Arguably the biggest congregation of people in the world, the Maha Kumbh Mela is celebrated every 12 years in India and is the most important and ancient festival of North Indian Hindus. Held on the banks of where two of Northern India's greatest rivers, The Ganges and the Yamuna, meet; it is said that a dip in the sacred waters during this tithi or time period frees you from cycle of Punarjanm or rebirth. These pictures were made in February 2013 on Shiv Purnima, the most auspicious day in the 21 day tithi. According to news reports, approximately 35 million people were present at the banks that evening.

As a documentary project it posed various challenges. Spread over 50sq kms, the makeshift arrangements to host the event were severely stressed by the number of pilgrims. Some of the world's poorest people were there and their plight was evident. There was no drinking water or actually water of any sort that was available. Families of women and children were at the mercy of the elements for their ablutions with no hope for privacy. Makeshift camps of sleepy families were occasionally disturbed by rude, boorish policemen on horses that were made to trample on the ragged clothes of already ragged people. There were tents everywhere. Big tents with religious songs set to both modern and traditional tunes, blaring from a multitude of broken speakers. And over all of this commotion remains the loudest of them all. A public PR system that's continuously spewing out names of missing persons. Indeed getting lost at the Maha Kumbh is not really a myth and its easy to see why. White photographers and camera crews jostled around with their expensive equipment making images, videos and capturing soundscapes while being intently stared at. A big hit with the bearded sadhus they always got invited back to their luxury camps. The bigwigs of Bollywood, rich industrialists' wives and the like had their paths to the waters cleared for them by private bodyguards and state policemen (on their aforementioned horses) so that they could take a dip in private. There was red dust everywhere and the smoke from a thousand bonfires (with questionable burning material) made our eyes water. We walked the grounds for 28 hours without a place to sit or a loo to relieve ourselves in. But in the end, through the noise, the haze, the freezing cold weather, the stench of human waste, the violent police, the mad parade of the Naga Babas there was only hope. Hope in the eyes of every devotee who managed to do their duty as a good Hindu. As someone who just might be saved. The promise of redemption and the unbridled joy of having thought to have achieved it. 
Allahabad, India. February 2013. All images by Trilokjit Sengupta.
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