stopped by the Islamic invasion at Tribeni in the Hooghly district of West Bengal 700 years ago. Morinis said that the morphing of his thesis was intended to carry out a communal campaign against Muslims, even as the morphed part was circulated widely as a justification for “reviving” a major Hindu pilgrimage at Tribeni.
“Someone with an agenda got hold of my dissertation and reworded the page where I discuss Tribeni to say what they wanted to say, not what I had written based on my years of research,” Morinis said in his article.
In February, Prime Minister Modi in his 98th Mann ki Baat programme expressed his happiness at the revival of the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage in the locality of Tribeni in Hooghly district, West Bengal. At the time, Modi said, “Do you know why it is so special? It is special since this practice has been revived after 700 years… Two years ago, the festival has been started again by the local people through ‘Tribeni Kumbho Porichalona Shomiti’. I congratulate all the people associated with its organisation. You are not only keeping alive a tradition, but are also protecting the cultural heritage of India.”
Mornis claimed that although Tribeni had been a pilgrimage site and hosted Hindu religious gatherings in antiquity, it was never a site of Kumbh Mela. The recent campaign to accord a “higher level of sanctity and importance like Kumbh Mela” is being done to suit the political goal of Hindu supremacists, the 73-year-old anthropologist said.
“The historical fact is that there never was a Kumbh Mela at Tribeni, and the so-called ‘revival’ is based on falsified research,” Morinis said, adding that someone may have accessed his doctoral thesis at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and “reworded the page” where he discussed Tribeni. He said that while he had originally written about the Hindu ritualistic bath on Sankranti (monthly solar transitions) at Tribeni, the doctored document removed the part and replaced it with words: “a Kumbha-mela was held here in past.”
Morinis went on to say that Tribeni is also the burial place of a 14th-century leader Ghazi Zafar Khan that has now turned into a dargah. He said that the presence of “building materials with Hindu iconography” in the dargah has “led some to claim that this dargah was built on the site of a Hindu temple, ignoring the fact that Buddhist and Jain images are found as well”.
“The agenda of the forgers seems to be not just to ‘revive’ a pilgrimage but, in the process, also destroy a Muslim site. Claiming the rebirth of a major festival at the site of a temple supposedly destroyed by Muslims is the ideal rationale to further that agenda,” Morinis wrote.
The Wire spoke to Morinis – a Rhodes scholar – on the matter where he discussed in detail his thesis and how he came to know about it being morphed in India for political gains.
When did you find out that your thesis was doctored?
On May 12, I received an email from (senior journalist) Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay alerting me to the piece just published that day in the online journal Article 14 written by Snigdhendu Bhattacharya (in which Nilanjan was quoted) that referred to the forged section of my doctoral dissertation. The next day I made contact with Mr Bhattacharya and he forwarded to me the pdf of my dissertation that had been altered. I compared that version to the hard copy I have of my dissertation and I confirmed that the change had been made as asserted.
What is the central argument of your thesis, and which year did you complete it?
I completed my thesis in 1979. The central focus is on comparing 3 pilgrimage places in West Bengal: Tarakeshwar, Navadwip and Tarapith to investigate how much these three places had traditions in common, and what variations there were in accord with their cultic differences.
You say that the purported Kumbh Mela was never celebrated in Tribeni, Hooghly. But was there any celebration of some kind celebrating monthly solar transitions (sankranti)?
Just to be clear, Tribeni was a very minor concern in my thesis. I dealt with that place on only one page of 470. The only reason it is being highlighted now is that someone forged my thesis by cutting out a phrase I wrote about a tradition of bathing at Tirbeni at the Sankranti and replaced it with false information about a Kumbha Mela having taken place there.
In your research, do you find evidence of a syncretic culture in the past, given the presence of different religious iconography in Ghazi Zafar Khan’s Dargah?
If by syncretic culture you mean a degree of mixing between different traditions, the answer is emphatically yes. Some Hindus pray at Muslim shrines and vice versa.
How is Ghazi Zafar Khan remembered in Tribeni? Is he seen as an anti-Hindu figure or does his shrine attract devotees from all religions?
I cannot answer that question because it depends on who you talk to. If you ask a Hindu supremacist he is certainly seen as anti-Hindu. But ask a knowledgeable Hindu and you might find great appreciation for his Sanskrit poetry. Everyone sees him through their own lens.
What kind of Hindu iconography did you find at Tribeni, something that the Bharatiya Janata Party has been claiming?
No one denies that there is Hindu iconography in the dargah at Tribeni, especially from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. One entire doorway has been identified as being in the style of a Hindu temple. There is no controversy about this. Scholars are unsure, however, whether the dargah was built on a Hindu temple the Muslims destroyed, or whether building materials from other locations were simply incorporated into their structure. The former possibility is supported by the existence of a floor platform typical of a Hindu temple; the latter option is supported because Jain and Buddhist carvings were also incorporated into the structure.
Could you also tell us a little about the Buddhist and Jain images that you found during your research?
The information on the Jain and Buddhist imagery is from a study by Bandopadhyay in 1909. It is quoted by noted historian Sudipta Sen in an article available online from the journal Asian Ethnology in which he says, “Bandyopadhyaya … found a row of four Buddhas on some of the pillars seated in the *bhūmisparśa* or the “earth-witness” position, and also parts of a statute of the twenty-third Jain emissary Parshvanatha, the one who came before Mahavira ([source:478], 247).” There are more details in Sen’s paper.
Finally, did you find any evidence of the claim that a Hindu temple was destroyed to build an Islamic shrine in Tribeni?
The evidence is inconclusive and there are some contradictory elements. It is possible that a Hindu temple stood on the site that is now the dargah of Zafar Khan but it cannot be proven.