The 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad has recently come to an end. The 55 day festival held at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati river brought together the largest gathering of humanity the world might ever have seen. Some estimates suggest that over 100 million people attended over the course of the festivities. Whatever the real number is almost irrelevant – it was without doubt a one of a kind event and an amazing thing to be part of, if only for a few incredibly tiring days.
I went to photograph the festival as a result of a long chain of events beginning about 14 years ago in Ecuador. I was surfing on the coast having finished a shoot for Oxfam in Colombia and there met a writer/photographer/surfer who was staying in the same guest house. In the course of conversation the subject of the Kumbh Mela came up and it was there that the seed was sown. In 2001 the last Maha Kumbh Mela was held and for some long forgotten reason I didn’t go – I guess work probably got in the way. That meant a long 12 year wait until the festival came around again and the next opportunity came to photograph the largest religious gathering on earth.
The most auspicious bathing day, known as Mauni Amavasya, was this year on the 10th February. It is then that the Sun and the Moon enter into the sign of Capricorn and it’s believed to be the day when the universe was created. The day holds extreme religious importance and taking bath on this day in the holy waters is deemed immensely significant and auspicious.
Being the busiest day of the festival meant the crowds were incredible – no forget that – beyond incredible. Setting of from our camp on the Western side of the river it took in excess of 3 hours to walk to the main bathing area at the Sangam – the river had to be crossed several times via the numerous tightly packed temporary pontoon bridges end everywhere was a solid mass of humanity. The sheer number of people and density of the crowd is almost impossible to describe, at times the crush was literally breathtaking – it seemed as though entire villages of people were walking together hand in hand – the women all holding the hand or sari of the woman in front and impossible to pass through without getting carried away by the flow. Tempers were tested to the limits but remarkably there were incredibly few signs of any anger or aggression.
Having got close to the Sangam (the main bathing area) by 4:30am is was time to get into position to photograph the procession of the Naga Sadhus – the naked, ash covered ascetics devoted to a life of austerity and prayer. Police were everywhere – restricting access to the main procession route but a bit of sweet talking soon got me the right side of the barriers.
Just before dawn the fenced pathway was cleared by police and officials and the cry “the Nagas are coming” was heard. Lots of locals advised to stay clear of the Nagas – they have swords – they are uncontrollable – they might hurt you – these were all warnings that police and other told us. As the first hint of the sun appeared so the first wave of Nagas came down the road – difficult to photograph with rapidly changing light – a mix of tungsten floods, dawn light and a bit of off camera fill flash. Waves of excited (probably cannabis fuelled) Nagas were followed by their Gurus riding on tractors and trailers with thousands of devotees behind.
By dawn it was time to battle the crowds and move to another location – but this was a experience that will be hard to forget.