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Alex Webb: Reflecting on the Kumbh Mela

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Pilgrims wait to bathe in the early morning at the 2013 Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad, India. In spite of polluted water and cold, crowded conditions, they report returning home healthier than they came.

Every 12 years, when the stars align just right, the annual cleansing ritual of mela becomes the world’s largest religious celebration—the Maha Kumbh Mela. Over a period of about eight weeks, millions of Hindu pilgrims converge on the city of Allahabad, India, to wash away their sins in the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers, thus becoming one step closer to heaven. Photographer Alex Webb spent a month experiencing this epic spiritual gathering in early 2013. His photographs appear in “Karma of the Crowd,” published in the February 2014 issue of National Geographic.

Any time that one tries to photograph an event as immense as the Kumbh Mela, there are inevitably logistical complications. How does one navigate a sea of some 30 million people? How does one find one’s way to those rare vantage points that enable one to get a sense of the sheer magnitude of the gathering?

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The millions of pilgrims voyaging to Allahabad for the Kumbh Mela stay in a temporary tent city constructed on the floodplain of the Ganges. Kalpwasis, above, come for at least a month and live a spartan lifestyle.

For me, however, the most complex issues raised by photographing the Kumbh Mela were cultural. The festival is considered one of the most sacred events in Hinduism. Washing in the waters of the sangam is believed to be an essential spiritual experience—a life expanding, if not life changing, experience for Hindis. But for a Westerner like myself, the festival seemed a chaotic scene of sensory overload—of incessant blaring music, dizzying clouds of dust, assaults of vibrant color, and millions of people bathing in and sometimes drinking the waters of what appeared to be a polluted river. How can I as a Westerner understand an event like this—so utterly alien to my notions of spirituality, notions that are wrapped up in individualism? How does an outsider begin to understand this kind of heightened spiritual experience that’s able to exist—and is perhaps even triggered—by the vastness of the crowd?

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Naga Sadhus, holy men who are followers of the Hindu deity Shiva, enroute to the bathe in the water.

That said, I found myself visually transfixed certain times of the day during the festival. Again and again, I was drawn to those pre-dawn foggy riverbank scenes when the numerous bathers appeared ghost-like, their luminous bodies glimmering in the otherworldly yellow-green glow of the sodium vapor lights.

Much of the time I was preoccupied with the challenge of trying to capture a sense of the enormity of the crowd. It was not physically easy to get above the crowd to begin to suggest its size. The press stands, as well as the few police towers, were located far back from the water, useless for taking photographs along the riverbank. Additionally, aerial photographs and drones were not allowed for safety reasons. Ultimately, I ended up having to do a balancing act—quite literally—on top of a fence, with my tripod taped to the fence post and Vinay, my assistant, holding on to my leg to keep me from falling, and intermittently arguing with the police about my presence there. I was fortunate to be able to keep the camera level enough to ultimately create stitched panoramic composites out of a series of vertical images.

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Before dawn an old woman performs puja, a ritual offering to the gods. The most devout pilgrims are often elderly. They come for the entire festival and renounce all comfort while there.

Looking back at the images now, I see that somehow, despite all these difficulties, the early morning light and sense of color—especially in one of the panoramic photographs (pictured at the top of the post)—spoke of something more transcendent than just chaos and my photographic frustrations and anxieties. Somehow, in the early morning, the millions of pilgrims bathing and praying took on an aura approaching serenity.

I still don’t know if I can make rational sense from my Western point of view of what seem like diametrically opposed notions—spirituality and pandemonium. On the other hand, perhaps my photographs can begin to suggest what I cannot wrap my mind around.

Follow Alex Webb on his website. See more pictures and read the story “Karma of the Crowd” here.

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