In 2013, I missed a chance to see the Mahakumbh at what was then known as Allahabad. A hectic work schedule, financial stress and low confidence in travelling alone made me stay back and wait for the opportunity that would come again only after 12 years.

Fast forward to 2019, Allahabad is now Prayagraj and is abuzz with the celebration of Kumbh again. Though not as grand as the Mahakumbh, the Kumbh Mela is still an event to reckon with, claiming the distinction of being the largest religious gathering in the history of mankind. This time I was ready and desperate to be there, not willing to wait another six years. A chance glance at an advertisement by Times Passion Trails set the wheels in motion and within less than a week of the starting of the event, I was at the Kumbh Mela!

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Why Visit Kumbh Mela?

So, why was a self-proclaimed atheist desperate to visit the Kumbh? I have been asked this question before and thinking about it, I feel that this Mela is not just for the believers. As a great and ancient tradition which is a living testimony to thousands of years of our heritage, Kumbh is for everyone and has something to offer to anyone who is willing to travel to it.

For someone who is interested in photography and in learning more about ourselves, this confluence of humanity at the Sangam was a chance to discover many lessons and capture our civilization in motion in my lens.

How could I let go of this chance?

The History And Significance Of The Kumbh Mela At Prayag

As per the Hindu Astrology, when the Jupiter crosses into the zodiac sign of Taurus and Sun goes to Capricorn after the completion of a 12-year cosmic cycle, it is time for the Mahakumbh at Prayagraj. When Jupiter goes to Scorpion while Sun and Moon remain in Capricorn, it is time for the Ardh Kumbh.

There are legends of the Samudra Manthan and four drops of nectar falling at four places within the sub-continent (Prayag, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain) where Kumbh happens, these seem to be recent attributions to award a special religious significance to the events. At some places like Nashik, the Kumbh Melas started being organised as late as in the 18th century AD.

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Kumbh Mela, Haridwar. J.M.W. Turner. 1850s

Among the four locations of the Kumbh Mela, the one held at Prayag (Allahabad) is considered to be the second oldest (after Haridwar). The earliest mention of a mass religious gathering and ritual bath is found in the records of the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang (644 AD) during the reign of the great king Harsha. Being on the confluence of three holy rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati), Prayag held religious prominence since ancient times and remained an important venue of this gathering for centuries. The earliest British records refer to the “Coomb Fair” to be held in January 1870 and talk about having sanitation controls for the masses that would gather.

Whatever may be said about the antiquity and religious history of the fair, there is no doubt that it has continued to be one of the most important religious events of the subcontinent for centuries, a spectacle that must be witnessed!

“It is wonderful”

“the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination.”

– Mark Twain (1895)

First Impressions At Prayagraj (Allahabad)

At an interaction before flagging off our trip from Lucknow, Yogi Ji, Chief Minister of the state, promised us that Kumbh Mela would be a surprise, something that has never been done before, and certainly not on this scale. As we crossed the traffic of the Allahabad town and moved towards the Kumbh venue, this realisation dawned upon us slowly.

The crowds were still sparse as we were among the first to arrive but the mammoth arrangements, a lot of which was still in progress, could be clearly seen. For as far as eyes could see, a city of tents had sprung into existence on the banks of the rivers. The heaps of garbage, which we have become notorious for, had all but vanished. Other amenities mentioned in our brief – like thousands of bio-toilets, abundant arrangements on the Ghats and jetties, elaborate bandobast for security, the work that has gone into arranging an event of this scale could be clearly seen.

During our stay, if there was one phenomenon that I witnessed most prominently, it was the conviction that nothing is impossible if the will is strong.

Thank you Uttar Pradesh!

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Clean Allahabad, new infrastructure, tent cities, dazzling lights

Indraprastham

Our abode at the banks of the river Ganga was called “Indraprastham”, an impressive tent city built not by the Asura Maya but one that rose from the toil of human endeavour. There were hundreds of tents at the venue, a huge reception area, a dining hall and even boardrooms to hold meetings. The staff was courteous; however, seemed a bit overstretched due to the magnitude of the setup. Facilities inside the tents left a lot to be desired though, could have been better considering the high-end aspirations of the property. In the end, it is the Kumbh and all of us must make some adjustments. I loved our time there and the freedom that it offered when compared to hotels. Recommended if you are planning to visit the Mela.

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An Interview With A Swami And The Ganga Arti

The first item at our itinerary on the day of arrival was a visit to the Parmarth Niketan Ashram Camp and have an interactive session with Swami Chidanand Saraswati. It was a nice session and instead of religion, our discussion revolved mostly around the cleaning of rivers and nurturing a sustainable growth that does not kill the ecosystem.

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There was a havan followed by the session and then we proceeded towards the ghats for the Ganga Arti. This is a relatively new concept at Prayagraj, probably inspired by Haridwar and Benaras and was my first.

I tend to get confused in crowds and the same happened with me there. I just was not able to decide which way to take the photographs. Hopefully, this is something I will be able to improve in the future. A few photographs of the Ganga Arti for your viewing.

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We met Ramdas Ji near the ghats after the Ganga Arti was over. Carrying just a small schoolbag-ish backpack, this elderly gentleman was going to stay at the Sangam for a month. He was very photogenic and I have promised him that I will send the photographs to his village in Murena.

A quiet morning by the Ganga

The river Ganga was an integral part of my growing years in Patna, as it is with anyone who has been brought up there. The river is a guardian deity in our festivals, a partner in our excursions and a daily reminder of the bounties that she bestows on us. As a kid, I would catch the school bus at the Bhadra ghat, would often visit the Darbhanga ghat later when I was in the college and the Engineering College ghat used to be one of our favourite hangouts. The bonds have grown weaker in the years I have stayed away; but even today, whenever I long for Patna, I miss Ganga Maiya.

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On our first morning there, Justin (my roommate and a great friend) and I sneaked out before sunrise and walked to the banks of Ganga just behind our tents. Away from the din of the Mela, solitude was the prime feel of this place. Between the two of us and a few birds I was alone, transported back to my childhood, to those beautiful mornings of the Chatth festival by the riverside. I missed everything, our home, parents, relatives and friends who have all gone their own ways. The feeling that these waters would ultimately flow by my home held some consolation though.

So much for being an economic refugee…

To The Sangam

We started for the Sangam at about 8:00 am. Our group was dropped off near the ghat where we had witnessed the Ganga Arti the previous evening and crossed one of the many pontoon bridges leading to the Mela venue. The morning was still young, there was a chill in the air and mist at the horizon. Early morning pilgrims, children having fun, boatmen picking trash from the river and esteemed winged guests from Siberia kept us company. Cameras were soon out and we were clicking away to glory.

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Way to the Sangam

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An elderly couple was coming our way, returning from the Sangam. After a small talk, they readily obliged when we asked if we could take some photographs. This gave us our first portraits of the day.

Three kids were standing on some wooden branches in water. As soon as they saw us on the bridge, they were ready for a performance. They would wait for us to signal them to jump and there would they go splash into the water. This game went on for a while, giving us good some good photographs and them, lots of fun till we bid them goodbye and moved on.

At The Kumbh Mela

Just as there is a tent city where we stayed, the Kumbh Mela venue is another huge tent city, organized neatly into sectors and many times as magnificent. As I look back, I struggle to find words to explain how it felt.

A kaleidoscopic confluence of humanity, it seems to encompass all regions, religions, and colours of India within itself. If not for the cars and bikes, we could well have been transported in another era where humans, camels, elephants and ponies jostled for space during the Mela. There were Naga Sadhus, other ascetics, pilgrims, and lots of tourists thronging the venue, some wonder-eyed like us, and some completely at peace with themselves. Numerous ashrams and akhaadas everywhere were serving people in langars and a medley of bhajans of all tunes played on loudspeakers. 

If I put all the photographs that I want to show you, this post will scroll on and on… So let’s try a slideshow. Hope the experiment works for you.

“कुछ बात है कि हस्ती मिटती नहीं हमारी
सदियों रहा है दुश्मन दौर-ए-ज़माँ हमारा”

A walk around the Sangam grounds reiterates the fact that religion can never be separated from life in India. The Sanatan belief system that goes back by millenniums has survived all onslaughts of time and will probably persist as long as our civilization exists.

Another stark realization was how disconnected I have become from our culture. The traditions and rituals which were so familiar during the childhood now seemed exotic. Even the widespread poverty that engulfs Bharat like a toxic mist seemed alien to me. Kumbh seemed like a call to return to the roots…

The Naga Sadhus Of The Kumbh Mela

Perhaps the most famous symbols of the Kumbh Mela are the Naga Sadhus who arrive at the Kumbh from their abodes in various parts of India to set up camp and take part in the rituals. Naga Sadhus are a semi militarised militia of Shaivite ascetics who trace their origins to various akhaadas set up during the middle ages, primarily for defending Hinduism from invaders.

The Naga Sadhus have a unique persona – a lifestyle without attachments, even clothes and devoid of the influences of the civilized society. Their unique appearance, they are often naked save for ash smeared on their bodies, and quirky nature generates a lot of curiosity among the general public. Contrary to some sensationalist reporting, the Naga Sadhus are neither fierce Aghoris, nor are they cannibals or practitioners of the so-called black magic. They are just one of the many colours in the spectrum of our culture who should not be feared unnecessarily.

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Sector 16 on the Kumbh Grounds has most of the akhaadas and Naga Sadhus that Kumbh is so famous for. After we had overcome the initial shock of finding them sitting nonchalantly without much clothing, we got more comfortable interacting with them. We visited the Juna Akhaada as well, the most famous of them all, talked to many sadhus, took their blessings and clicked photographs after getting their consent. They can get very friendly if you are not too intrusive and it is always very interesting getting their perspective of life and karma. They make great portrait subjects as well!

We had a good conversation with the baba in goggles and even recorded an interview with him. He became a sanyasi around 20 years ago and seemed to be well educated in the Western style of education. The goggles he was wearing was apparently given to him by a French lady in 2015 and has served him well since then. He even shared some of the “prasad” with us!

बन जाऊं अघोरी। 
जो तू भस्म होने को तैयार तो हो।।

A Boat Ride To The Sangam

We were supposed to visit the Akshayvat inside the Allahabad fort and an ancient Hanuman Temple nearby; however, the crowd made sure that we could barely manage to see Hanuman Ji and none of the grand old banyan tree at all. We decided not to wait a lot and skipped to the next item on our wish list – a boat ride to the Sangam.

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Boats ferrying pilgrims and tourists to the Sangam. The Allahabad Fort can be seen in the background. 

A boat ride in the silent waters of the Triveni Sangam is a great way to enjoy its scenic beauty. One can almost notice the difference between the waters of the Ganga and the Yamuna; while the former is slightly muddy yellow and goes gently, the latter has darker hues and seems to be more temperamental. Floating platforms have been placed at the Sangam where people can get down from their boats and take bath.

Initially, we had no plans to take a dip on this ride. However, as we sat in our boats, watching others have fun in the waters, someone was the first to give way to temptations and took a ‘leap of faith’.  Soon, most cameras were lying in the boats and their owners – in the water. It was a fun evening!

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The Birds of Sangam

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This winter, the Sangam at Prayagraj (Allahabad) is welcoming not only millions of pilgrims to its banks but also hordes of esteemed winged guests all the way from Siberia. Migratory birds like these gulls travel thousands of kilometres to India every year to spend the winter. There were thousands of them out there and they seemed to be having a fun time at the Kumbh!

Lost At The Kumbh Mela

All of us have grown up seeing Bollywood films where siblings are lost and separated in the Kumbh Mela, only to be reunited years later after lots of song and dance sequences, despicable villains and fight scenes. We had our very own “Lost at the Kumbh” time when we decided to get on a late evening adventure. It was part fun and part meh.

Our minds were still there at the Juna akhaada much after we had returned to the camp. At around 7 in the evening, four of us decided to go back to the Mela venue and hopped on an e-rickshaw. The hope was to meet up with the babas again and get some good night shots.

Things refused to go as per the plan from the very beginning – while I forgot to bring my camera, another friend brought the camera but forgot the batteries. To add to it, our rickshaw driver was totally lost and dropped us in the middle of nowhere. Another one picked us up after an hour but he seemed to be high on something and dropped us way further than where we should have been. Result – when we crossed the pontoon bridge, it did not look like anything that we had seen during the day and we were lost again.

So we wandered for hours, people giving us weird glances and feeling a little uncomfortable as night was falling. We reached the akhaadas just in time to get a few photographs (and some more ‘prasad’) and another auto ride, a hitchhike and miles of walking later, reached our camp almost by midnight. Though worrying in parts, it was fun!

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तासिते सरिते यत्र सङ्गते तत्राप्लुतासो दिवमुत्पतन्ति ।
ये वै तन्वं विसृजन्ति धीरास्ते जनासो अमृतत्वं भजन्ते ।।
– ऋग्वेद, खिलसूक्त

The Finale – Snan Of The Paush Poornima

The following morning was one of the important dates of the Kumbh, the full moon night of the Paush month from the Hindu Calendar. Lakhs of devotees were expected to arrive to take bath at Sangam and it was going to be very crowded. It was freezing cold as well as if to test the resolve of the faithful.

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We started while it was still dark and reached the jetty to get on our boats. There was heavy fog around and visibility sometimes reduced to just a few metres. It also added a dramatic feel to the surrounding – even though we were in the middle of a large gathering, it felt lonely…

The sun started to peep on the horizon when we reached the Sangam. It was surreal, the feeling of being one with the elements. I did not take bath owing to a bad cold but as I sat there on the boat, I was strangely at peace with myself.

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As the light got better and others were done with the snan, our boats took us towards the ghats where a sea of humanity had come down to pay a tribute to the Triveni and wash their sins off. An eternal civilization which never succumbed to the invasions from outside, and within, was rising to another glorious morning, determined to live another day…

Did you like this story of the Kumbh Mela 2019?

Apologies for the length of the write up, but this was a story that had to be told in its entirety. 

Kumbh Mela 2019

For Pinterest