As you will by now no doubt have seen (by the tsunami of images generated) humanity’s greatest gathering is taking place on the banks of the River Ganges in Allahbad, India. The Kumbh Mela, a bathing festival for Hindus that draws millions of devotees (and photographers and tourists) to bathe in the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna has just started.
This year, up to 100 million people are expected to attend. I last covered it in 2001 when there were ‘only’ 70 million in attendance. I’d also shot one in 1995 – an Ardh (or half) Kumbh so I sort of knew what I was letting myself in for. They both feel a long, long time ago. I remember that in 2001 I was working a good deal in medium format and all I took with me were two Mamiya 6s and an old Vivitar flashgun. I remember shooting the entire set on Kodak colour neg film (I used to be sponsored by Kodak). It felt like I was trying to do something different, something new.
On that trip I travelled up to Allahabad with Kalpesh Lathigra and Jason Eskanazi. I seem to remember bumping into Stephen Dupont and the late Tim Hetherington (then at Network with me). Bruce Gilden saved me from getting beaten with a lathi by an Indian policeman (a long story…) and I remember being freezing cold every day before dawn as I rose from my inadequate sleeping bag. My fondest memories are reserved however for another fellow Network photographer, Nikolai Ignatiev, who died tragically a few years later. A very talented journalist, Nikolai had a colourful life story to say the least. Sadly, few traces of his work – nor indeed of Network Photographers – remain online (but see here for an archived obituary) but good memories.
Some pictures and thoughts of absent friends.
India – Allahabad – Pilgrims stream into the Maha Kumbh Mela grounds across pontoon bridges
India – Allahabad – A man dressed as Hanuman the monkey god shows an act of self-mortification
India – Allahabad – A saddhu and his Western disciple
India – Allahabad – Ropes cordoning off bathing grounds at the Kumbh Mela
India – Allahabad – Pilgrims crossing pontoon bridges over the Ganges at the Kumbh Mela
India – Allahabad – Pilgrims bathing in the Ganges
India – Allahabad – Naked saddhus prepare to process to the bathing grounds at dawn
India – Allahabad – A man peers into a slidehow at the Kumbh Mela
India – Allahabad – A man and wife bathe in the Ganges during the Kumbh Mela
India – Allahbad – Stuart Freedman (L) and Nikolai Ignatiev © Kalpesh Lathigra
And just because I feel nostalgic today, here are a couple of my favourite images from the Ardh Kumbh way back in 1995…
India – Allahabad – Saddhus after their bath in the Ganges during the Ardh Kumbh Mela
India – Allahabad – Devotees on a boat on the Ganges