Maha Kumbh Mela Photo Tour Workshop + Calcutta & Varanasi
Oh my feet haven’t really touched the ground since returning from India. It was such a fantastic trip and I am still on a high. I so appreciated having been on another Luminous Journeys trip where everything was well organised and all I needed to do was focus on photography." - Rosalyn Johnson, New Zealand
The Maha Kumbh Mela has been held every 12 years since 3464 BC! It is unquestionably the largest and most colorful spiritual spectacle on earth. When you consider that “ordinary” India is an almost kaleidoscopic feast for the senses, imagine the possibilities for this gargantuan gathering! From a travel or documentary photographer’s perspective, most especially those interested in people and cultural expression in exotic settings, there is nowhere else in the known galaxy that offers such a fascinating array of photographic possibilities.
Innumerable luminaries, as well as celebrities have partaken in the Kumbh Mela. The Magh Kumbh of 1894 was attended by Mark Twain, while on an around the world voyage. Apparently, Mr. Twain lost track of time, as he writes of it being in 1895. Mahatma Gandhi was there in 1918, Paramahansa Yogananda in 1936. The Dalai Lama was at the 2001 Maha Kumbh, along with the likes of Paul McCartney and an undercover Madonna. Richard Gere, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones were reportedly part of the 2013 crowd. And do you know who was there photographing the Magh Kumbh Mela of 2019? That’s right, your luminous tour leaders for 2025, David Lazar and Swarup Chatterjee! OK, enough of the name dropping 🙂
This Luminous Journey begins in one of the most remarkable cities in the world, the beguiling, marvelously frenetic former British Raj capitol of Calcutta, known today as Kolkata. Co-leader Swarup was born and raised here, so in addition to many of the well-known must shoot locations, he will guide us to some great unknown spots of his own. From Kolkata we fly to the holy city of Varanasi. The place will be teeming with colorful Sadhus and Nagas coming and going from Prayag/Allahabad. This will be the perfect warm up for the mind-blowing scene of the Maha Kumbh Mela. After Varanasi you’ll be ready for it, or as ready as you can be! Arriving at the Kumbh we will be welcomed at our luxury camp fit for a Maharaja. After 4 nights and 3 1/2 days of unforgettable photography, we fly to Delhi and say our fond farewells. Unless of course you will going on to the Taj Mahal with us. See the itinerary below for more details.
“I took the 2019 (Kumbh Mela) Luminous Journeys tour of India led by David Lazar, and all I can say is WOW! There is no better way to capture the colors and flavors of this fascinating country... David is the best kind of leader–not only an expert photographer himself, but also a self-less, patient teacher, and a lovely fun guy who set the tone for our great adventure… I also truly enjoyed my fellow photographers, and the local guides.” –Emily Kelting, USA
The Maha Kumbh Mela Grounds - It’s a massive area, some 35 square miles of dry riverbed. We will have it narrowed down to the most photo rewarding, but even so be prepared to walk 5 or more miles a day. Fortunately, our luxury camp is the only one close the main action, so your walking will be a great deal less than with other photo tours. This is the great Kumbh, the Maha Kumbh. which happens only every 12 years. In 2013 they welcomed an estimated 100 million visitors – not all at once! - but over a 6-week period. Expect more this time. But don’t be intimidated. It is not wall-to-wall people except in limited areas at certain times.
The heart of the Mela grounds is the confluence of three rivers – the Ganga, Yamuna, and the now extinct Saraswati. Some say it’s a mythical river, but there is photographic evidence taken from space that it once indeed existed. It is at this confluence, called the main Sangam, or holy bathing area, that the naked Naga Babas – warrior aesthetics – take their holy dips on the most auspicious days, as do hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. There are many other sangams as well, crisscrossed by a dozen or more pontoon bridges over the Ganges. The major bathing on Feb 12 is called Maghi Purnima, the full moon day of the lunar fortnight, which according to Hindu scripture has special spiritual significance for the holy dipper.
The grounds are essentially a temporary city, with hundreds of Hindu religious sects from all over India who set up camps for their devotees. Some are small and austere, while others are large with giant religious figures or animals and swirling colored lights dancing in the night. This pop-up city is divided into grids with boulevards and sandy streets, and for the most part the camps are neatly divided and not haphazard. Beyond these camps are tens of thousands of pilgrim tents stretching into the distance. There will be no shortage of hawkers, chai wallahs, bottled water wallahs, etc. There will also be plenty of bathroom facilities and first aid stations.
The Naga Babas, Stars of the Show - Below our luxury tents and near the Ganges, is a long line of camps known as the Naga Akharas. These are not the fancy kind of camps with giant figures and whirling lights. These are the austere kind, full of austere Naga Babas, or warrior ascetics. Expect to spend a good amount of time at the various akharas. They spend a lot of time sitting around there dhunnis smoking hash and entertaining wide-eyed pilgrims. In the mornings when their dhunni fires die down, they roll around in the holy ash and wear it as their only clothing for the day. They might break into impromptu sword and trishul demonstrations, do indescribable things with their appendages, or march around banging drums and ululating. Whatever they do, it’s always a source of fascination.
While certain extreme religious practices such as standing/sleeping on one leg for years on end, raising one’s arm forever in an upright position, meditating in the hot sun with a cow dung fire burning on your head, or lying on a bed or thorns, are commonly practiced by Nagas, these and other colorful tapasyas are by no means exclusive to them. We will be seeking some of the more surreal of these activities elsewhere around the grounds as well.
The Atmosphere – Reverent and often electric. The overall mood for Kumbh Mela’s is joyous and spiritual, and it’s hard not to share in the feeling at some point. If you open to the enormous positive energy on the Magha Purnima bathing day, you may well discover yourself tingling from head to toe! For pilgrims, this is the most meaningful time of their lives. Every Hindu hopes to attend at least one Kumbh Mela during their lifetime. You will meet people here from the far reaches of the country, who may well have traveled the length or breadth of the sub-continent by rail and by foot, or even only by foot! There is a lot of security at a Kumbh Mela. Thousands of Indian Army personnel, local and national police, along with Mela security will be posted around the grounds to maintain order, should order need to be maintained. The spirits of the people are high and they are extremely happy to be present. This is the apex of their spiritual lives, imbued with a resonant reverence dating back more than 5,000 years.
Luxury Accommodation - For our guests pleasure and convenience, Luminous Journeys has chosen to provide the most luxurious, best located, premiere camp accommodation at the entire Kumbh Mela. The location is unmatched, sitting at the highest point above the action, directly across from the main Sangam and the Naga Sadhu Akharas. Think of this as a sanctuary, a place to wind down and relax after exciting days photographing this extraordinary human spectacle. Speaking of winding down, the camp offers a wellness center with Indian massage and a range of other therapies to soothe body and soul, sure to help you absorb the palpable mystique of the Kumbh. In addition, there are daily yoga and meditation classes, plus interaction with sadhus and gurus giving talks. I wonder if they know what an F-stop is?
So – are you ready to take your photography to new heights on this incredible India Maha Kumbh Mela photo tour adventure? To invest in your yourself as a “mad keen photographer”, as the great Sam Abell puts it?
For a Luminous and entertaining summation of the Kumbh Mela legend, scroll down the page to the "Getting Cultural" section.
Hotels – 4/5 star, 4 nights at the finest, best located Luxury Tents at the Kumbh Mela. Includes 5-star hotel right on the Ganges River in Varanasi, of which there are only a couple. In Calcutta we have a 5-star near the center of many of the best shooting locations
Tour Type – India photo tour workshop featuring the Maha Kumbh Mela. Maximum number of participants is limited to between 9 and 12, depending on the number of private tents requested for the Mela
Skill Level – Suitable for ALL skill levels, novice to advanced. Relative beginners will never feel left behind on an LJ trip, advanced shooters never held back
Physical Difficulty – Easy until we get to the Kumbh Mela. This is a very large area and you need to be in good walking shape, up to 5 or more miles per day. Our great location means a lot less walking than the competition. There are no transport options, not even a rickshaw, on the main bathing day
Transportation – 2 internal flights, (Calcutta to Varanasi; Varanasi to Delhi. Vehicles are late model, air conditioned SUV’s or mini-buses w/ plenty of space & bottled water.
*Swarup Chatterjee, Calcutta born and raised, will join the trip should we have 7 participants or more. Our 2019 Magh Mela trip was sold out and we would expect the same this time
Photo Tour Leaders
David Lazar is a renowned photographer & contributor to myriad publications, including National Geographic. Practical Photography has called David “…one of the world’s foremost travel photographers”. He has Kumbh Mela experience, having led a Luminous photo tour group at the Magh Kumbh in 2019. David’s Gallery.
Swarup Chatterjee is a Canon Brand Ambassador & award winning Indian photographer & painter. It’s this blending of two visions that allows him to see differently, and it shows in his distinct, evocative images. His warm & gregarious nature make him an ideal photo tour leader. Swarup’s Gallery.
Highlights - Maha Kumbh Mela Photo Tour
The Frenetic Vibrancy of Calcutta
The 3,500 Year Old Holy City of Varanasi
The Magnificent Taj Mahal –
The Once in 12 Years Maha Kumbh Mela!
Colorful Ascetics, Sadhus & Naga Babas
Asia's Largest Flower Market
The Holy Wrestlers of Varanasi
Night Puja Ceremony on the Ganges
The Wonderful People of India!
Maha Kumbh Mela Photo Tour Workshop + Calcutta & Varanasi
Day 1 – Calcutta – Welcome to India!
Meet in the hotel lobby for orientation and slideshow before your first afternoon/evening shoot. After that introductory thrill ride, it’s be time for your special Welcome Dinner. Kolkata is one of the best food cities in all of India.
Day 2 – Calcutta / Kolkata – A Misty Bridge and Amazing Street Photography
Rise early to hit Jagannath Ghat next to the famous Howrah Bridge crossing the Hooghly River, which is a branch of the Ganges heading to the Bay of Bengal. The steel suspension bridge often seems to vanish in the mist on these winter mornings, with more of it being revealed as the mist burns off. The same for rustic old and sometimes very colorful morning fishing boats. The ghat will have bathers doing morning puja, people shopping at market stalls. The light will be ever changing, with more and more people arriving. The river area ghats can also be outstanding in the late afternoon.
Later we head over to Rabindra Sarani, one of the most talked about locations in the city for street photography. For anyone shy about street shooting, David Lazar will help you over that, and secure impromptu characters for street portraits with interesting backgrounds. For those of you who love street work, you are going to love Kolkata! The lanes here are lined a wide variety of colorful shops that make great frames for environmental portraiture. Rickety old trams stuffed with people and big yellow taxes running through also add to the vibrancy. Swarup Chatterjee, born and raised in Kolkata, will guide us to a couple of his favorite spots in the afternoon and evening before a sumptuous Bengali dinner.
Day 3 – Kolkata - Mullick Ghat – Exhilarating Flower Market
Mullick Ghat is home to one of the largest flower markets in all of Asia. It's also close to Jagannath Ghat so these shoots might be interchanged or combined depending on the light. However, the flower market is definitely at it's wildly colorful best first thing in the morning. First established in 1855, there are more than 2,000 flower sellers here, and almost as many Chai Wallahs! Later we have several excellent choices, from the deity sculptors of colorful Kumartuli, to Sun Yat Sen, Kolkata's Chinatown, and the British colonial architecture and rickshaw pullers of Dalhousie Square.
Day 4 – Kolkata - Varanasi – Mother Ganga & Sadhus Teeming
If there is time for another early morning shoot we will jump all over it. If not, we head to the airport after breakfast for the flight to ancient Varanasi on the Ganges River. The Ganga Mati, has been considered a mother goddess since the time of the Vedas and before, and is the spiritual heart and soul of India. Varanasi is widely considered the holiest city in this most holy of countries, dating back some 3,500 years. Lord Shiva himself is said to have lived here during his time on earth. Afternoon introduction shoot along the river, and then photograph the evening Aarti performance. The riverside will be teeming with sadhus from all over India, given that Varanasi is a major pilgrimage stop on the way to the Maha Kumbh Mela. This is a target rich environment for photographers, with a different vibe and much smaller scale than the Kumbh. We're excited already!
Our hotel in Varanasi is a rare one, a 5-star right on the banks of the Ganga. Yeah, we spoil you a little.
Day 5 & 6 - Varanasi – Dashashwamedh - Manikarnika - Rowing the Wild Side - Street & Portrait Sessions
Early mornings before sunrise along the Ganges are very serene. We will board a small rowboat or two and get ready to photograph locals and pilgrims as they bathe and perform puja rituals in the river, illuminated by the first rays of sun breaking across the water. We’ll get in close, but have a longer lens handy. From the main ghat we continue north away from the crowds of Dashashwamedh, where lone bathers in colorful saris against interesting backgrounds can make for compelling images. The architecture of the buildings soaring high above the water on approach to the Manikarnika burning ghat is particularly striking, with the river leading in and perhaps a boat full of pilgrims as subject or foreground. After breakfast there will be a free shoot in Varanasi’s fascinating alleys and endless array of scenes arranging themselves in shaded frames quite naturally. Very few people object to being photographed here, so if you see a great scene don’t be afraid to settle in and wait for your decisive moment. And smile! The Indian people are very welcoming, but sometimes it’s we as photographers who need to break the ice. Lunch, free time, followed by a specially arrange photo shoot in the afternoon.
Tomorrow morning free shoot or guided free shot on the ghats (banks) of the Ganges, when the light is most beautiful and mood so peaceful. Besides puja bathing on the river, morning and afternoon options include free and arranged shoots with holy men and naga babas, sunken temple and boat-scapes, visiting a warrior ascetic wrestling akhara training session, exploring temples and the endless back alleys of inimitable Varanasi.
Day 7 – 10 Varanasi – Prayag - Maha Kumbh Mela! - A Menagerie of Photography
It's a relatively short walk down to the Kumbh Mela action from our camp, led by David, Swarup & Vikas. We know the main locations for much of our photography as the layout across from the main sangam will be very similar to our last two trips here. To find those hidden nuggets of the bizarre and the beautiful, we will have sent a scout ahead of our arrival to find them.
You will be free to explore on your own or with a partner or with our photographers and guides. Our camp will be visible in the distance up on top of the riverbank, so you'd have to work really hard to get lost for long! The camp is close enough that you could venture up for lunch and rest before heading back down for the afternoon. This proximity is a luxury in itself. For more details on the photographic possibilities please see the left hand column at the top of the page, under "The Naga Babas, Stars of the Show". Also see "The Atmosphere" and "Luxury Accommodation".
The main bathing day during our time here falls on Feb 12, and is called "Maghi Purnima". It's the full moon bathing day, so extra auspicious!
Notes on Extreme Religious Practices: These are called tapasya, and include standing/sleeping on one leg for years; holding one arm in the air continuously for years; meditating in extreme heat with cow dung burning on top of the head; sleeping on a bed of thorns; lifting heavy weights off the ground with the penis; pushing knives or other sharp objects through various parts of the body; hermit-ism and extremely long periods of meditation; and in the case of extreme Aghori sects, even the eating of human flesh! The best places to see and photograph various tapasya being performed are Varanasi, various festivals, especially the Kumbh Mela.
4 Overnights - Luxury Tents/Camp overlooking the Heart of the Festival
Day 11 - 12 / Day 1, 2 Extension – Exit Kumbh Mela - Delhi - Agra - Delhi (Extension Only)
For those going on to Agra and the Taj Mahal, we will depart Delhi soon after landing and proceed by road. For those heading home, we wish you a fond farewell and look forward to seeing you on your next Luminous photo tour adventure! In Agra, afternoon shoot of the magnificent Taj from intriguing angles outside the Taj grounds. Overnight, then sunrise shoot at the Taj until your heart is content. Breakfast, visit to the Red Fort, and other street happenings. Return to Delhi. We'll drop you at your hotel or the airport. Most flights head to the US late at night.
What’s Included in the Price of Your India Kumbh Mela Photo Tour?
Photographer fees and top English speaking guide
All accommodation, inc. 4 Nights Lux Mela tents
In-country flights, airport & ground transport
All meals from Day 1 dinner through
Day 11 breakfast
Ample bottle water and refresh towels throughout
All entrance, zone and camera fees
Local model donations
Personal purchases & adult beverages
Trip cancellation or medical insurance
Gratuities for hotel porters, local guides & drivers
India visa fees
End of trip gratuities for photographer tour leader
More Knowledge – Better Pictures
The Legend of the Kumbh Mela
The winged mount of Lord Vishnu, Garuda, that maniacal, pterodactyl-on-acid looking purple-blue creature seen on the side of many an Indonesian jet liner, was given the task of securing a kumbh, or pitcher, of amrit, or holy nectar, from the earth and delivering it safely back to Swarga, or heaven, where a previous fight amongst gods had resulted in its prohibition. (Not even in heaven does Prohibition work).
After a great churning of the oceans using an inverted holy mountain to distill amrit from salt water and sea life, Garuda began his immortal flight back to Swarga gripping a great pitcher full of cosmic moonshine. It was somewhere over ancient Prayag (present-day Allahabad) that the demons who had assisted in the distilling process and expected a piece of the action, engaged Garuda in history’s first aerial dogfight. The demons were no match for Garuda in the end, but nevertheless caused enough havoc over the 12-day flight to result in the tipping of the kumbh and the spilling of four immortal drops of amrit back to earth. The first landed at the instant holy Hindu city of Prayag, the second, at Haridwar, the third at Nasik, and the fourth at Ujain. Kumbh Mela’s are celebrated every three years at these holy river sites, with the great one, the Maha Kumbha Mela, celebrated every 12th year at Prayag/Allahabad.
It was the astrological work of a naked proto-astronomer (Naga Baba) in 3464 BC that matched myth with ‘reality’ and deduced the earthly times and locations of the spilled nectar with celestial alignments, so that a gathering of spiritual purification might be held accordingly. The spilled amrit could then be recharged into the elixir of enlightenment. This would not only make a good bath water for the great unwashed, but could vanquish lifetimes of Karmic debt and bring instant Enlightenment to those who were ready. Thus, the Maha Kumbh Mela, estimated in 2013 to be some 100 million strong, was born 5,481 years ago, to a single parent.
The Eternal Fires of Moksha
Varanasi, or Kashi, is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, and the oldest and most sacred in India, dating back some 3,500 years. The inextinguishable cremation grounds of Manikarnika are also the oldest and most sacred on the subcontinent. Manikarnika is Hindi for “ear jewel”. Legend has it that the goddess Sati sacrificed herself for Lord Shiva here, with one of her earrings having fallen on the spot. Along with being situated on the banks of Mother Ganga (which has in recent years been legally declared a living being), explains its ‘most sacred’ status. Hindus believe that to be cremated at Varanasi is to attain moksha, or liberation, from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
And so for any Hindu who can afford the wood of the funeral pyres, (the wood monopoly is controlled by a class of very wealthy “untouchables” known as Doms), Varanasi at Manikarnika is the best onward ticket available.
In terms of photography at the burning ghats, it is not allowed. So approach with caution when on your own, or be prepared to be shouted at or even forced away. Shooting up close and personal on the ground can be arranged by special permission. Interestingly, the families of the departed don't seem to mind at all. Shooting from the water is tolerated if you have the right contacts and boatman.