ALEX RIBEIRO

Kumbh Mela 2019 – Prayagraj / Allahabad

After many years waiting, finally I had the chance to attend the “World’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims”. An indescribable, overwhelming experience which shook me in every possible level. Here is the photo report, along with the information I could collect on the festival.

Me and a Sadhu after the Holy dip. This welcoming, smiling man, emitted an energy like when one touches a fridge with naked feet on the floor – a memorable meeting. (Photo by @João Carlos Gomes)

Kumbh Mela

Kumbh Mela is, nowadays, a religious festival on which millions of Hindu pilgrims come to take a holy dip on a river with the purpose of to help breaking the cycle of reincarnations, getting rid of all sins and attaining liberation. Some rituals associated with the dip, like spilling milk on the river and releasing coconuts down current are also performed for prosperity. 

Mythological Origins

“Kumbh” is the name of the immortal pot of nectar (Amrita) described in the Puranas (ancient Vedic scriptures), dropped in four rivers, by Garuda, after a long fight between gods and demons. 

These four locations are Prayagraj (Allahabad), Ujjain, Nashik, and Haridwar.

In Haridwar there is the River Ganges, in Nashik , the Godavari, in Ujjain, the Shipra, and in Prayagraj the confluence of the rivers Yamuna (also known as the Jumna or Jamna), the Ganges and the mythologic River Saraswati. 

Historical Origins

“Mela” literally means fair, which is what it was, in the previous centuries.

The festival is recorded to happen in Prayagraj on the 7th Century CE as a Buddhist celebration, every 5 years. Modernly, it is known to happen since the 17th Century in the same city, with the other ones to follow later. Despite its religious meaning, it was also politically important and a landmark for commercial trade.

At any given place, the Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years. The exact date is determined, following the Vikram Samvat (Hindu historical calendar) and the principles of Jyotisha (traditional Hindu astronomy), according to a combination of zodiac positions of Jupiter, the Sun and the Moon. 

H.H. Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji Maharaj is the Acharya Mahamandaleshwar (chief religious authority) of the Juna Akhara, appointed in 1998.
Juna Akhara is by far the largest order of sadhus in India, with over 400.000 members. The vast majority are Naga Babas. They have been called the defenders of the Sanatan Dharma. The word Naga, in this case, is derived from the Sanskrit word, nagna, meaning “naked.” And indeed Naga Babas are known for marching naked, covered with ashes, during the colorful sacred bathing rites at the Kumbh Mela.

In Allahabad, Kumbh Mela is organised by Prayagraj Mela Authority. However, the religious part is under the command of Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad, one of the organisations of Hindu Sants (saints) and Sadhus (ascetics) in India, composed by 14 Akharas (which can be very freely translated as religious / monastic orders, or sects). Each akhara houses followers of similar religious customs, views and ideologies, who specialise in both scriptures and weaponry.  This seems to be the original model of rule, interrupted during the British Occupation when it was taken by the East India Company. Before then, the  Akharas collected taxes, participated in trade, and did the policing, justice and military defense, sometimes engaging in wars among them. 

Some facts on 2019 Kumbh Mela

The view from a tower in the main bathing Ghat, towards Allahabad (the fort can be seen in the front, on the horizon, to the right). Photo taken on the Basant Panchami at late morning. Incredibly, it was not as crowded as on the main Royal Bathing day.
An area near the main bathing ghat during a quiet day. The illumination system and trash collection can be seen. Also one can notice all the area being remarkably clean thanks to 24.000 street sweepers.

Temporary toilets and clean water stand posts being used.
Sewage was collected from these temporary ponds and dumped into water treatment facilities to minimize pollution in the River Ganges.
  • 120 million pilgrims (estimated) along seven weeks.
  • 50 million pilgrims (estimated) on the 4th February (Main Royal Bath)
  • 3200 hectares, divided into 20 sectors, with camps organised by over 6000 institutions.
  • Rs 4.236 crore / 636.729.000 USD total budget (including many Allahabad infrastructures like bridges, roads and water treatment). 
  • 22 temporary floating bridges.
  • 488 km long temporary roads, paved with steel plates.
  • 125.000 toilets
  • 800 km drains / 850 km water pipes with 5000 stand posts.
  • 20.000 dustbins
  • 40.000 led lights connected by 1180 km of low tension lines.
  •  45 4G telecom towers
  • 1150 cctv cameras
  • 135 watchtowers
  • 40 police stations, 62 police posts (with over 20.000 policemen); 40 fire brigades and over 2000 medical experts.

The Procession and the holy dip

Young Naga Sadhu in ecstasy, taking the holy dip while holding a bottle of the Ganges holy water.

This is the main reason why tourists visit the Kumbh Mela and we were not the exception. We all saw numerous images of the wild looking holy man, in an ecstatic bliss, while bathing in the holy waters and we wanted to witness – if possible, taking part of it, sharing the energy and the feeling.

It wasn’t even 3:00 AM. The crowds were arriving all night to be at the best spot (the confluence between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers) for the Holy Snan (dip). Soon the roads would be closed and the remaining crowds would need to choose alternate locations.

The day started early – around 2:00 AM when we woke up and got ready for a 6 km walk up to sector 14 – where the Juna Akhara was camped and where the Naga Sadhu procession would start.

It was easily recognisable by its orange gates, with a trident and the picture of its leader, and the orange flags – even tourists with no previous experience could find it.

Though the roads were very crowded, there wasn’t’ much movement in the camp itself when we arrived, a bit past 3:00 AM. Some pilgrims and tourists were already there, and the holy man were probably getting ready, smoking their chillums (conical clay made pipes), doing their initial chants and prayers and warming their bodies. There were hardly 12 ºC!

The beginning of the procession from the camp to the bathing ghat. One of the Maha Mandaleshwars (top of the line gurus) leads, riding a horse.

As the crowd got bigger, the holy man finally lined up and marched, to the sound of a fanfarre. They often screamed – Har Har Mahadev – a plead for Lord Shiva to take our sorrows, anger, jealousy and so on. In sum, to remove our obstacles.

The maha mandaleshwars from Juna Akhara return from the “Holy Snan”

We followed the procession along the bridge and then to the bathing Ghat, which was already completely packed with pilgrims. As “press” we were allowed to follow the holy man but then wereordered to stay away from the river. So our only chance was to see them going and then returning – a bit disappointing, after all the struggle to get there.

Swami Anand Giri being interviewed for India TV before the Holy dip. Swami Anand Giri is a spiritual leader, speaker and the writer of ‘Swarn Bhoomi Prayag’ (released in 2013 at the Kumbh Mela), about the history of Prayag (Allahabad), its cultural significance & its transformation to date.

The procession carried on for most of the day (reportedly until 4 or 5 PM) but we didn’t attend it all – it was humanly impossible. One by one, the 14 Akharas arrived, with their sect leaders followed by the disciples – some on foot, some on tractor pulled silvery chariots. Usually the crowds (and the photographers) were kept at a distance for a while, and then they all rushed, some to absorb the holiness, some to get the best shots.

Sadhu drinks Ganges water from a conch shell, after the Shahi Snan

Check the whole gallery for the remaining photos of the bathing and procession.


The holy and the bizarre

Darsham – the contemplation of holiness by the pilgrims is an important part of Kumbh Mela as it offers laymen a glimpse of the holly men divine power.

One of the two sadhus with a raised arm, that we saw at the festival. There are images circulating in the net of a third one ( Sadhu Amar Bharati) who is doing it for 43 years. Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) described that practice in his novels, so it’s been happening, at least, since the late 19th century. We couldn’t find a tangible reason for that. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to.

Sadhus travel to the Kumbh Mela to make themselves available to much of the Hindu public. Their camps are arranged in order that they can be seen by the pilgrims, though retaining some minimum privacy. This allows the crowds to interact with the Sadhus, whether it is by seeking their advice, obtaining their blessing, or simply contemplating their way of life and yoga poses. Seeing of the Sadhus is carefully managed and worshipers often leave tokens at their feet. 

For us, all of this is beyond understanding. We were raised believing in the “mens sana in corpore sano” principle (if not on practice, at least as a theoretical goal) and we’ve seen yoga as an Oriental way to achieve it. However, these yogis engage in practices to destroy their own bodies and numb their minds with weed. On a quick research we came across the word “tapasya” – which means voluntary acceptance of bodily pains to achieve some higher end of life, primarily spiritual realisation. More specifically it means to accept austerities (control) of the body, mind and tongue. We could compare it to the Catholic cilices though the main reason for the later is to produce mild discomfort and pain and not to actually cripple its user. 

Some sadhus seem to take pride on twisting their penises exhibiting them and using them to lift weights and pull vehicles. Again, that “thing” about the penis is far beyond understanding, in the context of holiness.

Naga sadhu poses on the street, playing ritual drum and blessing pilgrims with a peacock feather whisker. Again, we couldn’t understand the meaning of the bell, other than drawing attention to himself.

If one thing we learned from the contact with this people was to accept all sort of bizarre behaviour without trying to frame it into our logic or subjecting to our judgment. Watch the remaining ones in the following gallery.

The Hijras

The Hijras are an a community of Indian  people born as men, with either irregularities on their sex organs (eunuchs or hermaphrodites) or with female traits of character. Some actually have their penises, testicles and scrotum surgically removed. In the Indian society they are both frown upon and revered. 

People believe they have the power to bless and curse and they are asked to perform rituals at weddings and births, for fertility and prosperity. In the past, they were also fortune tellers, dancers and choreographers. However, during the British occupation, laws were issued against them, so they were (and still are) treated as criminals, and often abused. Most live as beggars and prostitutes. Ostracised by their families, they often join communities, presided by gurus. They’re estimated to be around two million in India.  

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi waiting for the procession to start (it stalled for more than an hour) on the Royal Bath day.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, a Brahman chaste hijra, founded a religious movement, called the Kinnar Akhada (in 2015), and proclaimed their holiness as incarnation of Shiva, Krishna  and Shakti. For the fist time, Laxmi had them joining the “Shahi Snan”, or Royal Bath, at the confluence of the holy Ganges and the Yamuna rivers on the first day of Kumbh Mela, traditionally reserved for reclusive Hindu priests, almost all of whom are men.

The “Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad” (the organisation overseeing the Akharas) initially refused to recognise the Kinnar Akhada as the 14th order – however, Laxmi has forged close bonds with the largest of the other holy orders at the Kumbh Mela, the aforementioned Juna Akhara.

The Hijras and Laxmi were some of the big attractions of this edition of Kumbh, attracting crowds of pilgrims and being featured in many Indian and international media.

Watch the whole gallery of the Hijras, below.

The crowds

Several stampedes have occurred at the Kumbh Melas. After an 1820 stampede at Haridwar that killed 485 people, the East India Company government took extensive infrastructure projects, including construction of new ghats and road widening, to prevent further stampedes. Since then Haridwar has experienced fewer deaths in stampedes: the next big stampede occurred in 1986, when 50 people were killed. Allahabad has also experienced major stampedes, in 1840, 1906, 1954, 1986 and 2013 (triggered after the railway police charged at the crowd with wooden sticks in order to control the huge rush at the station). On this later one, 42 people were killed by the crush of people. The deadliest of these was the 1954 stampede, which left 800 people dead.

Crowds arriving to Kumbh during the night, before the Royal Bath. This is probably the most crowded period, when one need to be cautious not to get lost or squeezed.

Crowd management is now a standard, with the streets being opened and closed with fences operated by policeman in permanent communication with each others, the cctv system and the watchtowers.  Some bridges and streets are only one way traffic during the busiest hours. Having said so, there were a few occasions where we felt really squeezed. I lost my flip flops, once, and some thousands had probably done the same. Sometimes we simply couldn’t move from place and had to wait for the crowds to disperse.

Shoes and clothing laying on the floor on one of the main streets, on the afternoon of the Royal Bath day. Surely, I wasn’t the only one to loose mine!


The remaining images from the crowds are in the following gallery:

The beggars and the poor

It’s estimated that there are around 500,000 beggars in India, despite being considered a crime in most states of India. While poverty is real, begging is quite often carried out in organised gangs. For the privilege of begging in a certain territory, each beggar hands over their takings to the gang’s ringleader, who keeps a significant share of it. Beggars have also been known to deliberately maim and disfigure themselves to get more money. It’s estimated that 300,000 children across India are drugged, beaten and made to beg every day. It’s a multi-million dollar industry that’s controlled by human trafficking cartels. Police do little to address the problem because they often assume that the children are with family members or other people who know them. 

A leper woman left to beg with a child – probably not her own, but rented from their own parents. One of the most hart breaking scenes we witnessed in the whole festival.

Hindus believe that, after the holy dip, it is auspicious to do good deeds, one being giving alms to those in need. Because of that, thousands of beggars line by the bathing Ghats exit roads. Among them there are all sorts of people. The crippled were obviously brought by someone – those aforementioned gangs. Some wounds are scarily true, others maybe false or self-inflicted. The most shocking ones are the lepers. The treatment —a triple antibiotic course called Multidrug Therapy (MDT)—would be provided free of cost by the government but they probably make more money while sick, so they are kept this way.  Neither the police nor any institution seems to take any action against this exploitation. 

Also, there is a thin border between begging and street performing – children dressed as goddesses or wire dancing are a common sight, not only in the festival, but throughout India.

This is a side of Kumbh Mela that one can only accept, though it’s far from easy to. 

Check the remaining shocking images, on the gallery below:

The Faces

They speak for themselves. Sometimes, the way to embrace Kumbh is just to feel what these persons transmit us, not really thinking on what they are or what they represent.

Daily life

Kumbh mela is not only about Sadhus, Holy dips and crowds of pilgrims. It’s a whole city with goods and services, so all can safely enjoy (sometimes literally just survive) it. There were 902 stalls of food, grocery, utensils and so on. Most of them we didn’t see or notice. In fact it was common to walk some kilometres to find a bottle of water or a samosa.

As we visited some sectors during our stay, we noticed many small things that proved to be essential for the whole festival.

A meal being served for the pilgrims – usually some chapati and lentil curry, sometimes rice and fritters. Many organisations do this, from early morning to sunset, in different sectors. Also there are free shelters where one can spend the night, if cannot afford to pay for a tent or a room.

Imagine what it takes to get firewood (and buffalo dung) for cooking and heating, vegetables and grains (all the food we saw was strictly vegetarian), to feed some millions for over a month; fresh water, sewage; shoes for those who damage or loose them (happened to me); bags, crockery, small wood burning stoves, mil, tea, cigarettes, you name it.

This is far from being a commercial event (which got us really surprised) – trade is reduced to the indispensable but still, there given the size of the crowd, it’s still quite a bit.

On the next gallery, watch the daily activities and businesses of the pilgrims.

The landscapes

Surely that’s not the first thing that comes to one’s mind when thinking about Kumbh. However, its dimensions; the abrupt changes from empty to overcrowded; fact that it really never sleeps and the location, among the rivers create scenarios for impressive landscape shots. Please scroll through the next gallery to see them.

Acknowledgments

Me and João Carlos Gomes spent 8 days in Pragrayaj (Allahabad) from 3 to 11 February 2019. That included Mauni Amavasya (Main Royal Bath / 2nd Shahi Snan) 04 February and Basant Panchami (3rd Shahi Snan) on the 10th. We stayed in two camps, around 6 km away from the main bathing Ghat, on a trip organised by State Express (a travel agency from New Delhi which we booked online).

I used Nikon D850 and several lenses, including Nikon 16-35 f/4, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 VR, Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII, and Sigma 15 Fisheye.

A very special thanks to Sanjeev Mehta / Mohan’s Adventure for the expertise and willingness to help and guide our steps to the best spots, sharing precious information which made it all possible.

Also thanks to Nikon NPS Singapore, for taking care of my abused photo gear and making sure it’s always ready for the next adventure.

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