Few spectacles on Earth can compare to the great six-week Hindu pilgrimage, the ancient Kumbh Mela, during which literally tens of millions of people make their way to the river Ganges in order to bathe and worship. The 2013 Kumbh Mela takes place at Allahabad (Prayag) in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Sixty years ago, in 1953, photographer James Burke chronicled an earlier Kumbh Mela in a series of pictures that, for reasons lost to time, were never published in the magazine. Here, in the midst of the 2013 Kumbh Mela, Photos that capture something of the raw intensity and almost overwhelmingly sacral nature of the celebration’s rites.
Pilgrims crowd the beach at the junction of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and its merging with the mythical subterranean river Saraswati. This spot, known as the Triveni Sangam, becomes a magnet for pilgrims thanks to the belief that a dip at the confluence washes away all sins.
A perennial draw at the Kumbh Mela is the Naga sadhu who, through his practice of yoga, performs feats that defy the imagination. The sadhu pictured here is seen taking his ease on a bed of barbed wire, showing no evidence of pain.Sadhus come in all sizes, shapes and both sexes -- and all are venerated; it is not an uncommon sight for elderly men and women to prostrate before child sadhus, such as the one pictured here, and to seek his blessings.
he mahants, heads of the various religious orders, are the rockstars of the Kumbh and, during the annual mela, travel in the style of the princes of old, in palanquins accompanied by extensive entourages.
Aside from the holy dip, a big attraction of the Kumbh Mela is the opportunity it affords for mendicants of different religious orders to catch up with each other; the lack of adequate accommodation for the teeming millions further facilitates such casual, unscripted get-togethers.
When millions converge in a finite space, accommodation is a matter of catch as catch can. Pilgrims live where they can -- on blankets spread on the beaches, in such ersatz grass huts barely big enough to accommodate a prone form, to the latest in the line of luxury tents.
The Kumbh is a rare mixture of togetherness and aloneness -- besides the communal activities, sadhus of various stripes find in the religious conclave an opportunity to spend some time communing with their inner selves, renewing themselves and drawing energy from the crowds around them.