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kumbh mel a

Singapore-based French photographer, José Jeuland, has an extensive portfolio of documentary and travel photography with a specialist interest in portraiture. Between January to February this year, José travelled to India to explore the country’s rich culture and heritage, and in particular he went to the Kumbh Mela, a religious celebration known as the world’s largest gathering of humanity. A Maha (“Great”) Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years, with an Ardha (“Half”) Kumbh Mela six years later

The Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage where Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred or holy river. It rotates through 4 different locations and this year was held in Allahabad, a city previously known as Prayagrai, many people still prefer to use this earlier name. Kumbh Mela is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list

With the festival being held only once every 12 years, Kumbh Mela is one of the most anticipated human migration events of the 21st century. An incredible 150 million Hindu devotees will gather over a period of 50 days to take their sacred immersion, making the Kumbh Mela recognised as the largest peaceful gathering of people on the planet

Research shows that the festival has been a regular event for over 2000 years and the timing at each site is determined by astrological calculation based on the positions of the Sun, the Moon, and Jupiter.

This year, the Kumbh Mela was held at the meeting point of three rivers, known as the Triveni Sangam. The Ganges and the Yamuna meet here, and a mythical third river called the Saraswati completes the trio.

The Kumbh Mela is made up of many rituals the most significant of which is the bathing ritual. Pilgrims bathe at the confluence of the three sacred rivers. The holy waters of the Ganges are believed to wash away the worshippers’ sins and deliver them to moksha and the liberation from the cycle of birth and death leaving them eternally blessed. This why so many Hindus bathe in sacred rivers on important dates

José flew from Singapore to Delhi on 25 January 2019 and stayed in Delhi
for two and a half days before making his way on to Allahabad by night

On 28 January 2019, José stepped foot for the first time in the Kumbh Mela at the Triveni Sangam, Allahabad. It was the beginning of an incredible experience as he started to understand the sheer scale of this enormous event as it slowly revealed itself as, day after day, the crowds grew and grew

José was staying in a hotel in the city of Allahabad, and each day he would travel a distance of six kilometres to the site by tuk-tuk, bike or, on some days, by walking

This vast holy festival spreads over thousands of hectares around the Sangam area. People of all social classes and from all corners of India and the world assembled there. The infrastructure to support such a huge event is a miracle in itself and was very organised with a strong presence of military and police personnel. The site was fully lit-up at night, and each zone had its own specification for tents, temples, food, transport and medical services. There were sufficient hygiene facilities with an abundance of toilets and water fountains

Many activities were held as part of the festival including religious ceremonies, entertainment parks, book exhibitions and sales, yoga events and a range of performances.

There is the ceremonial procession of Akharas (sects or religious groups) which, riding on elephant backs, horses and chariots and armed with shining swords, march over a makeshift bridge over the Ganges river

One of the more interesting events was the Sadhus performance. The Sadhus are people (most of whom with very long hair) who appear naked or with just a small piece of cloth to cover their private parts. They wear all sorts of accessories and cover their skin with a layer of ash or coloured powder making their skin appear white in colour

José encountered all sorts of incredible things he would have thought he could only see in movies, such as the Sadhus show, tattoos on the street and a centrifuge car show.

Mauni Amvasya, 4 February

The most important date was the 4th of February when somewhere between 35 to 50 million worshippers took a ceremonial dip in the holy river. It was believed that the planetary positions were the most favourable for bathing in the sacred river on that day. It was the largest number of pilgrims ever recorded in history to gather together during the entire Kumbh Mela.

On that day José walked all the way from his hotel to the site and every road was packed with people as far as the eye could see, an ocean of humanity, both locals and international visitors, coming together in this holy place from all around the world. It was a sight to behold, and the human traffic never seemed to end. It was not easy for José to handle his camera in the dense crowds, so he stationed himself in the holy water to get the best shots. It was, indeed, a very intense day and thankfully, the safety aspects were well planned and managed by the authorities.

It is overwhelming to see so many people come together in such a spirit of peace and harmony. Many homes and religious camps extended the hand of hospitality providing free food to the people, many people collected holy water and sand from the river to take back home with them, and José was surrounded by friendly people many of whom asked him for a selfie.

Jose is a full-time photographer based in Singapore and does documentary style photography, videography and commercial work. He has held successful exhibitions in Singapore and his latest exhibition is titled “Longevity Okinawa” in April 2019. You can follow Jose on social media @josejeuland