How can a river be a goddess? Why do Hindu followers from all over India and around the world throng to the banks of the river Ganges in their millions? What are the religious concepts and belief systems behind this phenomenon? What is a ‘tirtha’, and what does a location where the temporal world merges with a spiritual dimension actually feel like? What do ancient Sanskrit words such as moksha, samsara, samadhi, and sannyassi really mean? What is Sanskrit and how relevant is it today? What do ancient cities such as Varanasi bring to the spiritual equation and why? Why are there a million different gods in the Hindu pantheon? Why do followers of Shiva and Vishnu clash at large religious festivals such as Melas? How can ascetics be naked ash-smeared warriors who have fought invading forces over the centuries, such as the British and Muslims? Why do these ascetics renounce everything, including family, and some mutilate their bodies over the course of a lifetime? What is the primary purpose of Melas, spiritual, political, settling of inter-religious disagreements or opportunities for the self aggrandizement of celebrated gurus and national politicians? What is Guruism and how relevant is it today? What makes Kashi the city where all Hindu’s aspire to die in and why? How can a country allow its goddess to be polluted in its frenetic drive to become an industrial superpower? What future is there for the Ganga as India increasingly embraces a western materialism apparently at odds with most of the core tenets of its spiritual philosophies?
Rhetorical questions? And where and how to begin my journey?
It began with retirement from my employment as a psychiatric nurse and life long carer in the west of England. Many of my colleagues who retired about the same time as me returned to part time employment but I felt I needed something different, a total change and a new challenge. The Maha Kumbh Mela at Allhabad in February 2013 provided that.
I had previously travelled to Nepal but not India. Friends thought I was either insane or incredibly brave to attend a Mela on my first trip. Journeys to such as the Golden Triangle organised by travel agencies seemed a conventional introduction to India, or other friends had visited Kerala or Goa in the south, which were established tourist centres and guaranteed a gentle exposure to the rigours of Asia. My son agreed to come with we; he was in his final year of a Documentary Photography degree course at the University of Wales, Newport, and could ill afford to take take time out in February, but I convinced him there would be ample opportunity to work on his projects whilst travelling and the Mela itself would provide a unique opportunity for photography. I also began to do some background reading about the Mala itself, its history, the spiritual beliefs underpinning bathing in or dying beside the Ganges as a means of interrupting the eternal cycle of rebirth. I also decided to spend a week after the Mela at Varanasi and obtained some reading material about the City of Light, the favoured city of Shiva, an association which led to its ancient name of Kashi.
Friends such as Andy and Dorte, Chris and Debbie, Chris and Jane, Doug and Marce who had actually spent a lot of time in India were very helpful. I bought and read Pilgrimage and Power, The Kumbh Mela in Allahabad 1765-1964 by Karen Maclean which provided many answers to the nature of the Mela, and how the British Raj’s attempts at social and religious restraints effectively helped to transform the function of Melas into a locked door opportunity for nationalist and political planning, thus providing it with an alternative role of national political significance than purely a religious gathering. She argues that is has only been called the Kumbh Mela for the last hundred years or so, there is no reference to the word Kumbh in literature which is older. I obtained Short Cut to Nirvana, a 2004 feature documentary film by Nick Day and Maurizio Benazzo about the 2001 Maha Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, which provided an excellent introduction into the spiritual role of the Mela, meeting with and interviewing swamis, gurus and sadhus and documenting many acts of devotion and ritual. It can be viewed on Vimeo for free here. The colour, spectacle and fun of the huge gathering clearly comes across. Many web pages and You tube videos also provided much information as did the forum members of IndiaMike, from which I was eventually unceremoniously banned for providing links to my website which had some commercial content. I booked accommodation 9 months in advance through Ultimate Travels whose staff were unfailingly supportive and keen to provide information regarding travel planning, pick up and access to the Mela grounds. The main stars here were Shakti and who saw us through the confusion of Camp Om, the site we had originally booked, merging with another site run by Prayag Heritage. The acquisition of knowledge and confidence was achieved incrementally from all of these sources which led to a smooth, reasonably informed and relatively problem free experience.
So this is how the project began. The week in Varanasi was almost like a re-run of the Kumbh Mela as many pilgrims and sadhus relocated to Varanasi from the Mela. There was reputedly not a hotel vacancy to be found and in our Hotel, the original Yogi Lodge, guests were accommodated on mattresses on the floor throughout the building. After the exertions of the Mela it was nice to sleep on in the mornings and wander the co;ourful streets and ghats of this ancient city. Late in 2013 I returned to India, spending 4 weeks in Kolkata photographing Durga Puja before returning once more to Varanasi to relax again. One year later I am planning to return to West Bengal in January 2015 for Gangasagar Mela before heading to Varanasi for a third time but with the solid intention of spending a month or more there to try to document it as much as I can. Some people spend a lifetime in Kashi and still find things of interest to see. If my health holds I will journey up to Allahabad to visit the city and revisit Sangam when there is no Mela. It will be strange to walk the sands of the flood plains of the Ganges and Jamuna and imagine the mythical Saraswati at the confluence without thousands of pilgrims teeming around. It will be strange to visit it without my son accompanying me. Following this I hope to visit Rishikesh, Haridwar and then the mountains all the way up to Gangotri and Gaumek, the cow’s mouth glacier from which an icy stream begins its first steps on its mammoth journey to the Bay of Bengal.
As for photography, I am sure all these events have been covered before by better photographers than me. On my Facebook page I will, over the months ahead, feature the most prominent of those international and national photographers who have documented the painful birth of independent India at Partition time and working contemporary photographers who continue to record the current social challenges and daily events of its peoples since. I will feature also news from India about the undertaking from the current prime minister Narendra Modi of the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP ), currently sweeoping all aside in elections throughout India, who has pledged to clean the river from source to mouth. Lastly I will feature my own journey from Sagar Island and the rolling waves of the Bay of Bengal to the snow capped Himalayas, the peoples I meet and the practices of worship I stumble upon.