Looking through the archives for a new blog shot, I was reminded of the craziest event of the year and, quite probably, the craziest, most surreal event I am ever likely to witness at any time. The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad in India, on a confluence of the Ganges considered sacred, is a mass bathing session attended by anything up to 40 million overjoyed Hindus. It is considered to be the biggest single temporary gathering of humanity on the planet. The Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years at an astrologically favourable juncture – there are similar smaller events along the Ganges at other times – and there is no more auspicious time and place for a Hindu to cleanse away his or her Karmic indiscretions and achieve a state of spiritual bliss.
In February I headed for Allahabad, timing my visit for the main bathing day. The campsite, specially constructed for media and foreigners, was a half-hour trek from the bridges crossing the Ganges to the main Kumbh site, but the constant amplified chanting crossed the river and prevented sleep. I joined the dreamlike procession of pilgrims pouring across the pontoons at 2 am, the crowd gradually thickening and pulling me along so I had little choice to choose my own direction. I managed to struggle to the edge of the human current – this was without question the scariest crowd I have ever been in, not aggressive but with its own unpredictable dynamic. I headed down to the banks of the Ganges and the end of one of the bridges, reasoning that I could just jump in the river if a stampede occurred. There are always stampedes at the Kumbh Mela and always fatal casualties. That was the case this year too, although not in my section of the crowd.
The shot above was taken from a pontoon bridge, looking back at the mass of pilgrims spilling down to the water, clambering over each other to spills the holy water over their faces. Later I saw the sun rise and the excitement soar to a fever. “Too much happiness,” said one of the pilgrims when I asked him how he was feeling.
The technical stuff
In a the crush of that cold damp morning I was glad I took the Fujifilm X-Pro1 with me, a light and easy-to-carry camera, and the top shot above was taken with that. I used the 18-55mm zoom at 55mm – no tripod, just handheld. The panorama, shot from another pontoon bridge, was taken using my Canon EOS5D Mark II later in the day, a 70-200mm f4 zoom. I prefer the lighter f4 version to the heavier but faster f.2.8 – once again, my poor shoulders are always thankful when I’m able to shed a few kilos.
I especially like the top shot because it has a medieval atmosphere, with barely a reference to the 21st century. The light was from the floodlights piercing the morning mist. The mass of faces and air of chaos are conveyed quite well, I think.
Exhibition… still on!!!
I shall keep reminding you until it’s over – my exhibition of photos at the Cafe Aalto at Stockmann’s Academic Bookstore in Helsinki continues until the end of August. If you are in Helsinki, the annual Night of the Arts takes place on Thursday August 22. You might be in an especially culturally receptive state of mind to view my photos of women in a Dalit village in Odisha, also in India. The photos are expertly framed and are for sale.
Read an in-depth review of the Fujifilm X-Pro1 at http://www.dpreview.com/reviews/fujifilm-x-pro1