The biggest show on Earth
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.