The Kumbh Mela: From here to eternity

Nothing prepares you. It’s not the arrival over the pontoon bridge, or the scale of the site, or the volumes of pilgrims and sadhus heading toward the mela. It’s the return trip after the auspicious bathing day, where every pilgrim at the mela decides to leave at the same time. The authorities have staggered contraflows, with crowds stopped tight against wooden slip rails. But nothing in the world prepares you for the crush of humanity.

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At two in the morning the mood is jubilant, festive. People are glad to be at the mela and the atmosphere is very relaxed, although our guide Vimal is not precisely sure where we should be locating ourselves. It becomes clear that without the mythical press pass we are never going to be actually at the water’s edge watching the arrival of the sadhus to bathe. Our Steve McCurry pictures will not involve naked splashing sadhus attaining moksha as we just are not allowed at the waters edge.

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Waiting for the crowd to wind down, Kumbh Media 2019 © Ali Warner Photography

This is not made clear to me or our little gang of photographers until we are well into the mela at two in the morning. We spot a line of press photographers walking past, and I point out to our guide that we could tag along and no-one might notice for a while. He looks uncomfortable but I mobilise the gang and we set off in pursuit. The barricade is up, with police blocking our way, but we manage to slide on through with persuasion from Vimal, and follow the long lenses. Finally Vimal’s nerve gives out and he says we are not going to be able to make it to the water. I look at where we are. It seems, after a bit of asking about, the sadhus will be coming this way.

We decide to camp out and relax for a bit. We’re on a wide boulevard with huge encampments either side of the road. There are sadhus over fires sitting on the peripheral, and plenty of little groups of pilgrims starting to build. Plenty to photograph, plenty of atmosphere to absorb. We talk about camera settings, make sure everyone is set up and good to go, then take brave little steps across to photograph the sadhus on the other side of the road wth their fire and tridents. Pilgrims want selfies with us. A set of five or six SUV cars bear down on us, off -road and at some speed, dangerously behind the lines of pilgrims. I catch sight of the passengers, and have a weird eye-contact moment with sadhus made-up as ladies but wearing sadhu robes, unusually not crammed with twenty others into their diesel chariots. Vimal confirmed what I thought I had seen, but was unable to explain why they were off-road, why they had come and gone so fast, why they looked like they didn’t want to be seen. It was another experience I had to file away for later examination.

Sadhu, Kumbh Mela © Ali Warner Photography © 2019

We’re there for an hour or so until the numbers begin to swell. Little knots of people are coming down the road, all in a hurry, aiming to the water sedge at breakneck speed. Grandma’s are being pulled along by hurrying sons, and everyone is in a rush. We’re not sure why, but it’s something to do with the sadhus coming after them. There are other pilgrims explaining who is coming next, and that the sadhus will be passing this way down this street. By good luck and persistence we are in the right spot.

Kumbh Mela Royal Bathing Day 2019 by Ali Warner Photography Workshops India © 2019

As the sun starts to come up we are aware there is a large contingent of naked, ash-smeared holy men starting to congregate, all shouting ‘Mahadev’ and spearing the sky with sticks and swords. There are sadhus allocated to road-clearing duties, and a particularly ornery lady sadhu is keen to keep us all back off the roads edge. Just as keen as the people behind us, pushing forwards. It’s a no-win situation, and this proves to be the point a few minutes later. The crowd surges a little and the sadhu lady loses her temper, giving me a tight slap like a cobra unfurling across my jaw. It’s so fast and unexpected we all laugh, although I complain loudly at her. The sadhu crowd grows bigger, and the main baba comes into vision. The crowd roars approval, and we are gifted with the sight of the sun coming up and naked Naga babas climbing onto cars, ordering chillums up from the crowd, and waving their sticks at the rising sun, praying and showing off in the same minute. This goes on for about half an hour. And then, with a surge and huge shouts of ‘Mahadev’, they go past us at a fast trot, heading for their dip in their holy mother Ganga. Towards moksha. Salvation. The road to eternity.

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Sun rising, Naga Sadhu on car © Ali Warner Photography 2019

 

Sadhus starting their walk to the River ganges, Royal bathing Day 2019, Ali Warner Photography India Workshop holidays © 2019

Behind the Naga sadhus come lorries and cars bedecked with gurus and followers, all waiting for the signal, and we circle with our cameras taking pictures of devotees and sadhus on their most holy day of the Kumbh Mela. We have met (other than the lady sadhu/cobra slap) with nothing but interest and kindness. We have made friends with other pilgrims who helped us in the crowd situation, had their picture taken by us, asked for selfies, talked about the mela with us. It has been fascinating.

 

Babas driving to their bath with their Guru, Kumbh Mela 2019 Ali Warner Photography India Workshop holidays © 2019 copy

Then, however, we decide to return back to our camp, and this is where it got really interesting. The volumes of people at the last Mela were estimated to be 65 million over three months. We know the crowd volumes are going to be huge, and so far, the crowd have been big but we’ve been able to get around. The authorities include local police and the military, all issued with radios, some with firearms. There are wooden slip rails creating one-way funnels, where the direction of people can be reversed or redirected. We walk for a mile or so in the direction of the pontoon ‘out’ bridge, and find ourselves in a contraflow of slightly wet sadhus who have had their dip, some of them recognisable from the earlier sadhu exodus to the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Swaraswati. But we are stuck in an elbow of the route, a slip rail blocking our exit.

And behind the slip rail is a crowd like we have never seen, pressing expectantly in our direction, waiting for the barriers to drop and the pilgrims to surge towards moksha. This line of pilgrims have been waiting for the sadhus to have their dips so they can have theirs. We hesitate.

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Walking the bridge, Kumbh Mela 2019. © Ali Warner Photography

All of us have our cameras out, dangling, backpacks on our shoulders. The word comes that we are to move, swiftly, through a minuscule gap in the slip rail that the soldier is opening for we foreign tourists. The crowd surges a tiny bit, towards the hole. We are expected to go against the flow of this river of humanity, into its eddies and maestroms and slipstreams. I start shoving my long-lensed camera into my bag, helped by the Spanish girls we befriended on the way. In our haste a zip breaks. I stop rushing. I zip what I can closed, reverse my backpack so it’s on my front, stick my Nikon D4 in my hand held above my head, clamp the other hand on one of my fellow photographers, and we surge into the crowd. Above us from a watch tower, a soldier is yelling into his radio. “Commander, shut the gate, Now, Now. Now!” I sense his panic. I try not to feel it as pilgrims try to minnow their way through the wee gap and the crowd burst through. The gate holds, and we are in.

I think instead about what an extraordinary thing faith is, rather than what might happen if I fall. Under my feet are bits of clothing dropped, odd flip-flops, shawls, that catch our feet and try to upend us. We can only take baby steps. The crowd is hemming us in, lifting me off my feet, and we keep moving in the direction of the exit pontoon bridge. Somehow we cross the flow of people, thousands deep, and still hanging onto the person in front, we keep going. This river of people has had their dip, and is going the same direction as us now, but our feet barely touch the sacred dust where the three rivers meet. I turn to keep an eye on one of the group, and see she has a small and ancient grandma attached to her arm. Angela is kind and sweet. I am not. I told the grandma sternly to let go of Angela. Angela was fine, although the worry of being responsible for someone else was a not something any of us had anticipated. The crowd moved under its own impetus. I catch sight of the Spanish ladies, one still hanging onto me, and find they have Grandma on their arm now. Why she thought she’d be safer with us than one of her family I have no idea. Did she even know where her family was? Every year many grandmas get ‘lost’, left behind as the family scarpers off in another direction, away from familial duties.

Our man Vimal, a tall chap on a good day, is out of sight. I can see the inestimable Mr. Pal (sidekick and fixer) armed with our 100 rupee selfie stick, weaving his way off to the side. The Germans (for we have found ourselves an international group) and their amazing guide are still in the pack, and only Vimal is missing. We manage to re-group on the side of the main flow, and start WhatsApping Vimal to try and find him on this extraordinary throng. We try to take stock of this experience, and what it is we have just done. None of us panicked, all of us managed to keep walking and keep calm. We are babbling slightly with the shock of survival. Justifiably we feel like we have had a massive adventure, and as the adrenalin drops, we feel the need to be back in camp.

Vimal appears, stating he is was worried sick about losing us and where had we got to. We laugh good naturally at him, thanking our stars for Mr. Pal and the German’s guide, who was playing with a full pack and kept all of our group safe. Vimal had stood on a car roof in the hope of seeing us, but finally smart phones had done their thing and he had found us. We braved the pontoon bridge back, stopping to take a few images of bathers so we could say we had seen pilgrims bathe at the Kumbh Mela, and we headed for home. On the exit of the bridge we spotted a rowing boat, bravely trying to find its way under the pontoon bridge, a bundle of blankets on the foredeck. It is human-shaped, and we wonder if it was a trampling. Secretly we thank our lucky stars.

It has been an amazing experience. The 2019 Ardh Kumbnh Mela. I think I’ll be back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hounds of India

I run photography tours to India, and this trip I travelled with clients to India to Delhi, Allahabad, Varanasi and Kolkata. All places where India’s hounds are unloved and kicked about. Over the year’s it’s been something I’ve tried not to focus on as it upsets and disturbs me, that people can be so unkind to one of humankind’s best allies.

Pie dogs. Paee kutta in Hindi. Pal kukura in Bengali. Not that most street dogs would know any name other than a swift kick, or any affection other than a raised hand. Dogs are objects of contempt, their yelps heard daily in the melee of street life. I have rescued puppies in Himachal, persuaded my good friend Mini to take a pie dog into her home and love it, been chased by a pack of street dogs one late night on honeymoon in Jaisalmer, and generally kept myself well clear of India’s street dogs with their rabies and fleas. And sharp teeth. Until this trip.

India always humbles, always surprises. This time, the people of India managed to catch me out me with an unexpected element of humanity. For wherever I went, dogs were being petted, fed and loved. After 25 years of knocking around the subcontinent this was the first time I have ever seen anything like affection for street dogs. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe there’s been a little shift in people’s behaviour. Maybe it happens in places where there’s a strong spiritual undercurrent, or there’s a specific need for the dog to take care of its feeders. This is the story of recently met (and photographed) hounds in India.

I spent a very interesting morning on the banks of the Yamuna River in Delhi, east of Civil Lines, where the Tibetan Monastery lies on the shores of one of Mother Ganga’s great tributaries. I was keen to see the place for myself, and not the Instagram images of perfect boats with flocks of seagulls. The Yumana flows wide and shallow at this point, and if you look at satellite maps you can see the large sand bank in the middle, and the agricultural crops on the east bank, grown to take advantage of monsoon floods. On the banks the morning I’m poking about, there are a range of lost souls camping and washing, taking advantage of an empty place in a busy city. I’ve been warned that drug addicts and dodgy types inhabit this neck of the woods, so I’m careful to not wave my camera about or go too far from the safety of the Tibetan Bazaar. As I stand and observe, I notice a sweet scene unfolding. There’s a guy sitting down (Indian style) about 400 yards from me, belongings wrapped in a dhoti, stick not far to hand. He is stroking a piedog affectionately, chatting to it in Hindi. The dog is enjoying the attention, and they commune for a while. After a little bit the man gets his stuff together and starts to get up, and the dog ambles away.

My reaction to this is complicated. Never before have I seen dogs being petted in this way by anyone not middle-class Indian, to be frank. I am happy to have observed, unobserved, the scene, and it gives me food for thought. I return to the chai stand at the back of the bazaar, to be surprised yet again by kind behaviour to dogs.

As I arrive there is a young Tibetan lady in traditional dress walking with a big cooking pot, and a trail of puppies following her. She calls to the mother, who trots up in a pretty keen manner, and the lady commences feeding rice and whatnot to the gang of pups and mum. Again, not something I have seen before. Buddhists are known for their love of dogs, but in a quarter of a century of travels to the subcontinent, I had not experienced street dogs being fed. I take a few pics of the action, and then find a number of dogs sitting on the wall of the Tibetan bazaar, looking across to the sands of the Yamuna and generally behaving in non-aggressive ways. These dogs are clearly being looked after yet are street dogs in that nobody owns them. I spy another, nestling in a neat bed made for it in a corner of the wall, and again, notice these dogs are home and happy. They come over to chat to me and say hello, always aware when they are being looked sat and examined. I am continually surprised how much dogs know about what’s going on. They probably smelt me as I came in the gates of the Tibetan Bazaar, and knew about my presence long before I knew about theirs.

Varanasi is a city of a million souls all looking for moksha. The ghats are a complicated riot of pilgrims, sadhus, touts, sellers of marigolds and candles for votive offerings. There are guys chucking magnets in on strings, fishing for pice, (pi -sa, Hindi for coins), rowing boats keen to float you down the Ganges, old temples, old steps, sweepers, young priests, fortune tellers. Cremation ghats. And dogs. Nothing quite prepares you for it and it is one of the most amazing places on the planet. I love it. If you want to go to India on a photography trip, take me with you to Benares, Kashi, Varanasi, the city of three names, where you fast track to salvation.

Varanasi’s dogs seem to have one father as they all have similar ears and head shape. They are a fine beast to look at. The hounds in the ghats were an aesthetic pleasure, curled up in the sun, enjoying the warmth of a hearth set up by sadhus. Lying on the ghats, rushing about the ghats in complicated games, they added an unexpected dimension. I noticed that the chai wallahs had placed hessian sacks on the steps, some of which were clearly meant for the dogs, who took full advantage to lie on fabric rather than bare stone. Here and there dogs stretched against the stone walls of the ghats, enjoying a spot of February sun after a coldish winter. One with its head on a jumper.

My message to clients is to never, ever, pet the dogs of India. Rabies and sharp teeth. Sitting on a ghat in the warm sun, chatting to my fellow photographers, a dog decided he wanted to sit between us. My approach is to keep relaxed at all times, for the minute you tense, the animal knows it. So I kept my head and waited to see what unfolded. Clearly people were not being bitten by these dogs or there would have been uproar from the chaiwallahs when they approached. This particular dog inserted himself between us, and angled his head for a light scratch behind his ears. Tentatively, I scratched. He arched his neck and leant in, eyes shut appreciatively. I continued. Breaking one of my big rules was liberating. The dog enjoyed the attention and I enjoyed his company. After a couple of minutes, he yawned widely, and jumped lightly off our step to see what else was going on. Never stroke a stray dog in India.

Next up on the dog front were puppies on the ghats, and puppies in the streets of Kolkata. We were winding our way through a back street of the extraordinary architecture that forms Kolkata, and we bumped into a row of puppies, lined up expectantly. They were sitting in a line, waiting for the street butcher to finish cleaning his block. Every now and then he fed them a morsel of raw meat, over which there was good natured scoffing, and the line reformed. Clearly they knew when supper time was, and they were helping him out by disposing of meat waste. Again, I’ve never seen the domesticated relationship between humans and dogs operate in such a good natured way before in India.

In another of Kolkata’s amazing markets, I drifted in around lunchtime to find the market asleep, the barrow boys stretched out under lungis catching a few winks. I wandered about in the half light with my camera, and spotted a dog sitting on top of a market stall. I asked and was told his name was Raja. King. He was well fed, and looked like he knew he was home. My journey was becoming filled with hounds.

 

The final big moment was on the Park Circus railway slums. I’ve posted on the dogs that were being fed in that blog, but in my mind’s eye can clearly see the affection for her dog that one of the ladies had. This was a big, well fed male dog, and his role was to keep his family safe. Which he did. I was seen off, and weakly hid behind my friend Mintu, and once he had finished his rice and veg, the dog sat enjoying a pat from his family. So the relationship was dynamic, a two way invested thing that allowed dog to do his thing protecting his keepers, and be fed and loved in return.

I have seen mountain dogs upon in the Kulla Valley, Himachal Pradesh, be loved and cared for, and I know plenty of middle-class, educated Indians who love their pugs and their beagles. But this was the first time I have seen and experienced dogs being loved and cared for by everyday folk in everyday situations. It was enlightening.

 

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If you’d like to come with me on one of my photographic tours, more details are available by email at info@aliwarnerphotography or on my website.

For those of you interested, the images here were taken on a Nikon D4, an Olympus EP-1 and my iPhone8.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tibetan Monatery Delhi

banks of the Yamuna

The Ghats at Varanasi

Park Circus Railway dog

The Railway Kids

The last ten minutes of my last afternoon photographing in Kolkata was spent on the side of Park Circus railway track, leaning towards the underbelly of a diesel-spewing, broad gauge train. Nothing prepared me for the swirl of diesel dust, the  screeching and clanking of the pistons, and the enormous scale of the bogeys at eye level as they passed through the lives of the railway dwellers.

Walking unannounced into the railway community might not have gone down well, with my lack of Bengali and camera slung suspiciously around my neck. Mintu, from Future Hope, (a brilliant street kids charity in Kolkata)  kindly accompanied me to have a brief look into the lives of the railway slum to photograph and talk to a family he knew. I’d been photographing the Future Hope kids at their new school site, mucking about with tadpoles in jamjars and the kids fishing in the pond with bamboo rods. The Park Circus visit was a moment to understand where some of the Future Hope kids had come from, the difficulty of the lives they had left.

As we walked up and over the railway tracks into the lives of the Park Circus railway community, I felt a tension rise in me as I crossed the heavy railway lines. Picking my way over the metal carefully, Mintu watched me and smiled and laughed, telling me crossing the lines was safe. It didn’t feel safe. It felt exposed and raw and grimy. I had Mintu as my protector, so I was alright. We both knew the people living there were not always so protected.

“How often do the trains come?” I asked, looking down the tracks. Nervous.

“Not that often”. Mintu, twinkling. We walked along the tracks for a little while, then Mintu stopped to chat to a small, pretty women in a brown sari with various children around her. The boys were bald, with shaved heads, and the women had a resigned, tired look about her. Her husband had died three months back, and the shaved heads were a sign of mourning. She had five children, and as I looked into her little shack with its one bed, I could see the youngest boy of eight or nine months asleep on the bed, a shaft of gentle afternoon light crossing his peaceful little body. After a while Mintu asked if I could take some photos, and I turned to take a photo of the smallest family member, but he had been snatched from the arms of Morpheus and was now in the arms of his sister, cross and bewildered at being woken to be a prop in photographs.

Big sister, littlest brother.

The few minutes of quiet, unannounced photography I had hoped for were equally snatched away from me as the kids on the immediate either side of the tracks erupted in front of my camera. For ten minutes I became the photographic pied piper, allowing the kids to be models and give me their two fingers across their faces/Blue Steel looks borrowed from their favourite Bollywood dance tracks. One of the neighbouring kids, a smart, fast talking nine year old with attitude and savvy threw me some moves, and we did a coupe of shots with her posing like Priyanka Chopra. A girl can dream.

Dance moves on the family bed
All the kids do this. Bald head because his dad died recently.

These are not the images I want in my mind’s eye, but these are the poses the kids want to make. A moment of escapism for them, five minutes of fame. There was tussling and struggling to get the prime place in front of the lens, a microcosm of life’s struggle playing out in front of me. It grew rough, and Mintu had to step in. Boundaries are different on the street, and there was plenty of camera grabbing to see the digital display. I managed to re-focus attention on one shy little brother in the shack, then all the family were on the bed, romping and swinging off various parts of the roof, fighting with each other on the bed in a tangle of limbs and bald heads. The mother stayed outside with Mintu, the discussion grave, her face serious.

Rough housing
Middle brother on the family bed (sleeps 6). Plastic sacking walls. No locks.

The conversation was about taking the mother to the children’s court on Monday where she could start the process of legally allowing Future Hope to take one of her brood into its folds. Life with Future Hope, as I had found, is filled with love, opportunity and a lot of hope. She wanted to give one of the boys up, but Future Hope felt that the girl was much more vulnerable. Mintu was not specific but later, over chai in clay cups, the difficulties faced by families of this kind became clearer. In order to fund this little fatherless family’s survival the mother had to go rag picking. In her conversations with Mintu, she told him that she took the boys with her to do this, leaving the baby and her eight year old girl at home with the baby. Therefore she couldn’t let the girl go to Future Hope as there was no-one to watch the baby when she went out. Mintu told me that he had talked to the other kids in nearby shacks, and that they had told him the girl was often left on her own as the mother took the baby to help her begging. I asked about why the girl was vulnerable, and Mintu’s face hardened.

“People come, you know, and they take these girls. Often the mothers come back and the girl has gone. Especially at night”.

I hazarded a strong guess. “Sex trafficking?”

Mintu nodded. I looked down the tracks at the various families cooking and washing dishes, a mother and big sister bathing a howling small boy between them, little body shiny and wet. I hope the mother will take a difficult decision and find a way to give her daughter a chance with Future Hope. A train comes, hooting long, almost soft toots, running slowly, giving the families time to scatter to one side or the other. I stand behind Mintu, trying not to show terror at the scale and proximity of this huge metal beast. Others clearly are so accustomed to their presence it’s neither here nor there.

Take this picture, Aunty! Still with kite string being mended in one hand.
It took me a little while. Camera, of course.

We walked further down the tracks. Mintu knows this community, knows who the vulnerable families are. The process of helping these families, providing outreach, is something he feels deeply and strongly. Once a street kid himself, he understands the way these things work, and how Future Hope is such an opportunity for survival. He talks gently and kindly to these families, from a position of experience. I spot a well-fed dog being given a plate of rice and veg, his lady owner making sure he enjoyed his supper. The irony is not lost on both Mintu and I that the dog looks better fed than many of the kids. The dog looks up, and has a big old bark at me, worried I’m disturbing his supper, or perhaps threatening his family. I smell different to him. I stand behind Mintu (again) in case he decides he needs to protect his pack. It occurs to me that feeding this old battle-scarred hound is an investment in security for these ladies. If I lived in a shack with plastic walls and had daughters vulnerable to drugged or drunken men coming along the tracks at night looking for sex, I’d feed a big dog to protect me.

Distracted from borrowing sugar from a neighbour, two girls pose on the tracks for me.

I notice that some of the shacks are trying to grow plants out of a soil-filled dunny, training the green tendrils of a vegetable plant onto the roof of their homes. Here and there are plants in pots, a painted wall. A stab at a normal life despite living illegally on the side of the railway tracks. Some (not all) of the kids are spotlessly clean. A couple of ladies are combing and oiling each other’s hair, squatting on the tracks by their homes, a normal activity reinforcing affectionate family ties.

Potted plants, a horseshoe & Krishna.
Family ties.

We stop to chat to a very young mother and her baby, engaging in toothy activity in a plastic veggie box parked on the stone chip track between the railway lines. The aunty and mother are sitting on the railway track instead of a verandah, playing with her in the safety of her tiny improvised baby den. She looks at the white lady with the camera and starts to cry uncertainly. The tracks are her playground.

Life on the tracks.
Small fellow and his grandpa.

Another train comes, faster this time, and I am on the other side of the tracks to Mintu.

“Get down, get down” he shouts urgently, and as the train driver leans harshly on his air horn, I slither into a nullah by the side of a couple of shacks, dirt and rocks giving way underneath me. The train thunders by, snorting, farting, screeching.  I find myself leaning in towards it, trying with my slow lens and irritating camera-lag to capture the kids on the other side of the train through the gaps in the steel wheels and pistons. The baby sitting in the plastic box with her aunty and mother has been tucked into their shack. The train thunders by.

Life barely disrupted by the broad gauge train thundering by.

Life resumes once it has passed, people barely noticing the disruption. I feel traumatised by its proximity, then as we continue along the tracks, realise I am adjusting to stepping on and over the railway lines. I laugh inwardly at myself for finding ways to cope so fast, noting the speed with which railway life has normalised after my initial fear. We humans are a flexible, adjustable species. Equally we are total bastards, shockingly open to finding opportunities to make money out of vulnerable children by trading little girls for sex. There’s no way to sugarcoat what this eight year old girl faces if she doesn’t get into the arms of Future Hope. If she is stolen (or sold) she faces a life of continual rape and bondage, physical and mental violence. Her mother is economically and socially powerless to do anything about it, and she will become just another number in the faceless, whispered sex trade that feeds on young vulnerable children.

An unregistered, unknown life.

I do not get the chance to wash my hair before I leave Kolkata,  busy with a lovely dinner and then packing. The water for the pump to the bathroom has not been activated, and there is no water for a shower the morning I fly back to the UK.  I dress, thinking about the lack of bathrooms in Park Circus slum. Once home, I have a long bath and wash my hair. When the water drains out, I notice large black particles in the bathtub that I have to encourage towards the plughole. I can’t think what they are for a minute. Then it occurs to me. These are chunks of dirt and dust thrown up by the train. A physical reminder of life on Kolkata’s railway tracks. I see the look in the little girl’s eyes when she curls up for a photo on her family bed, leaning against the plastic sheeting for a wall. It is a faraway look. A knowing look. I know that I represent an impossible dream of a life as I wander along the tracks looking into their lives. I can leave, go home to masonry, hot water, safety.

Future hope.

They are home, and it is a difficult reality.

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All images in this blog are for sale with 100% of profits going to Future Hope. You can reach me at aliwarnerphotography@gmail.com for thumbnails and costs. I’d love you to follow me and share my blog with your friends.

You can also make a difference by donating directly via the link below.

https://www.futurehope.net/get-involved/donate/

For those of you interested in the camerawork, images in this blog were taken with an Olympus EP1 and a 17mm lens. All images are the sole copyright of Ali Warner Photography 2019.

Places still available on the Nov 2019 Shimmering Sands Photography Tour, email Ali on info@aliwarnerphotography.com

The Road to Salvation

You would have thought a simple road trip from Varanasi to the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad would be easy enough. A minibus for four, plus Vimal the guide, plus driver plus wingman, and enough room for us to stretch. The Kumbh Mela brings its own river of salvation seekers, travelling in buses and piled high in trucks and big auto rickshaws. Avoiding the traffic on the main road into Allahabad creates other eddies and swirls as trucks misjudge the gaps and accidents happen. 160 million people go through the gates on the Kumbh Mela.

We are now a part of the pilgrimage. The road trip takes on a particular flavour and style, becoming a chapter of our story. Road trips punctuate the bigger journey.

We stopped, unexpectedly, due to a tricky combination of low hanging branch and accident. The road took time to clear despite wing man’s best efforts at rearranging traffic, and we grew bored. To our left were a group of villagers, sitting in front of a shop and resting. These were real pilgrims (for we are seekers of light but the natural photographic kind, not the spiritual), and mixing through them were locals moving back and forwards from their fields.

The group, restless for real action, were taking photos through the glass. The opportunity was too delicious to resist, and we found our way into the group using a pair of cows as our foil. Vimal started the chat, asked if a particular guy minded a photo, who swiftly rearranged his turban, and then we were away, learning the dark arts of aperture and exposure on the hoof. It was a wonderful moment. The group found their natural sensitivity to taking portraits of unknown people didn’t apply in the same way in India, where on the whole people love you taking a click. It’s becomes a group thing, with onlookers enjoying the process as much as the makers of photos.

I sat for a moment with a group of ladies, who wanted to know where we were from. I asked if they were going to the Mela. They were. Their coach was festooned with drying saris and cooking kit on the roof. We forget how simple travelling can be. The road cleared and we chased our minibus down the road, shouting goodbyes to the ladies. See you at the mela, I say, mischievously.

160 million and you never know, we might.

The Monkey God, Karol Bagh and a spot of traffic.

Nothing quite prepares you for a glimpse of a pair of bright pink cement monkey legs as you shoot a roundabout in thick traffic. Legs that have a beanstalk feel about them as you can’t see out of the car window much higher than his knees. Rahul the driver points him out on the drive west through Delhi.

“Monkey God Temple. Look!”

I crane my neck to try and see his face but it’s lost to me, too high for my field of view. It’s a Hanuman Temple, this much I can see, but anything more is lost to the heights of the Banyan tree and the swirling traffic. I sit back, slightly underwhelmed.

I talk to my friends about the statue. “Do you follow Hanuman?” I am asked. I say no, but I’m interested in energy hotspots and cultural bits and bobs. I like to underplay the latter. Their car and driver is dropping me home, and I wonder if he can drop me off at the temple and I’ll take the metro home through rush hour.

I’m taken to lunch and we aim for Sector 10 and Hakkims. Famous for its kebabs and tandoor, it’s an exciting moment. Trailing up the stairs behind the team I sense their disappointment. Hakkims is shuttered. “Closed. Hanuman day. Tuesday”. I look baffled.

” Tuesday is Hamuman’s day. No meat for followers of Hanuman. Hakkims clientele is non-veg. ” I work out the logic and then my antenna flicks on. Definitely the right time to visit this monkey god’s temple.

Rahul drops me at the roundabout.

“Madam. Metro is that way. Temple entrance over there. Shoes to the keeper.” And then he’s gone, lost to the vortex of rush hour.

I stand for a moment after he’s gone, absorbing the atmosphere, checking out the players. A couple of beggars on the peripheral, poverty stricken rather than maimed (unlike some of the bigger mosques and temples which used to be loaded with Delhi’s poor). A temple keeper is ushering pedestrians off the temple frontage, which is demarcated by the shoe shelves, traffic cones and a table. To the edge of these, the roundabout is in full flood, traffic building to a crescendo of horns and beeps and roars of unloved exhausts. I walk carefully to the far edge of the temple, on the strand line between temple and transportation. The temple keeper points crossly to my feet and says “Madam. Shoes”.

But I am judging, absorbing, looking. Do I want to go through the monkeys mouth enough to see inside his brain? For the main entrance, across some wetland tiling and a long, black, shoe-sole painted tongue, past his large, violently curved incisors, is through his mouth. The traffic roars, one fellow one-handedly flicking his scooter past as he clamps his mobile to his ear. The noise is so loud that an ambulance can’t be heard. It’s visceral, shocking. The monkey’s vicious head is also at ground level, making him a two headed-beast. But you can’t see his head from ground level because you’d have to walk backwards, away, for the perspective. Into that traffic. So the architects put another head in, as a funky exit, and another as a shoe-sole tongued entrance. Actually that makes three heads but nobody’s really thinking about anatomy (or reality) here. I’d like a job as a Hanuman temple architect. This job spec has a brief that says ‘Themepark Rollercoaster. Shock. Sensory overload.” There’s even a set of steps twisting upwards, up to his torso and possibly beyond, and downstairs there is a WookyHole grotto with demons and snakes and a definite House of Horrors Kali and Durga vibe. It’s kitch. It’s cool.

I decide to risk baring my feet and find my way in. It’s unlike any temple I’ve ever been in, with platforms and plaster gods on several levels, and people proffering themselves on rugs and chanting religious texts from their iPhones. The colours are bubblegum pink, lime green, hot orange. Even the garlanded flower waste is beautiful.

This is not a place of restraint. This is a place of uncontrolled, riotous colour, a religious excitement. And it’s TUESDAY, Hanuman day, so followers are carefully lighting little candles and touching his feet.

Which are, without being cheeky, huge. Hanuman is 108 feet tall. He needs bug feet to stand on.

This is serious worship, a candle lit, and Hanuman ‘s big toe suspiciously clean. A quick google later tells me it is a new temple, completed in 1997. And it’s glorious. Two stands at the entrance points sell Puja offerings, doing a hotly orange business, the flags are gently flapping in the pollution, and despite rush hour, despite the traffic, people are ringing the brass bells and serious in their intent.

I pay for a tikal and a photo. Various priests call to their section, but it is Hanuman ‘s followers that reel me in. A sweeter priest takes pity, offers a proper tikal, sending my thought upwards towards spirituality, gently threads my wrist red. Suddenly I’m back in India, transported to the first time a priest tied a red thread on my wrist, half a lifetime ago. I know nothing of Hanuman. But the intensity of worship and ritual I recognise.

This is a temple of the 21st century. It roars up into the skyline, cemently contoured, proud that modern paints allow the Monkey God to be seen in full transcendental Shalimar paint. It could only be where the traffic at Karol Bagh judders past, drivers and passengers making fast votive movements as they absorb his energy and spirit on the way through. Is he a god of travel?

He is, on a Tuesday.

‘Mentioned in Dispatches: The Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, 2019

The Nectar Pot of the Gods. Who can resist a festival with a name like this?

This is a festival with a temporary city on an imaginary river. The Kumbh Mela and the mystic Swariswati. There is a real sacred river too, the Ganges, or Ganga-ma, Mother Ganges. She’s a trans-boundary affair that rises in the Himalayas and ends in the Bay of Bengal, 1,678 miles later.

Where there is water in India there is faith. Rivers are sacred entities, the Mother Ganges a goddess who washes away sin, once a river of heaven flowing across the sky. The creation myth is beautiful and wrapped up from the beginning in the tradition of holy men.

This is its story: An ascetic had been meditating when the ancestors of a king called Bhagiratha disturbed his meditation, and in anger he burned them to ashes with his angry gaze.

Not able to be freed from this earth or gain salvation, the only way they could reach salvation was for the purifying Ganges to flow over the ashes and release them up to heaven. Lord Shiva protected the earth from the impact of the Ganges as she fell to Earth by catching up the river in his hair, and the myth goes that the Ganges followed Bhagiratha out across the plains and to the sea, where his forefathers ashes were purified and restored to paradise.

No wonder Hindus are obsessed with the Ganges. They believe that if they deposit the ashes of their loved ones in the Ganges, they will either ease the transition into the next life, or be freed from the cycle of birth and death. The Ganges offers a ticket out of this spiritual life through her exceptional powers of purification. A dip into the divine waters will purify Hindus, washing away a lifetime of sins. As a result of this, relatives will travel thousands of miles to deposit the ashes of loved ones to the Ganges, and firmly believe that a daily dip is the way forward.

Many cities on her length are considered holy. Varanasi, considered the most holy of the cities in the Ganges, where death is most auspicious. And Allahabad, where the Kumbh Mela takes place, the site of the most important Hindu festival in the religious calendar. Bathing in the Ganges is the main reason sadhus and pilgrims visit the Kumbh Mela, and bathing on the most auspicious day of the New Moon absolves sun and breaks the cycle of rebirth.

February 4th 2019 is the biggest bathing date, and the Sacred Rivers Tour 2019 will be at the festival for this big day in Allahabad. We’ll be there, in the thick of it, (based in our Deluxe Camping), trying not to get lost in this temporal, spiritual city. I’m both wildly excited and terrified. We’ve got a guide whilst we’re there which fills me with gladness as I have the sense of direction of a flea.

Integral to the Kumbh Mela are the sadhus. These are India’s Hindu holy men, who follow various Gods and belong to varying sects. Meditation, contemplation and yogic practice are common denominators. The sadhus come to discuss matters of faith, disseminate information about Hinduism (and their version of it), begin or end chapters of religious behaviour that enables the holy men to continue along their spiritual journey. And bathe.

Often difficult to tell apart by the layman, they seem exotic and other-wordly to non-Hindus. At sunrise on the key bathing dates the different sadhu groups, with increasing fervour, head down in procession to the river to bathe. It will be crowded. There will be jostling and shoving. We will have our guide and fixer with us to help us find our way and reach brilliant photographic spots that they have scouted for us. It will be one of the most memorable things we ever do. We’ll be up early, walk loads, and to bed late.

I have often seen sadhus wandering India but other than a hilarious run-in with a friendly gang of them in the Kangra Valley a few years ago, I’ve not spent any time photographing them. I’ve done a bit of reading and thought a useful list of sadhu information might be useful. Each sect has its own camp, often close to the pilgrims, to encourage teaching and interaction. The Kumbh Mela has a temporary tent city, a huge affair, set over 5000 acres. My sense of direction is rubbish on a good day. Did I mention this already?! Radios, anyone? Or do we trust in the universe to help us find our way back to the tented camp?

Marajuana and sadhus

Certain sects, in particular the Anghora’s, use weed to concentrate their minds on religious mantras, & help them carry out strenuous yogic practices. The marajuana releases religious ecstasies and heightened their religious experiences. It’s the Fourth Consciousness. Lord Shiva to the Naha Sadhus is the origin of all spirituality, and he was not just a God. Shiva was the original ascetic.

Descriptions of his wild hair, chillum smoking and lack of boundaries could describe many sadhus today. Shiva denounced the world, in a way that many sadhus choose to do to be closer to Shiva. It’s about freedom from earthly matters and possessions, freedom to be closer to finding the stillness of the soul.

There’s no doubt you’re going to run into weed at the Kumbh Mela. The sadhus smoke it from a chillum, fingers closed around the end of it, and inhale via their hands. I’ve seen hash cakes in large mountains at the Nihang festival, designed for the horses, and there’s no doubt that an exhaling sadhu wreathed in beguiling smoke makes for a great image. Just don’t inhale.

Here are a few links from the web that will give you some idea of the scale and scope of our photographic adventure.

https://www.tripsavvy.com/india-kumbh-mela-pictures-4063998

The Jaipur Photography Workshops

Rajasthan is full of palaces and princes. I first visited on my honeymoon 24 years ago, and I love it as much as I did then.

Last November I spent ten days staying at the lovely Khandela Haveli, fine-tuning my photography workshops, working out where the sun will be for the strongest photo opportunities, double-checking I’ve got my timing right for adventures to elephant camps and the flower market. Part of the adventure included being taken by a friend to his family home, an amazing fort about 40 minutes drive from Jaipur.

It was an amazing experience, with fascinating 16/17th century fort architecture & enticing glimpses into royal lives. The family at the fort in Bagru had a downturn in luck in the late 19th century, with the family fortunes spiralling away after the loss of a golden son by poisoning in his early twenties. This extraordinary event took place in 1885. The fort has a sense of poignancy about it for what could have been.

His father Thakur Sawant Singh is the gentleman in the photograph. I took this late one afternoon at the fort in what would have been his main rooms. His ceremonial robes and sword are stunning, a visual legacy to the important political role he had in the Jaipur Court and his closeness to the Maharajas of Jaipur. I initially made a mistake on my Instagram entry for this image, stating he was a Maharaja when in fact he was a Thakur. The title means lord. Either way his beard is highly impressive! The image would probably have been taken with a daguerreotype camera. One runs into old photographs the length and breadth of India and they always fascinate me. Captured light from a different world.

For first visitors to India, Jaipur is a wonderful place to start. The photography workshops are based for the week at the Khandela Haveli, a quiet residential area with no need for earplugs, a charming rooftop terrace and pool. A merchants townhouse built in the traditional courtyard style, the bedrooms run off the internal balconies and are perfectly judged. By the time my boy and the daughter had been there for a few days they were on first name terms with the staff and batch-ordering nimbu panis. The Amber Fort, visits to elephants and balloon safari kept all of us engaged and occupied. Despite us having been before, Jaipur has plenty to explore. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, was in full swing and going out at night was amazing. The shopping malls had really got into the groove and had gone full-tilt with lightbulb strings festooned from rooftop to basement. Completely unexpected. Our boy was born on Diwali and our Indian mates call him their Diwali baby. Better locate some lightbulbs for next November.

Picking up the photography theme there were early photographs of the family on the hotel walls, testament to their position and to Jaipur’s early adoption of camera technology. This is a city imbued with photographic history. Let me share it with you.

I have a wonderful inside view of the Pink City, and have carefully planned the itinerary for you to get the best out of your Rajasthani adventure.

Bring your camera.

Take home memories.

The tour dates for the Jaipur Photography Workshops are:

12-19th November

21st-28th November

Places are still available. Please visit my website for contact details via this link.

Workshops with Ali Warner Photography