Capturing India’s Divine Chaos
Photographers usually communicate through their lens, but this time our intrepid cameraman supplements pictures with words
BY THOMAS KELLY
WHEN HINDUISM TODAY ASKED ME TO PHOTOGRAPH THE 2013 Purna Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj (Allahabad), I didn’t think twice. This will be my fourth time covering the Kumbh Mela, the others being Haridwar in 1998, Prayag in 2001 and Ujjain in 2004. And now a return to Prayag, confluence of the holy waters of the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati rivers. Over a 50-day period 100 million pilgrims will come here from all over India—indeed, all over the world—to witness and internalize the holistic spirit of this timeless Himalayan tradition and to earn spiritual merit by taking cold dips in the holy waters. I am fortunate to be returning with veteran Kumbh Mela reporter Rajiv Malik.
Photographing the Kumbh Mela is like entering a magical mandala at ritual time. Within minutes of entering the grounds I am mesmerized by a sea of pilgrims flowing inexorably like a tsunami across the sprawling 5,000-acre makeshift city of tents. Their endurance and tolerance levels are beyond my comprehension. What can sustain such patience, other than their deep faith and gratitude at being at the Kumbh Mela? For most, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform the sacred rituals here and take a dip in the holy waters. I know this: only their unhurried discipline, coupled with meticulously planned infrastructure and sophisticated crowd control, could possibly keep the rivers of people flowing so smoothly.
They carry minimal belongings—a blanket, several cooking pots, flour and a roti roller, stainless steel water glasses, an extra sari for women and dhoti for men, and the essential ritual objects: incense, matches and vermilion dye for offerings. All this fits into a well-worn canvas bag carried on the head. I stand still, the camera in video mode, as the pilgrims stream past my lens, the elderly tightly clutching the sari of a relative in front of them. What would happen if this human chain were broken and they were separated? How could they ever find each other again among all these millions?
Each morning at 5 am, after a much-appreciated cup of tea (thank you, Rajiv, for bringing the electric teakettle), I step out of our UP Tourism tented colony and join the human wave of pilgrims. After a 45-minute walk, being blessed by an orange-colored Hanuman murti along the way, we arrive just before sunrise at Sangam, the confluence of rivers that makes Prayag the most auspicious of all four Kumbh Mela sites. Already thousands are standing hip deep in the cool waters, awaiting the sunrise. I’ve come to photograph them giving praise to that which gives us life—Surya, the Sun—hoping to capture that inner gaze, a meditative resting with their inner essence, free of the dharma of having to think about “Me and the Other.” The faces are calm, hands cupped together holding water offerings, lips slightly parted while reciting personal mantras. The pilgrims appear suspended in peace, bathed by the golden-soft morning light. The visual poetry of this timeless moment conveys a sense of eternity.
Coming out of their meditation, they take a deep breath, many pinch their nostrils closed, some elderly couples join hands with their family members, and all submerge themselves into the great Mother Ganga-Yamuna-Saraswati. They rise from the water blessed.
In order to capture their inner gaze, their connection with their essence, I must be in the water, but not so close as to be intrusive. Using my 80mm to 200mm Canon lens, I focus gently and with precision, hoping my presence does not disturb this moment of grace. Nearby I notice boys trolling for coins with magnets tied to strings. Each of us has our purpose here, our task to perform.
Saints and Sages
Historically, and still today, the Kumbh Mela is a convocation of the holy ones, and Rajiv is instrumental in bringing us into contact with them. Having chosen the spiritual path, these revered saints and sages skillfully and compassionately teach and provide for hundreds, even thousands, of followers. Patient and poised, the saints sit blessing pilgrims and meeting other saints in intense dialogue. I photograph them as unobtrusively as possible, eagerly listening to their instructive messages between clicks. It is a rare privilege to be in such close contact with saints and sages who have spent a lifetime studying and thinking about how to help humans help themselves to live a fulfilling and spiritual life.
I have always been fascinated by the tyagi sadhus—the renouncers, those men and women who seek freedom from worldly life and from any consciousness of duality, of “Me and the Other.” For over 25 years I have been photographing them at the melas, at Shivaratri in Benares and at the sacred grounds of Pashupatinath in my home country of Nepal. In their striving to attain freedom (moksha, liberation) they walk an unconventional path. Many perform penances that few of us will ever see. I search each day for these men and women. I find one who has been standing up without lying down for 15 years, others who have held their arm aloft until it atrophied, others who have taken a vow to only drink milk for life. Their goal is to sever their attachment to the body and focus on their inner devotion to God.
Photographing these remarkable souls requires proper greetings, courage, clear motivation, acceptance and an abundance of patience. Monetary offerings are appreciated by some, especially the naga sadhus. Before photographing them, I absorb their presence, watch their eyes and inwardly thank them for sharing an example of mind control over pain and suffering and for their continual striving to live a life in pursuit of freedom—a life which few of us, even those who wish, are able to emulate.
Main Bathing Day: Mauni Amavashya, January 10, 2013
The entire press has been waiting for this day, the most auspicious day to take the dip in these sacred waters. We have been instructed to photograph the march from the towers erected a short distance back from Sangam, and to be there early. I leave our tent at 4:30 am, having already scouted out which tower would offer the best vantage point. When I arrive, the tower is packed with over fifty photographers and major filmmakers. Below us is a sea of 30 million pilgrims. With the first glimmerings of dawn, the pilgrims converge towards the sacred waters. As the Sun’s rays spread over the mela grounds, the naga sadhus approach, eyes focused inwards. Hundreds of police, on horseback and on foot, clear the pilgrims away to make room for the procession. The tower is surrounded by the tsunami of pilgrims making way for the stream of nagas. I shoot a few more pictures; then with adrenaline at peak level, I descend to the open ground and run toward Sangam with other press photographers. Whistles blow and the stream of nagas flows into Sangam. The confluence of three holy rivers has become a merging of four.
We must be dervishes, darting in and out of the procession. Photographers with small throw-away cameras have positioned themselves in the water, directly in front of the nagas, to capture their religious fervor. Photographers carrying high-end digital cameras get several shots, then turn away from the splashing water to save their expensive gear. I stand at an angle to the rush with my camera on continuous shooting mode. I capture a cascade of images, then quickly turn around and concentrate on the march back to the akharas. The nagas are raucous and ecstatic. I dart around, shooting scenes that will be etched on my mind for life. For the record, if you’re a photographer and dare to enter the naga procession, take one camera body and lens and transform yourself into a Nataraja.
Packing up gear and saying goodbye to the UP Tourism staff is bittersweet: these professionals have generously allowed us to hold our accommodations longer than expected. We load our belonging onto rickshaws, knowing that exiting the crowded grounds by vehicle is impossible. We slowly make our way to a back exit road where the staff have arranged a private taxi. All the way to the Lucknow airport I ride with my eyes shut, watching the amazing event play back in my mind. Life is full of magical moments, and these moments and encounters are now embedded in my hard drive and soul. Thank you, HINDUISM TODAY, and all the extraordinary people who have allowed me to capture human beings at their best. Jai Ganga!