THE MAHA KUMBH MELA, ALLAHABAD, INDIA.

Photographer: Inder Gopal and Pavan Mehta

Exotic. Barbaric. Mesmerizing. Unnerving: Beneath its pious exterior, the Maha Kumbh can mean different things to different people. With origins that go well beyond the reach of recorded history, the holiest of the holy Hindu pilgrimage is a giant size event with an even larger religious fervour. For twelve long years (Purana Kumbh) and one hundred and forty four years (in the case of the Maha Kumbh, recently held in 2013) the event slumbers in the minds of devotees, undisturbed but not forgotten. Then when the stars align at the right spot, it erupts into life with grand scale fanfare attended by millions of pilgrims across the length and breadth of India.

A pulsating pot-pourri of holy men and ancient beliefs.

Naked ascetics with matted dreadlocks, semi clad holy men with bodies smeared in ash, marijuana smoking red eyed yogis, theological ideas, religious debates, processions and endless crowds meander at a breathtaking pace through the veins of this colossal pilgrim magnet. While ritual bathing in freezing waters continues to be its heart – Hindus believe a dip in the river during the auspicious months absolves sins and releases one from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Number of Pilgrims have multiplied over the years.

Modern times, with its share of better infrastructure and transport facilities, has increased the numbers by millions. Now each day tens of thousands arrive in cramped buses and overcrowded trains to attain salvation on the mud caked river banks. Ascetics dwelling in remote regions cover the distance on foot, starting out days in advance. In truth, India has no pilgrimage as pious as the Kumbh. And the planet no larger a religious gathering. Photographers for decades have juggled lenses and equipment to chronicle the mood, nuances, rhythm and soul of this mega event with varying degree of success.

Capturing the Maha Kumbh.

During the early winter months of 2013, the coldest recorded in decades, one hundred million pilgrims poured into the holy city of Allahabad for a dip in the icy waters of the Triveni Sangam. Among them was the team of Inder Gopal, Pavan Mehta and Ranjeev Kapoor.

The trio spend fruitful days chronicling the great religious drama from behind the lens as it unfolded with each passing moment. By the end of their stay, they had come close to capturing a fraction of the phenomenon that is the Maha Kumbh.

Eight months later the images they collected graced the walls of the Arpana Art Gallery like treasured trophies in what was their first ever public exhibition. The collection, shot randomly during different hours and in different places showcases the spiritual aspect of the event, the religious fanfare, the ascetics and holy men who bless with practiced gestures, and the swirling crowds of devotees whose undying faith in ancient rituals keeps the Maha Kumbh alive in the age of scientific reasoning.

After all, once stripped of its magnitude and fanfare, the world’s largest religious gathering is nothing more than just a simple test of faith.

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About the photograph: Captured by Inder Gopal and Pawan Meheta in the early winter months of 2013 and exhibited at the Arpana Art Gallery, New Delhi, India in October, 2013. Inder’s experience is recorded on his blog. In the photo: Inder Gopal on the left talks to a visitor during the exhibition.