World’s Greatest Human Spectacle
Photographing the Kumbh Mela is a challenge almost as great as the event itself. It’s rare in the life of a photographer to have the opportunity be on scene at the largest religious spectacle on earth – India’s Kumbh Mela. Much like the aspirations of every devout Muslim to attend the Haj at Mecca at least once in their lifetime, the same is true for devout Hindus attending the Kumbh Mela.
Based on a mythical airborne battle for control over a pitcher of amrit, (a powerful spiritual nectar), the Kumbh Mela was established thousands of years ago by naked warrior ascetics known as Naga Babas or colloIPBuially, as Naga Babas. The great gathering of souls during auspicious star alignments every three years at one of the four locations where the amrit fell to earth, is said to energize river bathing areas, called Sangams, into holy amrit itself. Bathing in these sanctified waters it is claimed, will wash away sin and bring the true believer closer to moksha, or spiritual enlightenment. This year’s Ardh Kumbh Mela, held at Allahabad (ancient Prayag) near the confluence of three holy rivers – the Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati – may not have been the largest Kumbh gathering ever, (2013 at the same location drew some 100 million), but its estimated 40 million nevertheless dwarfs any other gathering of any kind. At least on this planet.
The event drew hundreds of photojournos and documentary shooters from around the world in their quest of photographing the Kumbh Mela, and we were especially keen to talk with one of them – award winning Indian photographer Swarup Chatterjee! We knew had been in attendance while leading a photo tour workshop for Luminous Journeys, and were anxious to catch up with him and ask about the challenges in tackling the world’s largest religious festival. While Swarup only had three days to shoot the 40+ day event, while at the same time looking after photo tour participants, he was there during the apex bathing day and we were certain he’d have some interesting images and insights to share. To our knowledge, these kinds of tips and insights about photographing the Kumbh Mela are not to be found anywhere else on the internet.
Irreverent Photog Blog: Welcome Swarup, and thanks for agreeing to the interview. You realize you’d have been fired if you refused.
Swarup Chatterjee: Which is exactly why this is such a great pleasure!
IPB: Smart man. OK so – only 40 million people to compete with?
SC: Yes, only. And on the main bathing day, Mauni Amavasya, it felt like I was battling all 40 million of them for position.
IPB: Yes we heard there was an aggressive scrum of photographers when the Naga’s came for their holy dip. But let’s get back to that. First we are curious to know what convinced you to try and tackle such a massive and wild event in the first place?
SC: Well, I had always wanted to photograph it, but this year I was lucky enough to go as photo tour leader with Luminous Journeys, which I was very excited about. Of course I was also excited to experience it as a pilgrim, so it was extra special for me.
IPB: As a photographer, how do you even begin to think about photographing the Kumbh Mela? The size of the grounds and sheer number of people make it difficult to contemplate.
SC: The first thing is to realize that you cannot possibly cover it all, so you need to target your priorities. It was my task to figure out the best way for our group to shoot it as efficiently and interestingly as possible within a few days. When I started searching images online I was surprised by how relatively few strong Kumbh photographs there were, despite what on the surface appears to be an overabundance of opportunity. Finding out the reasons why seemed essential.
IPB: What did you find out?
SC: That there were seven main challenges in covering the Allahabad location, at least as I determined it. 1) Rare good light and hazy visibility. 2) Very long walking distances to desired locations when the light might be good. 3. Reliable information in finding certain desired persons/locations. 4. Generally poor backgrounds. 5. Choosing subjects and compositions amongst the “overabundance”. 6. Getting official permissions. 7. Fighting for position to photograph the warrior ascetic clans (Naga Babas) on the main bathing day. This was the money shot everybody wanted, so the competition was fierce.
IPB: How helpful were these determinations once you arrived?
SC: Good question. It’s one thing to identify the challenges beforehand, and quite another to try and meet them once you are there. The Kumbh has a mind of its own, and does not easily lend itself to the desires of photographers! More than anything, you need to be out there shooting as much as you can, and hope your perseverance results in getting lucky now and then. Having a good local fixer is important, but even they are challenged in knowing just where to be and when to be there. Driving place to place was not an option. This meant long walking distances (the site was 3,200 hectares) between thousands of potential shooting locations and legions of pilgrims. Good timing was exceedingly difficult, so good timing by luck and happenstance became necessary to a large extent.
IPB: Interesting. Not surprising, but interesting. So let’s talk about the problems with the light. The haze and whatnot.
SC: In the morning it got harsh quite quickly, despite the constant haze of dust and dung smoke. And the haze made any Mela-scapes showing the full scene nearly impossible to capture effectively. The Sangam was best at sunrise. After that you had to narrow your scope and could only do so much. So naturally people and portraits became central, and often the best place for that was the even light of tent interiors. The problem there was that they tended to have harsh light somewhere in the background of your subjects. Moving Nagas around like models was not an option, so you had to take what you could get. Spending time talking with them and showing your interest in their stories was important.
Good afternoon light lingered longer because there was more particulate matter in the air. This was the best time to capture portraits of pilgrims, pilgrims crossing bridges, and wandering sadhus.
IPB: Since numbers 2 – 5 on your list are pretty self-explanatory, why don’t we jump to six and seven – official permissions and positions on the big day. BTW, did you have difficulty accessing the Naga akharas?
SC: Actually most of the akharas were accessible during daylight hours. Wild as the Nagas can be, the Kumbh is also a public relations, recruiting and fund raising event for them, so most of them try to be at least somewhat accommodating. However, they do still consider themselves warriors and many carry a fierce demeanour along with sharp weapons! Plus they are usually naked, covered only in holy ash. You want to tread lightly, respectfully. Some are easier to approach than others. Some you don’t approach at all, unless you are looking for trouble!
IPB: What was it like then on Mauni Amavasya? We understand you needed press passes to access the Naga Sangam area?
SC: Even with a press credential it was very difficult to get a good position. Pre-arranged police baksheesh was the only golden ticket, something we did not have and would not have been possible for a group of 10 anyway, at least without drawing a lot of attention and risking a photographer riot. The platform for the press was not large or particularly well positioned. So many avoided it. As I alluded to, a few had police escorts, and were allowed into the Sangam after it had been closed off.
With boats being prohibited on the main bathing day, and no police in your pocket, the only good option to be able to shoot the Nagas splashing into the river was to arrive in the middle of the night before the Sangam was closed and claim your position. This meant standing waist deep in freezing cold water for hours, while at the same time fending off others trying to get in front of you. This was not possible for me because I was leading a group and none of them was willing to do it. Who could blame them? The best we could do then, was to arrive a couple of hours before sunrise and position along the wood-rails that formed the wide procession path to the main Sangam, as close to the water as we could get.
IPB: Sounds exciting nevertheless, and a lot warmer than hours spent in the river!
SC: Indeed. On both counts. We positioned ourselves where the Naga procession was expected to pass and felt pretty confident about it. We did not anticipate the coming mayhem and struggle to hold those positions though. Not long after sunrise – after the Nagas had left their akharas and marched chanting across a pontoon bridge toward the Sangam, they were suddenly heading right at us faster than we thought! Hundreds and hundreds of them, many swinging swords, battle axes, clubs, drums, horns, and jabbing trishuls in in the air. It was a daunting site, while at the same time thrilling. We had to raise our cameras to shoot over people and get clean angles. I will never forget the fate of one photographer who dared to go through the fence and got too close a Naga who grabbed his camera and shattered his lens right in front of us! This combined with all the mad pushing and shoving by photographers and crowds alike, soon sent two of our group back to camp in retreat. The general madness and the aggressive competition of Kumbh photographers, most especially on a big bathing day, is not everyone’s cup of chai.
IPB: Would it be fair to say Kumbh is all about the Nagas? At least in terms of the photography?
SC: Yes and no. I mean they do form an integral part of the whole, and are certainly the main highlight. In fact it’s the 13 akharas of the Shambhu Panch that determine the most auspicious bathing dates. Then you have the hundreds of different gurus and Hiundu sects who set up camps for their devotees, and to attract new devotees.
But the true heart of the Kumbh Mela is the millions of pilgrims who come often very long distances from all over India to show their devotion and experience the magic of such tremendous positive energy. Away from the main event of the Nagas hitting the water, the energy was not only palpable, but you could say, magical. You could really feel it. There so much joy in the air, so much good feeling. It’s the biggest day in the lives of so many millions. So of course photographing pilgrims is critical to telling the larger story beyond the Nagas.
IPB: And what about you? You mentioned being excited about your own pilgrimage as well. Did you have a chance to remove yourself from your group and experience that side of it?
SC: Not get away, but getting away wasn’t possible anyway. I did take a holy dip of sorts, and that’s when I was able to open most to the moment and the magical energy I mentioned. It was quite moving for me, and I can still feel it when I think about it. I hope it never leaves me. Another experience I would consider “pilgrim” in nature, even though I was a photographer at the same time, occurred with a particular Naga in his tent at the Juna akhara.
I should first mention that during my childhood in Calcutta I heard stories about these enigmas, and I had seen one or two “dollar babas” in Varanasi. But experiencing true Nagas for the first time in such a setting was vastly different and very profound for me. There is such a fearless character in their body language that it easily stands out from the ordinary. As a photographer it’s important to connect with the subject, so we would often sit with them and listen to their stories on life as an ascetic.
So inside the Juna akhara, I was presented with a ‘rudraksha’ by a Naga I had been talking with. Rudraksha is a seed traditionally used for prayer beads in Hinduism, and is commonly associated with Lord Shiva. It’s considered auspicious and is also believed to carry astrological influences on a human body and mind. The sadhu gave it to me as a blessing, and I wear it all the time.
IPB: Well Swarup, it sounds like you had quite an experience overall, and got some really fine images despite the difficulties. But tell us, is this it for you, or will you be ready to try this again in Haridwar 2022?
SC: It is certainly my intention. There was so much to photograph this time that it soon became too much. Breaking it down into smaller pieces I think is essential, and this can be improved for Haridwar. The Kumbh Mela is not something you shoot only once, at least not if you expect to capture it as completely and as powerfully as it deserves to be. 2019 was just the beginning, and I cannot wait to get to Haridwar! Photographing the Kumbh Mela for second time in a different location on the Ganges will be nothing short of fantastic.
Bio: Swarup Chatterjee is an award winning travel photographer based in Mumbai, India. He conducts regular workshops in Mumbai and also leads photography tours, including Holi in the legendary Braj in early 2020. To see much more of his unique and often provocative style, please visit his website. On social media, please follow him here.