When the Kumbh Mela first took place, remains an enigma shrouded in the mysteries of mythological India. However, it is indisputably the largest religious gathering of humanity and a spectacle, which continues to grow in the number of pilgrims from various corners of the globe who flock to the sacred shores of India, each seeking to confront the essence of his/her own mortality.
As the result of an invitation extended to the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang (or Hiuen Tsiang) by the north Indian emperor, Harshavardhan, the first known documentation of the Kumbh Mela was written in 644 A.D. In Xuanzang’s diary he expounded on the visual grandeur of which he was privy to on the banks of the River Ganga at Allahabad. He was amazed at the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who gathered, along with sadhus (holy men), government officials and scholars. Harshavardan, entertained the woes of the visiting pilgrims and before leaving to return to his capital at Kannauj, donated his entire holdings of gold, silver and jewels to the mela (festival). It is said that he had hoped that his offering would assure his place in paradise.
The next documentation of the Kumbh Mela did not occur until 1822, when Bahadur Singh Bhatnagar visited the mela grounds. Unfortunately, he left disappointed. The turn out was meager because of a 1 ¼ Rupee ‘pilgrim tax’ that was imposed by the British colonialists. The tax exceeded the monthly budget of an entire middle class family. Nevertheless Bhatnagar described in his memoirs ‘Yadgare Bahadur’ that there were a good number of sadhu camps, folk theatre performances and devotional singers.
With the demise of the British rule, the number of devotees visiting the Kumbh Melas has continued to rise and estimates of eighty to one hundred million pilgrims were hosted by the Kumbh Mela of 2013. Among the visitors, was one who made the long journey from Austin Texas, the photographer Greg Davis. Like all visitors to the mela Greg initially felt overwhelmed by the scale of this incredible event. He pondered how to capture the essence of this coming together of humanity, where pilgrims inundated the fair grounds in numbers exceeding the populations of the largest cities on the planet.
Greg entered into solemn conclave with his artistic thoughts and concluded that it would be impossible to document the vitality of the Kumbh Mela by attempting to simply make photographs of the visual complexities before him. Indeed, he quickly realized that the task at hand was far more difficult than he had originally contemplated. His artistic sensitivities were challenged with the most difficult task a photographer encounters; namely to distill from the visual chaos in front of his camera those single moments in times that are most representative of the spirit of the event at hand.
It is often discussed among scholars of Hinduism how the venues of the Kumbh Mela came about. In reality, many will pick a version that is most in harmony with his sense of mysticism. A common version is one that gives an account of how the gods had become cowardly and weak after having been cursed by the sage Durvasa. At the same time the demons were gaining the upper hand over them. The gods asked Lord Brahma for help, who in turned asked Vishnu for guidance. Vishnu responded by saying that the gods and demons should churn the ocean and in return for their efforts they would find amrita, the nectar of immortality. The gods invited the demons to assist in the undertaking and promised them a share of the nectar. Together they toiled at the task but secretly the demons planned to steal the Kumbh (pot). When the churning of the ocean finished Dhanvantari-the physician of the gods appeared carrying the golden Kumbh that contained the nectar of immortality. The demons grabbed the Kumbh and ran away with it. The gods sensing the intention of the demons were prepared and caught up with them and retrieved the golden pot. During the chase, drops of nectar fell onto four spots which became the sites where the Kumbh Mela has been held since the second millennium B.C. The mela sites correspond to the Godavari River at Nashik, the Ganga at Haridwar, the Shipra River at Ujjain and at the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati Rivers at Allahabad. Sadhus, sages and millions of pilgrims believe that the drops of nectar from the Kumbh into these sacred rivers will endow them with the power to liberate the souls of all those who take three dips in these waters from the cycles of reincarnation.
Although one may not share the conviction of devout Hindus who believe in the powers of the ritual baths that will set them on a course of spiritual immortality, it is undeniable that the images of Greg Davis will leave a lasting photographic imprint that generations yet unborn will be able to sit back and savor for time immemorial.
Dr. Eugene H. Johnson
Professor and Director of Unspoken Dialogues