Kumbh Mela 2019 – Tent City

Jan 19, 2021

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We stayed for a whole week at Kumbh, walked over 2o km each day. My purpose wasn’t just to get images, but to feel the event. If possible, try to understand it. The holy men, and the holiness itself, were challenging enough, but there was more to come.

The area

For us, the whole tent city was an organised chaos. Yes, there was people coming and going for 24/7, impenetrable crowds on the busiest days. Metal loudspeakers competed on which played the loudest mantra and prayer. It was hard to sleep and sometimes, hard to breathe. Most of cooking and heating was done on cow dung, which releases sulphur in the atmosphere. A few tuk-tuks carried wealthy pilgrims in and out, but most transportation was on foot. Many boats sailed to a specific spot where pilgrims made offerings. However I don’t think that they’d actually crossed the river. 

We’ve seen a few elephants and camels. I’m still wondering how food transported. It helps, most people were frugal, in there, following a strict vegetarian diet.

Bear in mind, that the whole city was built on a river bed. It was outstanding that the electricity, public illumination (and even ATMs) worked.  There was no shortage of drinking water, sewage was regularly drained. Streets were clean (very clean, for traditional Indian standards). Overall, it felt welcoming and safe.

Except for some minor incidents (like the overcrowded flipping boat, on the gallery below) we didn’t witness any issues.

The businesses

That was another surprise, for us. Comparing to Western Christian celebrations, there was hardly any commerce. Inside tent city, there was just a few barbers, people selling dies, and bottles for taking holy water, home. Others sold something like lucky charms, and malas beads. Food stalls were just three or four, in the area we covered. We had to walk kilometres for a bottle of water. Tobacco was hard to find, and most people weren’t smoking. A few places sold wood and dried cow dung. Near the entries were stalls with crockery, bags, shoes and vegetables.  We found the only “restaurant” in a small village, away from the tent city.

On the “rich” side of tent city, there were a few crafts and souvenir shops. Dances and performances regularly took place in a few stages. That was mostly for tourists, both foreign and local. It was an area less frequented by “real” pilgrims, away from the train and bus stations.

Feeding the crowds

On the Western world, people would calculate expenses and only would travel if able to afford the costs. On Kumbh, people would go wether they had money or not. There were dormitories for free, to the poor, as well as luxury, expensive tents. Temples and religious sects offered meals to those in need, many times per day. Food seemed simple, but enough to keep them going:

The beggars and the poor

Poverty and begging are two different things.  We found very positive this welcoming attitude towards all. However, we were totally shocked with the amount of beggars in the city.

There are maybe around 500,000 beggars in India, despite being considered a crime in most states. While poverty is real, begging is quite often carried out in organised gangs. For the privilege of begging in a certain territory, each beggar hands over their takings to the gang’s ringleader, who keeps a significant share of it. Beggars have also been known to deliberately maim and disfigure themselves to get more money. Around 300,000 children across India are drugged, beaten and made to beg every day. It’s a multi-million dollar industry that’s controlled by human trafficking cartels. Police do little to address the problem. They often assume that the children are with family members or other people who know them. 

Hindus believe that, after the holy dip, it is auspicious to do good deeds. One is giving alms to those in need. Because of that, thousands of beggars line by the bathing Ghats exit roads. Among them there are all sorts of people. The crippled were obviously brought by someone – those aforementioned gangs. Some wounds are scarily true, others maybe false or self-inflicted. The most shocking ones are the lepers. The treatment —a triple antibiotic course called Multidrug Therapy (MDT)—would be provided free of cost by the government. As they probably make more money while sick, they are kept this way.  Neither the police nor any institution seems to take any action against this exploitation. 

Also, there is a thin border between begging and street performing – children dressed as goddesses or wire dancing are a common sight, not only in the festival, but throughout India.

Conclusion

Attending Kumbh with an open mind is a life changing moment. All we knew as true vs. false, right vs. wrong, are put at stake in here. The environment simply forces us to adopt the “non-judgement” and acceptance to survive without getting crazy. The inability to take a really dip sleep for one week, the kilometres walked, the mantras echoing, the change of diet… But also the energy of the place, leave its mark – something we will never forget.

Acknowledgments

Me and João Carlos Gomes spent 8 days in Pragrayaj (Allahabad) from 3 to 11 February 2019. That included Mauni Amavasya (Main Royal Bath / 2nd Shahi Snan) 04 February and Basant Panchami (3rd Shahi Snan) on the 10th. We stayed in two camps, around 6 km away from the main bathing Ghat, on a trip organised by State Express (a travel agency from New Delhi which we booked online).

I used Nikon D850 and several lenses, including Nikon 16-35 f/4, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 VR, Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VRII, and Sigma 15 Fisheye.

A very special thanks to Sanjeev Mehta Mohan’s Adventure for the expertise and willingness to help and guide our steps to the best spots, sharing precious information which made it all possible.

Also thanks to Nikon NPS Singapore, for taking care of my abused photo gear and making sure it’s always ready for the next adventure.


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