Maha Kumbha Mela – The Biggest Spiritual Spectacle on Earth
They came by the millions!
Some arrived on overcrowded trains carrying five times their normal capacity. Some came by bus, by car, some by ox-drawn carts, and others rode on horses, camels, and even elephants. The rich and famous chartered private planes and helicopters, while the less affluent came on foot carrying their bedrolls and camping equipment in heavy bundles on their heads. Wave after wave, they formed a veritable river of humanity that flowed onto the banks of the Ganges at Allahabad to celebrate the greatest spiritual festival ever held in the history of the world, the Kumbha Mela. – Jack Hebner and David Osborn
I was 12 when I first heard about Kumbha Mela. I remember discussing Kumbha Mela with my classmates and how someday I would love to be a part of such a grand spiritual event. Everything about Kumbh Mela is mesmerizing. The sheer number of people, the endeavor required, the organization, the different cultures, the captivating sadhus and Nagas, all left a deep impression and an intense desire to experience it someday.
12 years passed on and it was time for another Maha Kumbha Mela. The expected number of pilgrims to descend upon the Sangam would be beyond 100 million people over 55 days, drawing massive attention globally and keeping the state, center, military and police organizations on their toes for the entire time scale.
Now, if you are wondering what is Kumbha Mela about? It’s a rare planetary configuration that happens once in 12 years, drawing millions of Hindu pilgrims, sadhus and gurus from all over the sub-continent and world to take a holy bath in the confluence of the holy rivers of Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati – known as Sangam.
As a photographer, passionate to shoot travel, people, and culture, it was definitely a hugely momentous occasion for me to capture such a mega event. I had planned everything carefully about this trip months before – the dates, transportation, accommodation, and others.
In 2001, the total attendance was estimated to 70 million people. it was also just the beginning of the digital revolution. There were not many sophisticated cameras, and no smartphones or tabs. Broadband was unheard of in India and you were lucky if you had a working dial-up connection. Cellphones were for the elite class, and landlines/phone booths were the only quick communication options for the rest. Obviously, social networking was immature. So, taking all these into consideration, between the year 2001 and now, there had been a huge leap in terms of technology, communication, and a number of people using all these to their advantage.
The dates I had planned for my time at the Mela was from February 8th to February 16th, during which I would witness two biggest bathing events on February 10th and 15th and February 10th (Mauni Amavasya) happening to be the biggest of all.
As our dates of arrival to Allahabad neared, there was quite an anticipation and excitement around. We were a group of three – me and a couple of my fellow photographer friends. As we descended upon the Sangam city at Allahabad in the early morning hours, we were blown away by the sheer size of the entire Mela area. just one glance over the Mela area from the bridge explained why Sangam is called the city of tents, as there were huge camps and tent sites spread over 58 sq Kms (6000 acres).
After finding our little campsite amidst other huge camps, which was a task of 2-3 hours, we settled in our modest tent accommodation which wasn’t exactly what we expected and definitely not what was promised to us. Nevertheless, we were there now and had to bear whatever came our way. It took us an entire day to get accustomed to our accommodation and the Kumbh Mela area. We were going to spend 8 days there and we had just spent 2 tiring days on the train coming to Kumbh Mela. After slowly settling in, we were itching to go out to explore and start photographing the next day.
What we realized once we started exploring the Kumbh was that everything is vastly spread out and it’s not that you get to take a picture incessantly because you actually don’t come across a mind-blowing subject at every step. Depending on where your campsite or sector is, it is a well enduring trek through crowds, dust, sweat, and heat to reach actual Sangam. Sangam is where you get to take a lot of pictures of interesting subjects. Now, I had seen a lot of international news agencies, and many photographers only interested in showcasing Nagas because they tend to grab attention with their big dreadlocks, nudity, aggressive behavior, and the rarity of capturing their images. However, for me, the essence and complete narration of Kumbh Mela through my images mattered more rather than just to portray a monotonous story from the Kumbh Mela event.
The Kumbh Mela is about people from different walks of life coming together to bathe in the sacred waters of Sangam and wash away their accumulated sins. Sadhus and Gurus of various sects assemble with their faithful followers to spread the message of Sanatan Dharma. It is also a great stage to spread the awareness of keeping our rivers clean and pollution-free. Kumbh Mela also attracts a huge number of foreign tourists, spiritual seekers, photographers, and documentarians from the world over. Thus, it becomes a mega-event celebrating the blending of the entire humanity.
The highlight of my stay at the Mela is the biggest bathing day that took place on Mauni Amavasya on Feb 10th. I was so prepared for that day, that I woke up at 4 A.M in the morning and rushed towards the Sangam only to get stuck in the crowd at such an early hour and chilly weather. I managed to reach Sangam only after 3 hours of pushing and shoving through the crowd. But, It was an overwhelming experience to witness such a gathering of humanity and their act of faith. Official figures at the end of the day were 30+ million people who had successfully taken the holy dip at the Sangam in a single day. Now, that is a mind-blowing figure. Many countries in Europe don’t even have half of that number as their population. 30 Million is half the population of the state I come from. With these staggering numbers, ear crackling noise levels, walking many miles a day, toiling in dust and sweat without good food, I was still a happy man at the end of my stay since I was going back with such rich experience and memorable images from Kumbh Mela. I am not sure if I completely succeeded in capturing the essence of Kumbh Mela, but I know I made an honest attempt and I will go back again after 12 years with some more maturity.