Kumbh mela: the biggest gathering of humans on the planet
This bizarre festival is a perfect showcase that religion can still move and unite people. The Kumbh mela is solely responsible for creating the biggest gathering of humans on the planet. When the moon and the stars are in the exact right position, for Hindoes the time has come to take a ritual bath in one of India’s holiest rivers. The Kumbh mela is held every 3, 6 or 12 years in the cities of Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. During the Ardh (half) Kumbh mela of 2019, more than 230 million people visited the city of Allahabad.
On one of the day’s of my visit, during Shahi snan (Royal bath), over 50 million Hindoes will take an early morning dip in the holy water. Let me rephrase that; 50 million people on one day! With snake charmers, holy rituals, thousands of naked “naga baba’s”, India’s holiest men, and people from all over the sub-continent, this day could easily be the ultimate travel photographers dream!
I visited the Kumbh mela before in 2010, in the city of Haridwar. Struck by the madness, intensity, crowds and opportunities for travel photography, I decided to travel to India again. I booked a flight, set up a trip and headed out for the city of Allahabad in January 2019. With a stopover in Agra, I travel to the festival by train. Not unusual in India, the train is exploding. People are everywhere, sleeping on luggage racks, under the chairs, where ever there is an inch. The compartment offering seats for 6 is jam-packed with more than 23 people. When we finally reach the city of Allahabad by night, it is clear why. It looks like the whole of India is attending the Kumbh mela! This is crazy!
After a short night of sleep in a bed & breakfast nearby the festival terrain, Vrindavan (free tip for if you even want to visit the festival yourself ;-)), me and a friend head out to the area where the Kumbh mela takes place. This part of Allahabad is called Prayagraj and is made up of the very wide and sandy shores of the Yamuna river. With on it hundreds of thousands of temporary tents, provisional restaurants, shops and even a mobile bank.
And because the organization of the Kumbh mela wants to emphasize hygiene this year, a hundred thousand mobile toilets are placed. Again, think of the scale of this festival. One hundred thousand toilets… This doubles or triples the total population of people during a big festival in the Netherlands! But take my word, you need these numbers to facilitate a couple of hundred million people staying in your town a couple of weeks.
This first day we will take a guide with us, because how do you find your way within this crowd?! And besides that, this is the day of the royal bath, meaning thousands of Naga babas will take a bath in the river at sunrise. For sure I don’t want to miss that. It is part of the reason why I’ve come here in the first place. After an hours walk, we get totally stuck in the crowds. We simply can’t move. Not an inch (no joking). And all this time I am getting more and more frustrated since I know time is running out to see the Naga babas.
And then, all of a sudden…there they are. A big crowd of naked men with long hair, shouting and yelling across the other side of the street. But there is nothing I can do te get even a bit closer, we are still stuck in the crowd.
So I do like I often do when traveling; take it as it comes and not let frustrations get the best of me. While inside I was burning!
But anyway, walking on these streets full of people from all over the subcontinent, makes me feel like being in a movie. We see all kind of strange figures, performing strange rituals neither of us understands the least about. And no matter how much our guide tells us, It still doesn’t make any more sense.
The day passes quickly and when the sun starts to set behind the masses, we are quite exhausted. So after sleeping on the ground in a corner for an hour, we eat something and set out further on foot. The day is almost ending and it is getting more and more difficult to take good travel photos. Suddenly a melancholic feeling creeps up on me, getting stronger, little by little as the hours pass away. Do you know that feeling when photographic opportunities are all around you, but you are not able to grasp them? That is exactly what I am feeling that moment. The day I traveled half the world for. Just to get here, on this spot, at this moment. And I am not seizing it!
“Walking on these streets makes me feel like being in a movie.”
Travel photography isn’t always as easy as it seems. On many occasions, especially in crowded places, it may look easy to take good photo’s, but the reality is often otherwise. Sometimes there is just too much happening, subjects are passing too quickly, other objects will obscure your view, or the background draws away too much attention to your subject. This day at the Kumbh mela festival is one of those days. In a photographic sense, after walking a couple of hours I still don’t have the right feeling about the things I am doing. And when I am scrolling through my photos of that day on the screen of my camera, I am far from satisfied.
But all of that changes when we set out for an evening stroll along the river at the Naga baba’s camp. I feel it when we enter the first tents. The crowds are gone, a hazy smoke is filling the sky -created by the many small fires with incense-, and you can predominantly hear the rhythmic sounds of religious rituals. The vibe has changed for the better! This is the thing I am looking for all along! My photographic heart starts beating faster and faster. I see interesting faces, Indians asking for guidance from religious men, shadows playing with light, dust in the air. Action is definitely coming!
This is actually the first Naga baba that I see sitting in his tent this day. And straight off I feel this is the kind of thing I had been looking for. Eerie, obscure, mysterious. A man looking from another planet is performing rituals that made no sense to me what so ever. This is traveling! This is the right place to be as a travel photographer.
So to start I measure the available light with my sensor. Way too dark! So the first thing I do is I jack up the ISO. My camera can go much higher but I hate pushing it with the risk of losing a good photo due to too much noise. And I don’t use flash unless I really need to do so. Second, I set the aperture low. Perhaps a little too low if you want to get an all-over sharp image. But this is the concession that I am willing to make for not having to use flash. And besides that, most of the image, especially in the outer corners, is dark anyway. Third, I lower my shutter speed to precisely that point where I have enough available light and the feeling that my images will be sharp enough.
From experience most of the time I can feel what’s right and what’s not. Having done all that within seconds around the corner of the tent, I take a few photos, from two different angle’s. And from here on things picked up quickly. The above photo is the one I like most from that setting.
“And from here on things picked up quickly.”
What you will see almost all Naga baba’s doing is smoking weed. This is a daily practice for them. They say that it helps them come closer to God and helps to remove the miseries of life and death. So when entering a tent don’t be surprised that you’ll smell or see people smoking it. But it is great stuff for travel photography. It sounds spooky to most people and with the smoke, it creates a fantastic atmosphere. This baba also had no problem with me photographing him.
But that’s not usually the case. Some of them have the tendency to ask (well, sometimes more than ask) for money or something to eat. Which is ok I think if you don’t have a problem with it. What you will also see a lot is baba’s showing you their hand like on this photo. This way he is greeting me and showing respect. You can see the blood-red eye’s in this photo, a sign he has been heavily smoking marijuana.
The Kumbh mela festival is a special time not only for Hindoes attending the festival but also for sadhus and babas. Both of them, but especially baba’s, enjoy a great deal of respect by Indians. So at this festival, they are sort of the unofficial stars of the show.
Naga babas have no possessions and have devoted their lives to God. Being spiritually and mentally high developed, means that are sometimes both loved and feared. Loved for their guidance and prayers. Feared for their close relationship with God…and the Devil.
Since these men enjoy a special status in India society, it is commonly accepted that they don’t need to work. People provide them with the necessary food and drinks. In return, they receive blessings and good karma.
When taking photo’s in settings like these, I always try to be as invisible as possible. Because sometimes behaviour, the posture of your subject and, I guess, the whole atmosphere can change once people know there is a camera around. And mostly that’s not what I want. As a travel photographer, I usually want to document the world as I see it, without taking part in it.
However, sometimes having people pose for you can work out pretty good. And in India, you will find a lot of people wanting to be photographed. Interesting people. My advice is that when such a situation occurs, try to photograph your subject in front of an interesting background. Such as in the photo above. What I’ve done here is set for a low aperture, which causes the background to be a bit fuzzy. I then turned myself 45 degrees (away from the entrance) and instead of taking into account the curtain behind the man, I framed the sleeping sadhu. Who, with his orange robes, makes for an interesting background.
When walking home we decide to grab a bite from one of the many street stalls in town. It makes me realize that in addition to other challenges the Kumbh mela organization has, how do you feed 50 million people in one day? This is no easy task and therefore do not expect to find too much great food while at the festival.
Tip: if you have a sensitive stomach, bring something from home as the hygiene isn’t great. In fact, this is a challenge in the whole of India, but especially here I would be cautious. Fortunately, if you like food, Indian cuisine is delicious! Think of warm naan breads with garlic of coconut, vegetable curry’s, pakora snacks and, of course, Indian chai!
The next day is just as chaotic as the previous. Already a bit less crowded, but still busy enough. This colourful photo shows women in front of a tent of a specific sect. They are about to eat a free meal, donated by “their” spiritual leader. Why they are all so colourful dressed, I don’t know. Maybe their religion advises them what and what not to dress, or perhaps they all come from a specific area in India (Rajastan perhaps)? When photographing a crowd like this you want to avoid chaos and try to find some lines in the photo. In this case, I tried to do just that create a line (from the right lower corner) that draws you into the photo. Towards the faces of the women.
To me, this photo resembles a bit of what I love and hate about India. On the one hand, this country can sometimes make you crazy. It puts all your senses on high alert. The smells, the crowds, the sounds. Every now and then it just gets too much. But then, suddenly, you are surprised and amazed by the colours, the simplicity of things and friendliness of the people.
On this photo, you see two young boys, Naga babas. Especially the one in the foreground is an important figure. I guess age doesn’t play a role. He is constantly busy blessing people and is looked upon with reverence. This photo is actually one of my favourites because it’s so full of character. Here I applied the same principle as with the sleeping man on the background. I take the second person on the photo in scope instead of keeping my main subject in front of a cloth. With the second boy’s interesting look, this works out pretty well.
Later that day, again, there are all kinds of ceremonies that take place inside tents within the Naga baba compound. I simply have too many pictures of this to be sharing with you here.
You might ask what the takeaway is from reading this article?
I would say that the Kumbh mela is a perfect example of how difficult it sometimes can be to take gripping, compelling photo’s while all ingredients to do so are right there. So often you need to “create” your own photo’s. They don’t always get presented to you on a silver platter. And to do so you will need at least need a good portion of perseverance and some creativity. And when there is a crowd, it helps to focus. Before you leave home, think what it is that you would like to photograph. This could be a specific theme, for example, babas. You can photograph rituals, or it can be part of a broader series of festivals. Anything. But just shooting at random probably doesn’t get you the results you aim for. So come prepared.