Guest Blog (photos and story) by: Robbie Hamper in Allahabad, India
Making my way to the tent city in Allahabad, India to photograph the Kumbh Mela gathering of 80 million pilgrims has been a journey all on its own. Allahabad is in northern India. While the city itself is home to more than 1.7 million people, there is no direct route to get here.
My flight from the U.S. first took me into Varanasi. From there, it was a four hour drive to the heart of the Kumbh Mela. On site, this month and a half long religious gathering is already underway.
Sadhus (religious men) are scattered among the millions who are preparing for the main bathing day in the Ganges River on February 10th. Many of the pilgrims here have sold everything they own just to come for the Holy bath at this festival that takes place only once every 12 years.
Before my trek to Allahabad, I took in some cultural flavor in Varanasi. The drive to the hotel provided an incredible representation of many areas in India…slums. There are carts, kids, pigs and cows freely roaming the tiny streets.
My driver had to honk his way through just to clear a path. This was just a transport from the airport to a weathered boat that took me the final distance to the hotel. There is no quick way anywhere and multiple modes of transportation are often required.
What stood out to me immediately, besides the sheer number of people everywhere, was how hard these people work just to have life basics that we often take for granted. For instance, there are no power tools here. I watch men splitting large pieces of wood with only a mallet and wedge.
What also stood out were the ghats along the Ganges River. There are more than 100 of them along the banks. They are essentially flats where people gather. They are places for social gatherings, for bathing and also used for cremations.
Varanasi is a very Holy site. Cremations are performed and ashes are placed into the river. In the Hindu religion that is a guarantee of getting into heaven. Babies and Holy men who die are not cremated, rather their bodies are placed ceremoniously in the river.
Cremation ceremonies take place frequently here. There are about 200 of them in a 24 hour period. And, it is expensive for them. I captured some great shots of men weighing out wood for the cremations which is 300 rupees ($6 U.S.D.). Even that is expensive. Women do not attend the cremations, only men. It is believed that women crying will prevent the soul from leaving the body.
Weddings are as ceremonious as the cremations. I got a shot of a beautiful bride. These are arranged marriages and some of the women appear more fearful than happy. I take a moment to observe and try to understand this culture so different from my own.
Here I go…into the fray. Stay tuned for what will be a rare glimpse into one of the most spectacular religious events in our world.