The kumbh mela caught my fancy since bollywood made me realize that its such a place where people, especially twin brothers separate from each other and meet after twenty years with identical tattoos on their arms. No wonder the “bhule-bijhde shivir” or the lost and found camp is the hardest working dept. at the kumbh mela. So me and a friend made an impromptu plan to see if the place is as crazy as it sounds.
”Maha” is the most important and accurate word to describe what I witnessed at the banks of Triveni Sangam, Prayag (Allahabad). “Maha” or huge, gigantic, galactic, grand…the Kumbh mela does perfect justice to those adjectives. Its not just a place where people gather for fun and frolic, neither is it a pilgrimage of a particular deity or temple. It’s a celebration of faith itself.
Welcome to the “Kumbh Nagri” as it is called. An assault on the senses of an average urbanite like you and me. The chaos, the people, the smells, sounds, sights, distances, the weather fill you to the top of your tolerance. It takes a lot of patience to absorb all the cacophony, but once you are through, the adventure starts to turn addictive.
The Kumbh mela is held every four years at one these four places : Prayag (Allahabad), Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. Of these, the one at Prayag is considered the most auspicious and grand. Kumbh mela traces its history to as far as 500 B.C. Legend has it that Lord Indra, while running with pot (Kumbh) of elixir on his way to Indralok (Heaven) spilled a few drops on earth at these four places where we now celebrate the mela. One day of Gods is one year for mortals on earth, so as Indira was caught after twelve days, we have Kumbh every twelve years.
The holy dip
The main attraction of the kumbh at Allahabad is the chance to dip at the junction of three rivers within a bracket of auspicious 55 days. I could meet people from almost all inhabited continents of the world and endless villages and towns of India. The Mauni Amavasya is the peak of all holy days at kumbh and that is when kumbh unfolds in its full grandeur.
Tips : The best idea is to take a boat ride to the middle of the water at sangam or the junction and enjoy the refreshing river. A little bit of haggling bought the boat fees down from rs.1100 per head to rs. 200, sunset would be the best hour for the sights.
Other than the holy dip, pilgrims come and seek divine knowledge from the sadhus/saints gathered from all parts of country and abroad. The basic idea of such a massive gathering of saints and common man is to dispel knowledge gathered by the holy men over the past few years among the masses for the benefit of mankind.
The sadhus generally belong to a sect or a community called Akhada. An akhada is literally a place where one learns to wrestle. The oldest of the akhadas is called the Juna akhada, juna meaning old. Other prominent ones include Niranjani, Atal, Avahan, Agni and Anand Akhada each akhada has a sub sect of sadhus called the naga sadhus. They are the quirkiest of the lot. Their eccentricities know no bounds. Often live completely naked and ash smeared all over the body, giving them a scary demeanor. The chillum/pot puffing, weapon wielding and other tantric practices of these sadhus keep them under a veil of mystery. They also form the main fodder of the media/photographers. The picture of a baba or a naga sadhu surrounded by a cloud of blue smoke flowing out of his nose, eyes closed and expression of deep thought on the face makes for a classic Kumbh portrait, tough there is much more to the event than that I believe.
The akhadas and the ashrams also serve as the main dwelling camps for the followers of each sect. The days are filled with saintly discourses, free food, many holy dips, shopping and entertainment.
Tips : be sure to ask for permission before pointing and shooting the sadhus, especially naga sadhus. They can be unwelcoming, angry at times. Keep lots of loose money with you it’s a good practice to leave some money after you are done with your photo session.
As this place engulfs you easily with its scale and expanse, we forget that kumbh is a fun and spiritual gathering, a mela and not a pilgrimage. Street shows crop up as the day settles into an evening. Lots of joy rides and performances, shopping of obscure items and the regular fare can be indulged in to heart’s content. Be prepared to walk a lot, few kilometers each day.
Tips : you may want to buy chillums or smoking pipes as souvenirs. You get a good variety to choose from, prices ranging from rs.10 to rs.200 for regular ones and up to rs.500 for the crafty ones. Besides people also buy rabbit’s foot, used horse shoes (of a black horse is most auspicious) as a good luck charm. The bright red and yellow pooja thread the various utensils and wares of a hindu pooja altar form the main body of things at sale.
India is a rich country of poor people. The kumbh exhibits that perfectly. The average devotee is not someone who is young, office goer, urban dweller, camera popping and faith questioning skeptic. He is poor, old and believes in “Ganga-maiyaa” deeply and unshakably. The faith and devotion of these people is mesmerizing and contagious. Folks believe that we are all river Ganga’s children and she will wash away all our wrongdoings and sins. That a dip in the ganges at maha kumbh is thousand times more auspicious as any other day. That bathing in the holy waters is sure to end your cycle death and re-birth. People seek divine intervention from various spiritual gurus and babas, sadhus. Their family problems, spells of bad luck, medical ailments, and uncertain future are all answered by the holy men of kumbh.
Tips: be sure to take some time to interact with devotees and sadhus, who knows you may find your spiritual calling.
Some photography one-o-one: All the things I should have done!
1. Arrive at least two days before the shahi -snan of mauni amawasya. Kumbh activity is at its peak and an opportunity to get the best possible pictures. A stay of 3-4 days is a must to get into the vibe and understand the rhythm of the things as you start shooting.
2. Scout for locations well in advance so that you get there at the best time of the day.
3. Carry enough food and water. The eateries out there were far and wide and not hygienic, rarely did we find a reasonably clean fresh food serving joint.
4. Carry at least two cameras so that you don’t miss action while changing lenses, etc.
5. Prepare to walk a lot.
6. Be respectful while shooting at the bathing ghats. People are in various stages of undress and may not particularly enjoy your presence with a camera around.
7. Enter the water. It’s shallow and worth the risk.
8. Avoid cliché portraits and explore the mela completely.
9. Shoot for few hours each day. You might get carried away and spend the whole day in the fields only to get dead tired, frustrated and bored at the end of the day.
10. Book your stay in one of the camps by the river well in advance. Will avoid lots of walking.
Don’t forget to wash away your sins and enjoy the party.
Thanks for dropping by, would love to hear from you.