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Kumbh Mela

Around the world, nothing matches this triennial Indian religious festival
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Haridwar, India. Three images were stitched together to create a panorama of the penultimate ceremony of the 2010 Kumbh Mela.


The Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world. Every three years the festival is held in one of four towns along the Ganges River, and each town hosts the Kumbh every 12 years. Over the course of several months, tens of millions of Hindus make the pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges at this auspicious time and place. The Kumbh is also the time when the itinerant holy men of India, the Sadhus, convene for rituals, initiations and the accumulation of donations. With such a constant visual assault, it can be challenging to take it all in and get meaningful photographs, but for intrepid photographers, Kumbh Mela is a nonstop opportunity to capture a unique cultural event. I went with Art Wolfe, Trevor Peterson and Nina Taylor, all experienced world travelers, and we all agreed that Kumbh Mela was among both the most challenging and the most rewarding photo experiences we had ever had.

Don’t Let Conditions Get You Down
Haridwar is a small town nestled between the Ganges and the foothills of the Himalayas. An overflowing river of people had to negotiate the narrow streets and twisting alleys of the town to get to the bathing ghats. The police set up barricades and roadblocks to staunch the flow, and often we found that you can’t get there from here. This inconvenience was compounded by daytime temperatures approaching 110° F, choking dust and smoke, and overactive police who, in their eagerness to keep things moving, would shoo us off of bridges and other viewpoints or block our routes. It quickly became clear that a tripod would be unusable in the streets. What does one do when the situation conspires to make your life difficult? Focus on what matters.

Adornments are common among pilgrims during Kumbh Mela.

I was in India to capture images for my book about religious practices. I wanted to return with pictures of Indian holy men and pilgrims. To ensure I had sufficient coverage of the holy men, I visited the Sadhu encampments four times. I was lucky that Wolfe had photographed at previous Kumbh Melas elsewhere and gave me guidance on how to approach them and what to expect. After watching him interact with several holy men, I wandered off by myself to photograph. Almost to a man the holy men I approached were friendly or at least tolerant of a photographer in their faces. The Naga Sadhus are the most flamboyant, often clothed in nothing but ash from their fires and adorned only with beads, scraps and an occasional watch. It seemed that most had cell phones, but I had to wonder where they kept them. After a few visits to the camps, I felt myself relax. Stress fades once decent images sit securely in the hard drives.

Embrace Serendipity
In a chaotic situation, the last thing you want is tunnel vision. Little vignettes appear and disappear in an instant, so be prepared and keep an open mind. Haridwar’s streets were full of amazing faces, swirling color, unfamiliar street food and people engaged in the mundane tasks of everyday life. I photographed children having their heads shaved, musicians in full costume, women drying their saris by the river as a strong wind unfurled them like flags, cows in the courtyards, cooks intently at work and extended families lining up for a group picture. These glimpses of life on the street help tell the full story of the event.

A ceremony on the banks of the Ganges.

Of all the serendipitous images that formed in front of me, a blurred shot of women wearing colorful saris became one of my favorites. I had been photographing all day and I was standing in front of my hotel near dusk when I noticed small groups of women walking up and down the street. I took some tight shots and tried low and high angles, but the images were either cluttered or uninteresting. I asked myself what attracted me to the subject. It was the combinations of colors. I switched to shutter priority, set it to 5 seconds and walked alongside one group after another, holding the camera chest-high and firing shot after shot. I deleted most of the pictures on the spot, but a few held together and told the story I sought.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Women drying their saris after bathing in the Ganges River.

Change The Game
Sometimes the best-laid plans simply go awry. Murphy’s Law is usually in full effect when you travel. The roads are blocked, the bridge is closed, the permits don’t arrive, the guide disappears, the car explodes, the camera sinks in the Ganges. When you can’t win, change the game.

I had been unable to procure a journalist’s visa, so when the big events of the Kumbh Mela were set to occur, I had no chance to set up on the dedicated journalists’ platform. I tried to talk my way onto the platform, to no avail. Instead, I moved under it. I had already figured that setting up a tripod would be impossible, and my guess proved correct. As a ceremony at the river’s edge began, more and more people arrived, all of them crowding in for a view. People pressed against me from all sides. At six feet tall, I could still shoot over most of the crowd while stabilizing my telephoto with the stage support. I captured one particularly good image when the people in the foreground raised their hands in unison. I can’t take too much credit for the composition—it was the only shot possible—but this shows what can happen when you’re not willing to be defeated by circumstances. Then, instead of fighting the crowd, Trevor Peterson and I quickly ran up a hill overlooking the city and the ceremony in the gathering dusk. We arrived just before pure black chased the last blue remaining in the sky.

Sari Blur. A five-second exposure made this dramatic blur possible.

Keep Up Your Strength To Be Visually Creative
Stress and travel can wear down your resistance to infections and disease. No one relishes the idea of spending a day sick in a hotel room, so stay hydrated and watch what you eat. In many places, street food is often safer than restaurant fare because it’s fresher. I often attack a queasy stomach immediately with Imodium, and I always clean cuts with antiseptic right away.

Stay In The Moment
Traveling to India to see Kumbh Mela in person is an incredible experience. There’s so much vibrant color, exotic culture and dramatic sights that it’s easy to become overwhelmed. When the light is changing fast or the subject you dreamed of photographing remains elusive, look around. There’s always something wonderful nearby, an element of the story you may have missed had things gone according to an arbitrary plan. Memorable faces, local color and stunning vignettes are everywhere. Don’t be blinded by expectations. Instead, take a deep breath, look around, and stay in the moment. The world is waiting for you to notice the whirlwind of life that’s right in front of you.

Kumbh Mela 2013
The next Kumbh Mela is in January and February, 2013, in Allahabad, India. Allahabad is located in the southern part of Uttar Pradesh at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The Kumbh Mela was last held there in 2001. Now is the time to make your plans if you want to go to Kumbh Mela in 2013. There are numerous travel companies who can help you arrange your trip. Amidst India’s extraordinary sights and rich culture, Kumbh Mela is not to be missed.


You can see more of James B. Martin‘s photography at Learn more about Kumbh Mela and traveling to India by visiting