Humans of Kumbh

Kumbh, Uncensored

Humans of Kumbh

Illustration: Namaah/ Arré

At the Kumbh you are one with the crowd, you move with it, feeling its pull as it takes you to places you never meant to go. Here are millions who are chasing the same thing, a shot at salvation, freedom from the eternal cycle of birth and death, and sometimes the last spot at a sadhu’s sermon. In this uniquely Indian microcosm, some characters stand out.

The camera catches some unguarded personal moments while others pose for it with cultivated swag. Together, these make up the humans of Kumbh.

The Queue Jumpers

The shahi snans, spread over four auspicious dates during the month long mela, start before the sun rises over the Kshipra river. During this time, the ghats are reserved for the thousands of sadhus who storm the riverfront for the divine ablutions. There is a pecking order at play here — Naga sadhus are the first to take a dip, followed by Vaishnavites and then other ilks of godmen. These two sprightly sadhus jumped the queue for a splash-about before the Nagas thundered in with chants of Har Har Mahadev.


Pratik Gupta/ Arré

The Preening Baba

The Indian ascetic spends his life in the Himalayas, or one of the cloisters that line the various holy cities across the country. Cameras have no place in that universe but the sadhus don’t seem to mind having the lens trained on them. In fact, they preen for it. This sadhu, the first to reach Ram Ghat on the day of the shahi snan, comes running to the cameramen and proceeds to bathe, flipping his hair around better than the Liril girl.


Pratik Gupta/ Arré

The Reluctant Sadhvis

Sadhvis are a rare sight at the Kumbh. Unlike their bare-all male counterparts, they protect their modesty with a saffron cloth tied around their necks. They walk along the ghats with trepidation as their brethren jump into the water. They watch and leave without their rightful dip. Even in the holiest of holy places, it remains a man’s world.


Pratik Gupta/ Arré

The Ash-Happy Trio

These Naga sadhus, devotees of Lord Shiva, emulate their creator by wearing nothing but ash smeared all over their bodies. The eldest of this trio enthusiastically slaps ash onto the wet bodies of his two young chelas, who stand obediently waiting to be re-anointed after the river has washed the holy ash away.


Pratik Gupta/ Arré

The Cowboy Babas

Not all holy men strive to fit into the general vision of asceticism. Some of them feel the heat too. Here, two sadhus are united by their hatred for the blistering sun and their love for American Westerns. Who says divinity is out of fashion?


Pratik Gupta/ Arré

The Peeping Tom

As the crowd makes its way to Ram Ghat for the Maha Aarti, one man stays in the water. He looks mesmerised by what he is seeing, eyes glazed in a trance. But it isn’t the waters of the Kshipra giving him enlightenment. He is staring into a changing room with a broken door and a smooth pair of legs on display. Woman, thy name is salvation.


Pratik Gupta/ Arré

The Divine Caller

Even if you don’t find salvation at Kumbh, the consolation prize on offer to all is babaji ka aashirwad. The sadhus spend their days in tents, waiting for the bhakts to line up. A quick pat on the head can yield anything from 10 to 100 rupees, and business is brisk. But even an ascetic has phone calls to make and texts to send. He promises his bhakts a son, a bumper crop, or a good afterlife, all while screaming instructions into his phone.


Pratik Gupta/ Arré

The Weary Pilgrims

All roads leading to Kumbh are barricaded, forcing people to take a walk. But “jugaad” has always been our nation’s cry. Handcarts, the kind that are usually pushed around by sabjiwalas, are used to ferry devotees – sometimes up to four people at a time. They plough through the horde, scattering people in their path with a shrill “hurr, hurr” that is usually reserved for unruly cattle.


Pratik Gupta/ Arré