The Ardh Kumbh Mela Festival

January 29, 2007 | By Mario Tama | News

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Hindu pilgrims had already jammed the hazy river banks at the holy confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers at 3 AM as I arose from my tent. I was in north India to photograph the most auspicious bathing day of the 45-day Kumbh Mela Festival, the largest religious gathering in the world. This year, up to 70 million are expected to attend.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Unfortunately for some photographers, the Indian authorities decided to lock down river traffic, effectively shutting us off from access to the holy site, as our journalist camp was located across the river to the southwest. I piled into a rickety, wooden boat with a German photographer, three hours before sunrise, as we attempted to flout the traffic ban and traverse the river to the site. We managed to cross the water without difficulty but we were unable to land on the other side as the banks werew heavily guarded by unflinching Indian police who shooed our boat away at every turn. I began to think that getting into Iraq would have been easier. We eventually maneuvered a couple of miles upstream and we were able to dock on the north side of the river, along with two AFP colleagues.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Thinking that we were in the clear, we walked back down the river bank towards the site. Yet the Indian authorities again blocked our way and forced us to hike through an endless, circuitous maze of checkpoints and back roads as dawn quickly approached.

After countless negotiations with various police officers and hours of hiking, we managed to break away from the herded route and make our way to the spot called Sangam, which is considered the holiest of places to bath as it is at the exact meeting point of the three rivers. Just as the sun began to rise, the Juna Akhara sect, an unpredictable lot of thousands of naked Sadhus (holy men), paraded past me through the dust and down to the water to bathe. Notoriously unfriendly to photographers, one Sadhu slapped my camera away as he danced past on his way to the river.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The collective energy of the masses was palpable and quite a beautiful thing to experience. The pilgrims buzzed with excitement as they approached Sangam and yelped with ecstatic joy as they finally were able to immerse themselves into the holy, albeit heavily polluted, water. As the day wore on, millions of pilgrims filed down to Sangam to have their holy dip, which supposedly wipes away all sins and paves the way to salvation. A certain Getty Images photographer, not without sin and not wanting to miss the opportunity, eventually joined them.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

More posts by this author

  • Jakob

    This is exactly what I expected to find out after reading the title The Ardh Kumbh Mela Festival. Thanks for informative article