Mark Luscombe-Whyte: The Maha Kumbh Mela
A 'saint' is escorted to the festival. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
Pilgrims arriving after a long journey across India. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
The crowds begin to head for the Sangham across one of the many pontoon's set up over the Ganges. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
A sadhu meditating on a small hill overlooking the site. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
Sadhu's of the Juna Akhara running into the Sangham. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
One of the hundreds of small boats taking pilgrims to the Sangham at dawn. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
A mother and child at the Sangham before bathing. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
A Sadhu of the Juna Akhara the day before the main bathing day. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
Pilgrims walk towards the Sangham. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
A Sadhu of the Juna Akhara. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
One of the many barbers on site to shave the pilgrims heads after they bathe in the Sangham. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
A recently shaved pilgrim. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
A Sadhu of the Juna Akhara © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
Pilgrims waiting to be fed. © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
A child playing on the baks of the Ganges © Mark Luscombe-Whyte
Exactly 12 years ago to the day I arrived at The Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahbad, India. At the time this was the largest gathering of humanity on the planet. I had waited for 11 years for the festival and within 6 hours of arriving I had all my cameras stolen but through a couple of chance meetings I managed to procure new equipment and the photos here are a small selection of the series I managed to shoot over a two week period.
The Maha Kumbh Mela takes place every twelve years at Prayag (Allahbad) in India and is recorded as being one of the largest gathering . The origins probably go back to the Vedic period and the first written reference is found in the accounts of the Chinese traveller Huan Tsang who visited India in 629AD. People from all walks of life flock to the Mela from all over India. The most important event of the festival is probably the bathing ritual at the sangam which is at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and there are six royal bathing days which are particularly important. Hundreds of thousands of people arrive daily to bathe believing that they will achieve Moksha which means that they will pay off karmic debt and reach an eventual liberation from the cycle of life.
On the main bathing days the scene is simply extraordinary. Early in the morning the procession of saints begins. Sadhus from all of the Akhara’s walk in a procession, normally led by the Juna Akhara down to the waters edge and as the most auspicious hour arrives the first wave of sadhus run forwards into the river to bathe. All around as far as the eye can see are hundreds of thousands of people waiting for the sadhus to finish and as they do they move forwards into the water. The bathing continues all day over a period of 42 days. Once the bathing has taken place people move to the river banks and are replaced by a new wave. People then begin to dry themselves and the banks of the river shimmer as thousands of saris are dried. Men head off to some of the 5000 or so barbers on hand to have their hair shaved, women perform puja and families descend on the Pandas who note down recent births and deaths in the family record. Away from the river an enormous temporary city covering about 18 square miles provides accommodation, food, religious discussions and lectures to the pilgrims.