At the confluence of India’s three holy rivers--the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Saraswati--the Maha Kumbh Mela comes to life. Drawing approximately 100 million pilgrims to Allahabad over the course of 55 days, this great Hindu fair is the largest human gathering on the planet. For the main bathing days, 20 to 30 million people come to the Sangam, the holy bathing area where the rivers join, for a dip in the sacred waters.
The nearly eight square mile temporary city, built in the sandy floodplain of the Ganges River was extreme in a myriad of ways, and often a challenge to visually navigate. My intention was to go beneath the surface, to build relationships, and to photograph daily life of these ephemeral city dwellers—to know both the inner and outer experience of the Kumbh.
The shrill music from the loudspeakers just outside the tent, the density of humanity in motion on the bathing days, and the nightly eye-searing smoke from cooking fires were all potential destabilizing forces. Yet, I aligned with the order and flow of life at the Kumbh and embraced the intensity of the experience. It was not all chaos--many afternoons were spent at camp in the company of a small group of Hindu ascetics, sitting around the fire, drinking tea, welcoming guests, observing and learning.
Each day as the sun rose, the same families came to the water for their morning bath, prayers, and rituals on the banks of the river. Communal meals were enjoyed en masse, eaten off of banana leaf plates; in lines of people stretching as far as the eye could see. Yogis practiced asana, smoked hashish around the fire, and reunited with friends they hadn’t seen for years.
All came to be together. It was a celebration to bathe in that very place, at such an auspicious time of year. They came for the enlightening lessons and to sit at the feet of their beloved gurus and teachers. A social gathering on a massive scale---and I was invited in---as deep knowledge, wisdom and tradition unfolded before me.