Last February, I had the opportunity to experience and photograph the Kumbh Mela, the largest human gathering in the world held, not surprisingly, in India. The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage in which Hindus gather for a ritual bath in the waters of a holy river. A dip in this sacred water at such a time and location is believed to cleanse sins and bring salvation.
With a small group of “intrepid” photographers led by photojournalist and humanitarian photographer Karl Grobl, I spent almost a week in a crowd of up to 30 million believers, pilgrims, yogis, monks, sadhus, priests, and some random interlopers like us. Thirty million was the estimated attendance on Feb 10, a very auspicious day to bathe for Hindu pilgrims, and a day we had planned to be at the Kumbh Mela. If you are having trouble grasping what the number 30 million people represents, it is the same as the population of Canada. But Canada is the second-largest country in the world (in land mass). Here we had all those people in one place. Yes, it was crowded.
The Kumbh Mela has its origins in Hindu mythology – many believe that when gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar, (Kumbh in Hindu literally means pitcher or urn) a few drops fell in the cities of Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain, and Haridwar – the four places where the Kumbh festival has been held for centuries. As it is every 12 years, the 2013 Kumbh Mela was held at Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh, about 130 km from Varanasi. Allahabad (or Prayag as it is also called) seems to be the most significant of the four locations as pilgrims can bathe at the confluence of the river Ganges, the river Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati. The point where the rivers meet is an area referred to as the “Sangam”. Furthermore, we were told (although not everyone agrees) that this year’s festival is what is known as a Maha Kumbh, which only occurs every 144 years and is always held at Allahabad. During the Maha Kumbh Mela the planets are said to align exactly as they were when the nectar fell from the sky. I am not sure how to fact check that, however. The 2013 Maha Kumbh lasted for 55 days, a period of time also determined by an astrological calculation.
Even though Karl labeled our group “intrepid travelers” I can tell you that this traveler was somewhat anxious about the prospect of finding herself surrounded by such a sea of people. On arrival, we learned that our tent camp was situated about 1 ½ hour walk (on a quiet day) from the Sangam. As it was dark when we arrived, our first experience with the Kumbh Mela was not visual but auditory. Chanting and music go on non-stop all night every night. So we spent our first night getting used to the constant but soothing Kumbh Mela music, almost loud enough to drown the snoring of nearby tent occupants. That (the chanting, not the snoring) was to be the soundtrack we would be hearing for the duration of our visit, only enhanced during the day by the non-ending announcement of lost and found people through very loud speakers.
The next morning, we discovered that there is a substantial temporary city that has been built to accommodate the pilgrims. Humongous pontoon bridges (18 of them) have been erected to allow the crowds to cross the river, as the main bridge could not possibly accommodate the hordes. Camp areas have been identified where pilgrims live in tents or makeshifts accommodations. On the Mela ground, one can find people selling whatever may be needed for the festivals, bangles, blankets, offerings, images, prayer books. One can also find food stalls, barbers, police and security officers, medical clinics, the ubiquitous chai shops, and of course …beggars. Beggars are important because part of one’s religious duty is to give, since this will bring good karma. On the main streets are a large number of fragile-looking ashrams (spiritual dwellings) where the chanting goes on 24/7 and where people are giving food away to pilgrims. As you can imagine, or actually, as you probably cannot imagine, there are people everywhere. People gather here from every part of India using every conceivable traveling option. I saw some pilgrims piled up in a trailer pulled by a tractor. Others come using trains, camels, horses, jeeps, trucks, overcrowded buses, or just walked as part of the pilgrimage. We also saw a few fancy cars, unfortunately not available for hire, so we would be walking a lot ourselves.
In this first of three posts, I will share with you my favorite pictures of the people we met on the Mela ground. The first few days we walked around the various streets to soak it all in. We also visited an area where some pilgrims had made their home away from home. Although the site of the festival is drab and muddy, the inevitable colors of India brighten the scene. The saffron robes of the sadhus, the holy men in India, are everywhere, and women are washing and drying saris wherever they can.
In future posts, I will introduce the colorful sadhus that are at the Kumbh Mela to assist their followers in their spiritual search and then will turn to images trying to capture some of the intense devotion of the pilgrims as they proceed through their bathing rituals at the confluence of the holy rivers.
Welcome to the Kumbh Mela.