The biggest show on Earth

January 18, 2013

Allahabad, India

By Ahmad Masood

The Maha Kumbh Mela, or the Grand Pitcher Festival, is one of the biggest gatherings of people on earth; it takes place every 12 years and goes on for 55 days, in one of four cities in India : Allahabad, Ujjain, Haridwar and Nashik.

I moved to India from Afghanistan last year and the Mela, as it is called, was one of the assignments I wanted to cover.

My memories of the word “Mela” come from the times when I used to watch lots of Bollywood movies. Some of these movies would show brothers separated during this massive, chaotic gathering at childhood and then re-united decades later as adults.

At the Mela, the challenge for me was to make a clear picture from masses of people assembled for the holy bath.

The most frustrating part for me was that I could not get to an elevated place where I could show the large number of people from a vantage view point, as one of the greatest shows on earth takes place on the banks of the Ganges river, with a vast flat area around it.

As a photographer when I have a big assignment, I start thinking of images in my head; sometimes I even caption them long before the event begins.

A few days before the Kumbh officially started, every morning at 6am with the temperature just about zero, I would head out to the riverside, to illustrate the scene, take pictures of devotees coming from all over India by planes, trains and buses to take a dip in the waters that they believe will wash away their sins.

One of the highlights of the Mela is the Shahi Snan, or royal bath, where thousands of Naga Sadhus or holy men who grow long hair and beards, smeared in ashes, and march naked to the river to take their bath.

Other activities include religious processions by holy men and devotees, some on chariots but mostly on foot with religious music playing and performances, which sometime include elephants.

There were discussions and complaints among media members and organizers of the Mela for not having a decent position to cover the main day, despite the arrangements made for the coverage.

On Monday, at around 5am, the first group of the naked holy men marched towards the riverside. Some held axes and swords, some wore flowers around their necks, some wore nothing, but all cheered and roared as they jumped in the waters. Police had cleared the area of ordinary devotees and journalists were pushed aside.

To photograph, this is pretty easy, one just needs to get in the cold water, then make sure you don’t get knocked down by the excited pilgrims and overexcited media members. Protect yourself and protect your equipment even more.

Picture opportunity is in abundance, but the quest here is to get the best out of it, nothing less, so you are scanning through hundreds of people, splashing water, changing light among singing and running pilgrims, men and women, young and old.

The little but important problem comes when editing pictures, you get many naked men’s genitals standing out in most of your best shots so if you were lucky a splash of water or a flower bed would have covered the parts.

It was an experience of great intensity, with the brain sometimes struggling with the tens of thousands of images. The day was long but totally worth it.

All said and done, I found it was one big competition of “who gets in the water first” – pilgrims running to get the first dip, journalists running to get the first picture or police running to stop them.


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The photos are wonderful, but the article is insulting, especially if one is aware of the nuances of the English Language. Devotees do not “dip” in water (“dip” suggests a recreational/fun entry into the water.) They enter the water and bathe to remove their sins, but in the context of a holy rite, “ablution” is the more correct English word. And the holy men are naked for a reason: Maybe you should mention why. “Smearing” ashes, or anointed with ashes? English has different words for different contexes, and maybe the writer is not aware of them, and uses colloquialisms that appear flip and mocking by accident, but your editors should be of English nuance.

Posted by miguelz | Report as abusive

The Blogger should have restricted himself to photography, the comments tend to trivialise the religious significance of the event to a Bollywood mela or a race to dip in the water.
Celebration is based on particular zodiacal positions of the Sun, the Moon, and Jupiter, the holiest time occurring at the exact moment these zodiacal conditions are fulfilled.
The literal meaning of Kumbh is “pitcher”. Kumbh is the human body, it is the abdomen, and the sea, earth, sun and Vishnu are synonyms of Kumbh. The pitcher, sea, river, ponds and the well are symbols of Kumbh as the water from these places is covered from all sides. The sky has the cover of the wind, the sun covers the entire universe with its light, and the human body is covered with cells and tissues. That is why it is Kumbh. Desire, that is longing, is also Kumbh. God Vishnu is also Kumbh as He pervades the entire creation, and the creation pervades in Him.

Posted by sayvari | Report as abusive