It’s hard to express in basic words what I experienced, in the very brief time, that I was fortunate enough to attend this year’s Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj. I’m not an overly religious or spiritual person, so for me this trip was a wonderful opportunity to explore a people whose daily routines are dictated by spirituality. A mere chance to try to understand what makes people travel great distances to go for a dip in a river.
Now don’t I sound like a privileged white tourist who should be slapped in the face. At what point do any of the 30-40 million pilgrims owe me an explanation into their religion, their faith and why they do what they do. Attending the Kumbh Mela not only showed me a very brief glimpse into a people guided by their unquestioning faith but also slapped me up with a bit of the reality fish.
An Outsider’s Insight into the Kumbh Mela
Firstly, I might take a moment to actually explain what the Kumbh Mela is. My basic understanding was that this festival, held in varied places around India, which this year goes from 15 January to 04 March 2019, was a chance for Hindu people to come together at a special space, take a bath in the river and have their sins washed away. Apologises to any Hindu people who I may have inadvertently insulted with my basic bitch ideas about this spiritual festival.
The Kumbh Mela is more than just a gathering of people to have a holy dip. Millions of people.
So what is the Kumbh Mela about?
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Other than taking photos of Naga Sadhus and crazy white tourists who attend? The Kumbh Mela fundamentally offers Hindus a chance to come together, and on auspicious days, to take a Kumbh snan (holy dip).
Not only is the offering of a holy dip on offer there are philosophical discussions, yoga sessions, a visit to the Akshayvat and one can even experience a Ganga Aarti.
The Kumbh Mela, in my experience, is an opportunity for people to reinvest in their faith among other like minded people.
The Naga Babas
AKA the dusty naked men who do yoga with their penises. Just a quick note the below photos are NSFW. You have been warned.
One of the main attractions of the Kumbh Mela, according the to internet, is to gawk at the Naga Babas or Naga Sadhus. These are religious men who have shaken off their worldly way, mainly clothing, live in the Himalayas and only come down from the mountains for the Kumbh Mela.
These men have taken control of their basic instincts, by shedding all clothing and have the ability to stay alive and healthy in ridiculously cold weather. This is just one of the reasons why the Naga Babas are considered to be such a highly respected group of sadhus. It’s hard not to gaze and what they can do with their bodies and the things they do with their penises.
The tale seemingly goes that the origin of the Naga way of life dates back to Treta Yug, but they were structured together into an order by Adi Shankaracharya. They are sometimes known as ‘Warrior ascetics’ and are believed to be the ultimate saviors of the Hindu Sanatan Dharma. Even today, the Naga Babas are seen carrying tridents. And they won’t hesitate to use them at any point, as I found out.
Apart of the Kumbh Mela is the Baba Sadhu’s right to have the first dip at on the auspicious dip days. There is security fencing off the general public, allowing the Naga Babas to rush down in a flurry of human flesh to bathe in the river. No one else is allowed to be within the waters during this time. Sadly due to illness I didn’t get to experience this myself, but the below photos were kindly gifted to me for your viewing pleasure.
To find out more about the best day to take a dip – take a look at the official bathing dates
Should we, as outsiders, take photos of the Naga Babas?
And do we need to pay to take photos of Naga Sadhus?
This was by far one of the most contentious topics of my trip. There is so much, hefty philosophical debate around this right now. Fundamentally the Naga Babas are human beings, not zoo animals on display. For many of these men, this lifestyle choice is a commitment to the god Shiva. So shoving a camera in his face and taking all your Insta-snaps is a big No.
On our trip, at each Naga Baba we met along the way, our guide would ask if we could take photos. And if a donation was required. Some, as shown below, were happy to have their photos taken. Others reluctantly did when a senior sadhu told him to. The Naga Baba in the deer skin looking outfit was one such sadhu. This guy gave zero fucks about talking to us. He did the bare minimum as directed. Which i respected him for.
At times we did pay and it was around 100 INR or $1.40 USD equivalent.
For me personally I have no issue paying these people. For me the photo – cash was an exchange of services. Not everyone felt this way and believes that these sadhus should not take any money and should live in the traditional, non-financial way. In all honesty I don’t have an issue paying for someone to pose for me to use their images on my blog. It’s how I make my money as a travel blogger so why shouldn’t these people make a little bit of money too? Also note, that we did see many locals and pilgrims give a donation to the Naga Babas for a blessing and a conversation.
Just beware in Varanasi that many of the sadhus you see are in fact homeless men who are happily ripping off gullible tourists for paid photo opportunities.
You need to show a sliver of respect and ask before taking any photos of any Naga baba, sadhu or pilgrim.
We did at one point walk down an alleyway and many of the tents, complete with the iconic sadhus and Naga babas had signs saying no photography. And when I had my phone out, about to ask if I could take a photo of the no photo sign I was chased out by a naked man wielding a trident. Both a highlight and one of the scariest moments of my India experience.
Being on the other side of the camera
The one thing that i didn’t expect being at the Kumbh Mela, was being the unusual one. The minority. The one that people wanted to take photos of. I soon became the selfie queen, happily taking photos with anyone who asked. Now I do mention that it was anyone who asked. More often than not as I was trying to take photos of the general event or the sadhus, someone would slide up next to me, not make eye contact and start smiling. While I was happy to laugh it off and offer my services as a selfie queen it did give me some time to reflect on how I act as a traveller when I’m in a truly foreign situation with a camera in hand. I don’t take photos of children, for many reasons, and try as often as I can to ask for permission before taking a photo. From now on I’ll be extra vigilant in asking for permission and having a conversation before taking that photo and running away. Taking more time to make connections and less worry about an Instagram worthy capture.
The People Are So Friendly
Once you get past the usual Indian way of movement, which varies from super fast push through the crowds, or the super slow I’m walking in a herd scenario of a mass of people and it’s one foot after the other. I found everyone that we came across to be superbly friendly, helpful and generally curious about what was happening at the Kumbh Mela. Sadly we didn’t have enough time to sit down and talk to people. I would have loved to have had conversations about where people came from, how far and the why.
There’s a lot of people and even more toilets.
The Uttar Pradesh government has done a lot of work on making this the most sustainable Kumbh Mela. Well as sustainable as you can be, when you have an estimated 150 million people coming into a small city. Every turn there was toilets. Lots and lots of toilets. On the plus side there was also a plastic bag ban with the local government and a local agency handing out hessian bags, and rather stylish ones at that, to all attendees.
It’s cleaner than my own home town
Ok so the current population of Melbourne is 4.8 million. So about the average number of people attending the Kumbh Mela everyday, is the entire population of my city. And it’s clean. With a push for cleanliness and hygiene there are a LOT of people employed to keep the Kumbh Mela clean. Street sweepers, rubbish collectors and over 10,000 police to help keep things moving.
When is the Kumbh Mela on?
Legend has it that during the war between the gods and demons over the precious amrit kalash (the nectar of immortality), a few drops of nectar fell upon four places—Haridwar, Prayagraj, Ujjain and Nashik—imbuing these places with special powers.
Kumbh Mela is celebrated four times over a course of 12 years. The location of the Kumbh spans over four locations in India and the Mela site keeps rotating between one of the four pilgrimage places on four sacred rivers as listed below:
1 Haridwar on the Ganges in Uttarakhand.
2 Ujjain on the Shipra in Madhya Pradesh.
3 Nashik on the Godavari in Maharashtra.
4 Prayagraj at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical Sarasvati in Uttar Pradesh.
Should anyone, of any faith, attend a Kumbh Mela?
I think so. It’s fascinating to see thousands upons thousands of people walk amongst one another. The see the different ashrams feeding pilgrims. And I’ll gladly admit, it’s hilarious seeing the naked sadhus, their reactions to the outside world and the way that different people treat the sadhus.
I really do ask that you don’t attend the Kumbh aspart of a photography tour. Yes it is a fucken amazing place to visit, there’s so much to see, do and take photos of BUT remember these are human beings. These are real people, with lives and stories to tell. They are not there for your personal photography pleasure.
Don’t be a dick and think that your American dollars and tour guide gives you any rights above these people.
If you have any questions on attending the Kumbh Mela, travelling in India or about getting good coffee when travelling let me know in the comments below.
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Coffee Lover | Travel Blogger | Horse Rider | Adventure Racer | Donut Dame. Generally nice lady-enjoys wine, indie movies & random dance parties in my tent.
If You Liked This Post You May Also Like These Blogs About the Kumbh Mela From My Travel Companions:
Roxanne from the Tiny Taster – YouTube video of our Kumbh Mela experience
Amazing photos from Ajay Sood – Travelure
Photos left me speechless – I’ve heard about this Festival and not paying attention that much but it’s totally REAL!! These people were naked like in front of you, good thing they allow you to take photos of them! I can feel how you’re thinking from here – and OHH if I were you I don’t think I can stand this festival for a day and with hundred thousand people. You are a brave woman – are there many tourists, too? Did you go to the water and have your sins washed away – just kidding. I admire you for documenting this!!! WOW!
Though its great that the Kumbh Mela is on the ‘world stage’ so to speak….I agree with your point that “These are real people, with lives and stories to tell. They are not there for your personal photography pleasure.” Unfortunately, every event / situation today has an Instagram Quotient…and sometimes we forget where we’re focusing.
I read about the homeless people pretending to be Naga Babas and Naga Sadhus recently. I there are so many moral things at play here, you are right to just concentrate on what you are comfortable with and have respect within that. Being able to see such a spectacle, you’d want to take photos of course! Glad to hear about the many toilets and cleanliness.
I have read a lot about this recently and loved how detailed this post is. What I didnt know is that the festival is celebrated 4 times over 12 years. That I didnt know. I dont think I could handle the size of the crowds mind you. I like the quieter side of life. 😛
I felt the same way until I was there.
What a fascinating view of Kumbh Mela from an outsider’s perspective. The Naga Babas or Naga Sadhus sound the like the highlights not to miss. The conversation about taking photography or not is clear cut. You got some great candid shots though. I can’t believe how clean you describe the place. With that amount of people, it’s impressive. Interesting read.
This is quite interesting. I had never heard of the Kumbh Mela and I’ve never been to India. What a great experience to share. I imagine if one hadn’t studied about this festival well beforehand, seeing the nude men might be quite shocking. I totally agree that we should ask before we take photos of people and be respectful of their answers. Also, always protect the children, no matter where you are.
“the dusty naked men who do yoga with their penises” I rubbed my eyes and re-read the sentence a couple times to make sure I didn’t misread, lol! It must be pretty cool to experience the Kumbh Mela. I wish I will be able to witness it myself one day. Honestly I have mixed feelings too about taking picture of people when I travel. I’m still learning to at least say Hi or to start a friendly chit chat before asking their permission 🙂
We don’t hold back around here 😉
It’s my first to hear about Kumbh Mela. If I am to encounter a naked sadhu showing his penis, I will definitely have the same questions. Before, I do not ask permissions when I took a photo. However, in Bangkok’s weekend market, I was just taking pics randomly. One guy, happened to be in a spot I want to take a photo. He was eating alone, I thought he was not paying attention. After he heard the click of my DSLR camera, he approached me gently and asked if I can delete that photo showing him which I respectfully did. It was a lesson for me that I always remember for as long as I live.
We must admit that we have never heard of the Kumbh Mela festival, nor Prayagraj, but that’s probably normal considering that we’re not familiar with Hindu religion nor India. We understand that it must have been both fascinating and weird for you to be there, and the issue about taking photos or not of the Naga Babas is certainly worth a long debate. Personnally we would have difficulty taking photos of naked men (well, we’re a lesbian couple after all haha…), but if they say that they don’t mind being on photos, then why not. The important thing is to ask first.
What and amazing story. Thank you for sharing your experience. I was in Varanasi recently and learned just a little bit about the importance of the River Ganges. Attending the Kumbh Mela seems like a once in a lifetime experience.
Being the object of selfies is something I experienced in Bangladesh for the first time. And at first it was very flattering, but I also found it strange that people would just stand next to me without saying anything and start taking pictures with me.
ahhah I had that too. It’s rather funny and strange
Thanks for sharing your insights into your visit to Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj this year. I too am not religious. But understand how important things like this are to their faith. And to sharing that faith. But I can see why people may come to gawk at the Naga Babas or Naga Sadhus. Interesting discussion about taking pics. I am always a bit uncomfortable in situations like this. But I understand your feeling about being the one they wanted to take pictures of. That happened to me in China a lot. A fascinating thing to have witnessed.
Interesting! I had seen this before but wasn’t really aware of what it was and what the significance was. I really appreciate the advice you’ve given on the photography. It’s something I would certainly be wondering about.
Wow, what a fascinating experience! Love that you dug into the who, what, when, whys but also things like whether to take photographs and pay for them.
(Also I missed your NSFW warning hahahaha)
Oops! That must have been a surprise for you.
Great info! I love seeing how others celebrate their culture + traditions.
Love this one, Jean. I had absolutely zero clue what Kumbh Mela was until you went and it was fascinating to see it through your eyes. I’d love to visit one day for myself!
wow – what an incredible experience! I am insanely jealous. Your photos are incredible and your advice with asking for permission or having your guide translate before taking photos was an excellent tip!
Don’t be jealous. You could go to a Kumbh Mela too
Very interesting and what a unique experience. I hadn’t heard of this before. I have been to pilgrimage sites in Europe (Fatima & Walsingham) and it is so inspiring seeing the pilgrims.
Awesome post! Makes me want to go explore India!
Interesting post. we went to Thaipusam ceremony in Singapore this year. Thaipusam involves piercings and we had some similar questions as you did relative to the Kumbh Mela. We didn’t have a guide and elected to take photos only of the people that seemed comfortable with it. Still thinking about that.
What an interesting penis…I mean piece! lol…seriously, this is very interesting and well written article as well as some great photographs. Well done!