I don’t want to sound feminist here, but the fact of the matter is that when I surf the internet for images of this grand Indian festival, which I have been longing to go to, I only find pictures taken by my fellow male photographers. I wondered, while there are quite a few female photographers in the business these days, why couldn’t I find one at Kumbh Mela? This nudged me more to attend the Kumbh Mela 2015 and capture the essence of this magnanimous carnival on my camera and the experience on my blog.
A Quick Brief:
Kumbh Mela is the largest spiritual festival in the world which takes place in one of the four Indian cities; Haridwar, Allahabad, Nasik and Ujjain. The venue is decided depending on what position the Sun, Moon, and Jupiter hold in that period in different zodiac signs. For the uninitiated, let me give you a gist of the Kumbh calendar which is based on Hindu Lunar Calendar. The Maha Kumbh Mela occurs once in 144 years, the Purna Kumbh Mela occurs once in 12 years, Ardh Kumbh Melas occurs once in six years and the Kumbh Mela occurs every three years.
So, as per the calendar, I am attending the 2015 Nasik Kumbh Mela which occurs once in three years. I guess it’s a good thing that I am starting my Kumbh Mela diary with the smallest one as it gives me a good warm up session before my stint at the Ardh Kumbh Mela, which will be organised next year in Haridwar. While the festival runs through a month and a half, the most important dates of the visit are that of Shaahi Snaan (Holy Dip), the most auspicious dates to take a dip in the river.
Since 29 August 2015 was an auspicious day for the Shaahi Snaan as well as a Saturday, I eagerly packed my bags for an exciting weekend. I left home on an early Friday morning from Mumbai and reached Nasik around 10.30 am. Though I was expecting a huge crowd, the gigantic sea of human faces at Trimbakeshwar took my breath away. Here, I was witnessing the “oldest religious gathering known to mankind.”
The pictures of nude sages smeared in ashes from head to toe may daunt you a little but the experience will enliven you. I urge my fellow female photographers to take a leap of faith and attend the Kumbh Mela as it gives you an insight into the spiritual world like no other.
Here are some tips to make your journey a smooth one.
Plan your trip to Kumbh Mela
Most photographers have just one tiny bag that is always ready for an impromptu trip. I would strongly suggest you to curb such an urge and preplan your Kumbh Mela trip. Surf the internet for important details like:
1. Dates of the Kumbh Mela
2. Dates of the Shaahi Snaan (Holy Dip)
3. Venue of mass feeding
4. Venue of religious discussions
5. Procession timings
Another great source of information is the Maharasthra Tourism Boards’ official website https://kumbhmela2015.maharashtra.gov.in/1035/Home.Connect on Whatsapp with this number 91-9527999142 for necessary information about the procession timing, emergency contacts, walking routes and even toilet locations.
The best way to get quality pictures is by travelling on foot as you not only get to witness rare sights but also because it’s easy to climb an elevation for an aerial view. Hence, it becomes imperative to train your body for long hours of walking (an average of 12km per day), along with carrying your photography equipment and baggage. There is absolutely no chance of getting local transport during snan day (holy Dip).
Being a solo woman traveler in a festival which is packed with celibate sages and religious men, it is important to dress conservatively. I would suggest you to be fully clothed and always carry a scarf or a dupatta all the time. Since it’s a spiritual congregation, try to wear subdued colors.
The crowd also has a mix of unruly men, so it’s best to travel with a companion but if you have none, befriend some on the way and stick to a group that is easily available for help in case of an emergency.
The venue is huge so it’s easy to get lost. Plan in advance for the main event you want to capture the most as it takes time to reach the venue through the crowd and to find a perfect spot to click pictures. The district administration has maps for all akhadas, routes and processions. Carry it with you all the time so you don’t miss the main activities.
Accommodation can get a little taxing, so look out for Dharamshala (cheap and sanitised religious rooms), Jain temples and guest houses for budget friendly stay options.
Since roads are barricaded to maintain the human traffic, you will not be able find any food and water. So carry some light snacks, biscuits, sandwiches, croissants, energy drinks and water with you all the time in a small rucksack or bag.
The sages sometimes charge to be photographed so carry Indian currency all the time and be ready to pay them.
Respect the culture and be aware of your surroundings. Basic amenities like toilets, health services, ambulance, etc are easily available. In case you do not know the directions, just ask for them from other people. However, the density of the crowd can be overwhelming so always be alert, try not to do anything drastic and mingle along for a safe journey.
Experience & Sights
My first experience of the Shaahi Snaan (Holy Dip) at Nashik and Trimbakeshwar was mind boggling. The place was full of thousands of Mahants and Sadhus (sages) belonging to various sects.
The tradition of Kumbh Mela is so old that it is difficult to trace the exact date of its origin. But the Naga Sadhu named Harishwar who I met during my journey, told me the story behind Kumbh Mela. According to a mythical legend, during a war between the demigods and demons for the possession of elixir of eternal life, a few drops had fallen on the ground in four places that are today known as Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik. It is believed that these drops gave mystical powers to these places. Hence, the sages from all over India gather during this auspicious time to invoke the blessings of the Gods and wash away their sins by taking a dip in the Holy River, Godavari.
What captivated me the most was the procession of Shahi Peshwari – a traditional parade of the Naga sanyasis, Chaavanis (camps) of the Juna and Nirvaniakhadas. I was amazed at the way in which these sadhus had given up the materialistic life to find their inner self and achieve Nirvana. The images of naked Naga Sadhus covered only in ash, sitting across small fire in a tent, reciting the importance of Kumbh Mela and the need to give up worldliness to a devotee captures the essence of my journey to this holy place.
Everywhere I looked I found an opportunity to take a photograph. Some images can be rather jarring to a worldly person, hence it’s important to go with an open mind. When I saw one Naga Sadhu with a lock pierced on his genitals, I realised their devotion in abstaining from worldly pleasures. An image as powerful as that not only changed my perception towards the world of the Indian Himalayan Naga Sadhus but it also taught me a lesson in devotion. If you want something badly, you need to give up without questioning!
‘Sanatana Dharma’ or Hinduism, as it is popularly known, is the oldest religion in India. Many decades ago, when India was known as Bharata, Hindu religion was under threat from many other religions like Jainism, Buddhism and Islam. At that time, 13 groups of people from various Hindu sects were raised as Akhadas to repulse the invasion. The Naga Sadhus are usually the followers of one these Akhadas. Every Akhada has its own deity, lineage of preceptors and a branch of the Veda that they adhere to.
I visited the Ramkund area where the Sadhus belonged to the Vaishnav sect. They took bath in Ramkund which is different from Trimbeshkwar, which was populated by Naga Sadhus.
Kumbh Mela is a paradise for photographers where they not only acquire a unique cinematography experience but also take home many interesting fables.