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Sharing my experiences of this beautiful world that we live in through photography. And some geeky tech photo stuff.

Portraits of Sadhus, holy men of the Kumbh Mela

February 2, 2013  -  Festivals, Monks & Priests

As I get ready to leave for the Kumbh Mela festival later tonight I felt inspired to share portraits of some sadhus I had photographed over the years. Sadhus, Hindu holy men, are a big part of the Kumbh Mela festival. Thousands come out of seclusion to bathe in the confluence of the holy Ganges and Yamuna rivers in the town of Allahabad in northern India. I’m eager to photograph as much as I am to pilgrimage to this sacred event.

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A sadhu smears ash all over his body and face under the evening sun.

A sadhu smears ash all over his body and face under the evening sun.

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Feeding the Masses at the Kumbh Mela (Part 2)

January 24, 2013  -  Festivals

A lepper is given food by a pilgrim. Many use the Mela as an opportunity to feed the needy.

A lepper is given food by a pilgrim. Many use the Mela as an opportunity to feed the needy.

Continued from “Feeding the Masses at the Kumbh Mela (Part 1)” posted on Jan 23, 2013.

The poorer pilgrims slept on the ghats and on the vast, flat and empty surrounding areas. Many slept just on a tarp, with bundles of clothes as pillows. Often you’d see a family of five or six occupying a tarp, huddled together to stay warm in the cold nights covered from head to toe in a blanket. Food that they had brought can be seen being cooked over small fires, camp fire style minus the camp. Simple meals but enough to keep them going. Their journey here and their stay is not an easy one. Trains and buses packed to the edge of the door have been ferrying pilgrims to Haridwar over the last few days. Some have travelled days with children and elders in conditions even the experienced backpacker would fine tough to endure. These are the people that are almost always unnoticed at such events. These are the ones that you never read about. These are the ardent pilgrims.

Their will to be at the Kumbha Mela and be part of this amazing spiritual experience despite the conditions they endure is a true sign of their devotion. They truly have captured the spirit of pilgrimage. Each had come to take a dip in the holy Ganges river during these sacred days, making financial sacrifices among others to be here. Despite what seems to me to be a whole lot of challenges, they neither showed it on their faces or expressed it in their behaviour. Most can be seen excitedly building kavadis.

Kavadi is a structure, often constructed out of wood or bamboo, that’s shaped like an arched bridge and carried over the shoulder. On either end of the kavadi, these pilgrims have secured a vessel to carry some of the sacred Ganges water back to their homes and loved ones who may not have had the same opportunity to attend the Kumbha Mela.

For the homeless beggars these are better times. With so many devout pilgrims here, offerings are plentiful and food is in abundance. It is so nice to see people being generous and often throughout the day I’d see beggars being given food, money, clothing or other offerings.

For the rest of the pilgrims the hundreds of street stalls and restaurants across towns are the safe haven for their hunger pangs. Chef and cooks can be seen spending hours in front of giant woks and pots, Chapatti (Indian bread) makers are rhythmically patting out perfectly shaped chapattis all day and chaiwallas are brewing the finest chais. These are long hard days in front of the hot stove but financially very rewarding. Food can be seen pilled high at the entrance of restaurants tempting every pilgrim passing by to venture in for a meal.

Leaves are used as plates to feed the masses.

Leaves are used as plates to feed the masses.

At such events India leads the way in keeping a greener planet. Banana and other large unidentified leaves are used as plates in which to serve the pilgrims. After which all the “plates” are thrown out in a heap by the side of the road for the meandering cows to then consume. These well fed cows now leave in return a heap of manure which is taken, dried into patties and used by the sadhus and pilgrims as fuel in their fires for cooking or keeping warm. The perfect environmentally friendly cycle of use and reuse.

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Feeding the Masses at the Kumbh Mela (Part 1)

January 23, 2013  -  Festivals

One of the things I was curious about is how do you feed that many people. There were certainly noticeable groups at the Kumbha Mela – to name a few: Sadhus, wealthy pilgrims, poorer pilgrims, beggars, foreigners and the rest of the lot. The wealthy pilgrims and foreigners occupied the hotels in Haridwar and the surrounding area, even as far as Rishikesh (24kms north of Haridwar). The restaurant hotels were always full and fed these two groups heartily.

One of thousands of food stalls at the Kumbh Mela festival

One of thousands of food stalls at the Kumbh Mela festival

The Sadhus that lived in the camps could be divided into two groups. Reclusive monks that lived on their own and monks that had devotees to care for them. The ones that had devotees were well looked after. Their devotees cooked and fed their spiritual teachers well and anyone that came within the precincts of their tents. They were certainly generous with food and no one left hungry. The only problem, if you could call it that, is that after visiting a couple of tents one is pretty much stuffed and it then becomes a challenge to decline a meal at the next tent. “Another chai? I’ve had four already! But I’ll take that samosa!”

The devotees certainly worked hard at preparing the meals. All the meals were cooked outdoors over wood fires in gigantic pots with oars, yes oars, as ladles to stir the brewing curries. It was difficult to escape the aroma that filled the air by these temporary kitchens and it wasn’t long before it conjured up an appetite among those that walked by. For those of us that cook, we know what comes after cooking…cleaning! I have never seen so many dirty pots, pans and dishes in my life. Outside one large tent, a courageous old lady, draped in a sari, squatted in front of tap of running water with a coconut husk in one hand and a pot in another. Scrub, scrub, scrub. I dreaded to think how long it would take this lady to get it all cleaned and prayed she’d get some help soon. Though sadly, I knew inside of me, it would all be left to her. I watched her for a while as she quietly and determinedly cleaned one pot after another without an expression of despair on her face.

Washing pots after cooking for thousands is no easy task.

Washing pots after cooking for thousands is no easy task.

As for the Sadhus that lived by themselves I am not sure where they got their meals. Every time I passed their tents it was not during meal time so it remains a mystery to me whether they prepared their own meals or it was given by pilgrims.

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Monk with really long hair

January 22, 2013  -  Festivals, Monks & Priests

Ok, I admit I could have come up with a more creative blog post title but at least it gets straight to the point.

At the Kumbha Mela festival that I attended in Haridwar in 2010 I met a monk with really long hair. He invited me to join him and his devotees around a smoldering log that they were sitting around. After being there for a little while he decided to unwrap his turban. Well, it was not really a turban but a big piece of cloth which seemed to be holding a lot of hair on his head.

He slowly unwrapped the cloth and gently extended his matted hair which extended and extended. It was easily over 6 feet long and beautifully matted over many, many years. He was very proud of it and wanted me to photograph this. I couldn’t really tell where he was from but he looked like he was from either Nepal or Tibet. One of many wonderful experiences that I had at the Kumbha Mela festival.

Note our 2013 Kumbha Mela tour and journey across north India is from the 4th of February to the 16th.

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Can Women be Monks?

January 21, 2013  -  Monks & Priests, Women

It is a question I get asked quite often and the answer, at least in the Hindu religion, is Yes! And if you want to be pedantic then they would more appropriately be called nuns.

In Hinduism men and women can attain the same heights of spiritual awakening. It is taught that God is equally present in all. Women tend to naturally gravitate towards the householder path hence you see more men as monastics as oppose to women. However, throughout time there have been many women monastics in Hinduism who have been greatly respected by Hindus all over the world.

At the Kumbh Mela festival in Hardwar that I attended in January 2010 there were a small contingent of nuns. Some were in the role of gurus, spiritual leaders with small to large groups of disciples and then there were a few women ascetics who appeared to be more reclusive.

Here are some images that I took at the Kumbh Mela of these Hindu nuns – gurus and anchorites, a small photographic insight into the world of women and the monastic path.

Women monks in Hinduism at the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar

Women monks in Hinduism at the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar

Women monks in Hinduism at the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar

Women monks in Hinduism at the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar

Women monks in Hinduism at the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar

Women monks in Hinduism at the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar

Women monks in Hinduism at the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar

Women monks in Hinduism at the Kumbha Mela in Hardwar

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Extraordinary display of will at the Kumbh Mela

January 20, 2013  -  Monks & Priests

Naga Baba Amar Bharti Ji

Naga Baba Amar Bharti Ji

This is a photo of Naga Baba Amar Bharti Ji taken at the last Kumbha Mela in Haridwar, North India in 2010. According to those present at the location I was told he has been holding his arm in the air for 28 years. Many Hindus perform tapas or austerities of varying degrees and this is certainly one of the more extreme one’s I’ve encountered. His hand has atrophied from the years of his tapas and his fingernails curl out of his clenched fist.

The performance of tapas helps to develop willpower and remold the subconscious allowing for the superconscious to flow through.

The Kumbha Mela festival is the largest gathering of sadhus anywhere in the world. Join us on our spiritual adventure next February to the grand 2013 Kumbha Mela in Allahabad.

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