Kumbh Mela

My name is Thorge Berger (reisefotografie.de) and I am a travel photographer from Germany who also organizes photo expeditions.

For me it all started in 2010 when I had my first India experience on a photo trip with Steve McCurry. Part of it was that we visited a place called Haridwar north of Delhi for a festival called ‚Kumbh Mela‘. Honestly I had no idea what to expect. When we arrived there it turned out to be the biggest event on planet earth with millions of pilgrims! We are talking about a Hindu festival which is happing every 12 years in the same place but altogether in four different places at different times. Only 3 years later I had the chance to travel to another of these four places: Allahabad. The festival there was a so called‚ Maha Kumbh Mela‘ which is happening only every 144 years! So it is literally a ‚once-in-a-lifetime chance‘ to see it. A Kumbh Mela usually lasts approx. one month and over the time there were 120 million people (!!!) coming to Allahabad! What makes a ‚Kumbh Mela‘ so appealing is that the Hindu believe during this particular time the water of the according holy rivers turns into ‚Amrit‘ again, the nectar of immortality. If you take a holy dip there during this time you can wash away all sins of your current life and of the lives you lived before (as the Hindu believe in the cycle of rebirthing). So it is almost a ‚short-cut to Nirvana’. This is why so many people are attracted. But not only this. During a ‚Kumbh Mela‘ also the spiritual leaders (Gurus, Swamis etc.) are approachable, hold their lectures, you can get blessed and there is free medical service and food for the pilgrims. There is so much going on during a Kumbh Mela that you could shoot for weeks. But there is one particular thing which is very unique - even for India: only during a ‚Kumbh Mela‘ you will have the chance to see (thousands of) the so called ‚Naga Babas‘ (naked teachers). These holy warriors live a life of asceticism, many of them secluded in the mountains of the Himalayas. They live a solitary life, practice meditation and yoga and live naked and cover their body with holy ashes. And they only show up in public for a ‚Kumbh Mela’! And most certainly they are the ‚rockstars‘ of any Kumbh Mela!

Since I got addicted in 2010 by now I visited all four places where the Kumbh Mela his happening (Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain). I just returned from the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain this week which was the ‚last missing piece in my puzzle‘. In 2010 I had only a D300 with me, but since 2013 I started to carry two Nikon bodies with different zoom lenses with me. This time it was a Nikon D4s and a Nikon D3s. Both cameras have a great mix of reliability, speed and ISO-performance. As I shoot a lot in portrait mode too I also appreciate the handiness of the pro bodies for this purpose. I would also have loved to take a D5 and/or a D500 to the event. But that was not  possible timing wise. Usually I use the 24-70mm f/2.8 on the D4s and the 70-200mm f/2.8 on the D3s. One reason to do so is that the air during a Kumbh Mela usually is very dusty so you wouldn’t want to change lenses so much. On the other hand there are so many different photo opportunities that you would want a max in flexibility. For me it turned out that I use the 24-70mm on the D4s because it is much easier to move the focus point on that body. I think that was one of the major improvements from the D3s to the D4s. And when you shoot with wide open apertures I’d rather move the focus point than using the centre point and recompose because in wide angle pictures would not be sharp. For the tele photo zoom 70-200mm I do not care about moving the focus point so much. Here I would also use the centre point and recompose as it doesn’t really mater. That’s why I use the 70-200mm on the D3s which I  do not find so  handy to move the focus point. For portrait shootings I sometimes also used a 85mm f/1.4.

In India most people are very open to get photographed. Actually you might get asked to take a photo of someone here and there. But when you start shooting the Naga Babas you have to be careful. You really need their confirmation that you are allowed to take their picture. If you shoot without their permission things can get very nasty!

For me visiting a ‚Kumbh Mela‘ is still something extraordinary and it certainly is a strain for men and machine. Imagine you are squeezed in the masses and what pressure comes on your gear. Then the climate … this time we had 42° celsius in average! Imagine what’s the temperature your gear has to deal with when it is for hours in the open sun! Last but not least the festival culminates in the holy dip of the Naga Babas. If you are lucky enough to make it to the right spot in time you and your gear will get wet yourself - that’s for sure! That all together is why I care to carry the heavy pro gear. Also when the Nagas run into the water we had only little light and little contrast. So it was certainly challenging to get sharp pictures. I was very happy to have the Nikon pro cameras for this occasion as the performance of the autofocus is top of the line.

Again it was a remarkable experience and worth the effort. Even though by now I have been to all four places I don’t think this was my last Kumbh Mela experience. I think I’ll go again in 2022 when the next Kumbh Mela is going to happen…

Ashes Little-God Naga-Baba Neptun Old-LAdy Paint Pilgrim Sadhu Smoking Warrior
If you have an interesting idea for a guest post, you can contact me here.

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  • jenxrj

    I was there too mate and I will be there next time as well. It is certainly a sight to behold to see over a hundred million people in motion. The Haridwar Kumbh Mela is the place where the Kumbh Mela originated way back, in the early 14th and 15th centuries. See you in Haridwar 2022!

  • Reilly Diefenbach

    Crowd phobia kicking in big time.


    Wonderful images

    • Thorge

      Thank you!

  • Yasseen Al Noumani

    Fantastic images!!!

    • Thorge

      Thanks a lot!

  • Art

    Just curious …. with that number of people, where do you stay? How do you keep your gear safe? (Can’t leave it in a tent somewhere…)

    • Thorge

      I work with a very reliable tour agent and have repeatedly the same fantastic guides. So ut is as safe as it can be at such an event.

  • Wow, quite an event!

  • PhilippeC

    This looks like a really amazing event indeed: impressive !
    Thank you for this information.

    • Thorge

      Very welcome!

  • Espen4u

    Great images, especially the portraits.

    • Thorge

      Thanks a lot!

  • arunprasad n

    I am from south India, I had never been to a Kumbh mela. Lucky you; excellent picture and write-up. Thanks for sharing.

    • Thorge

      Thank you! You should definitely go!

  • PeterO

    Thank you for sharing those wonderful photos and telling us about an event that I most certainly knew nothing about – truly fascinating.

    • Thorge

      My pleasure Peter. Thanks for your appreciation!

  • Michele Perillo

    Can’t say I like the subjects, but the images are really impressive.

    • Thorge

      Thanks Michele!

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  • Peter Lawrence

    Beautiful images.

    • Thorge

      Thank you Peter!

  • Rob ONeill (Rob O)

    You really captured the atmosphere and feel of the event. Great learning here. Wonderfully done, and very colorful. Thank you! A real visual and mental treat.

    • Thorge

      Thank you very much Rob for your kind feedback!

  • milkod2001

    Excellent shots,

    I wonder what is up with their red eyes, they look like they are constantly stoned 🙂

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