Published: Sunday July 6, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday July 6, 2014 MYT 9:29:15 AM

Lalit Verma creates an awakening

A praying sadhu (holy man).

A praying sadhu (holy man).

The photographer's works bring alive the religious fervour and mystical spirit of the Kumbha Mela pilgrimage in India.

THE Hindu culture and tradition are deeply embedded in religion, with every facet of life being governed by some belief.

For Indian photographer Lalit Verma, capturing the Kumbha Mela festival, being with the pilgrims and walking two kilometers daily to capture the best shots was a life-changing experience. He covered the Kumbha Mela festival in 2010 and 2013, which has culminated in the ongoing Kumbha Mela photography exhibition at the Sutra Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.

“I always had the interest to be among the gathering of the greatest wealth and culture in the world. I wanted to find a ‘realised’ or a spiritually awakened person soul and picture him,” says Lalit in a recent interview at the gallery.

“Of course, you can’t tell by looking at a person whether he is spiritually awakened so I had to use my judgment. I found so many people who brought tears to my eyes.”

A pilgrim on his way to the Kumbha Mela.
A pilgrim on his way to the Kumbha Mela.

Thus, to attend the biggest religious festival in the world is not only enriching, but according to Lalit, provides some sort of a realisation and perhaps, liberation.

“For tourists, it’s a spectacle for the eyes and a feast for the senses,” he adds. The Kumbha Mela, believed to be the largest religious gathering on earth, is held every 12 years on the banks of India’s “Sangam” – the confluence of the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati.

According to legend, there was a war between the demigods and demons for the possession of the elixir of eternal life. A 12-year battle ensued for this elixir of immortality and during the fight, four drops fell on four places in India: Allahabad (Prayag, Uttar Pradesh), Haridwar (Uttarakand), Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh) and Nasik (Maharastra).

The Mela alternates between Nasik, Allahabad, Ujjain and Haridwar every three years. The one celebrated at the Holy Sangam in Allahabad is the largest and holiest of them.

Millions of pilgrims from gurus and sadhus (holy men), to villagers and tourists, congregate on the banks of the Sangam to engage in religious debate and discourse, to sing, pray, eat and serve together.

While the Kumbha Mela is a religious festival, there is a carnival atmosphere that prevails.
While the Kumbha Mela is a religious festival, there is a carnival atmosphere that prevails.

Among the millions are the Naga Babas, who have the privilege of taking the first dip during the Shahi Snan or Royal Bath. They attract special attention with their ash-smeared bodies, bead necklaces and knotted hair.

As worshippers of Lord Shiva, these ascetics reside in the Himalayan caves and come out only during the Kumbha Mela.

A former Tata Group executive, Lalit gave up his corporate life to focus on his passion for art and culture. He is also the founder and director of Aurodhan Art Gallery in Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry), India. His photographs in the Kumbha Mela exhibition represent the coming together of humanity, the cleansing of sins and rebirth, and a spiritual awakening that provides inner and outer harmony.

“One of my most exciting moments was seeing the Naga Babas jump into the river. There is a sect leader and when the signal is given, they run and splash themselves with water. Amazingly, I have not heard of any accidents in the river,” he recalls.

To capture the best images, Lalit had to wade in waist deep waters and would often spend at least six hours daily in the river.

A pilgrim scooping a tumbler of water from the Ganges River.
A pilgrim scooping a tumbler of water from the Ganges River.

He cited an occasion when he was walking among the millions and suddenly, he was overwhelmed with fatigue and hunger, but there was no food being sold in the vicinity. He saw a tent set up for the Naga Babas and there he was offered food and water.

“They were serving food for anyone who needed it. There was so much of tolerance and everyone was out to help each other. This selfless act cast such a profound impact on me. Now I open my house to anyone who needs food or a place to stay.

“I started thinking about my own life after the first festival I attended. By seeing the Naga Babas and conversing with many great yogis, I realise I can actually give up so many comforts. It’s not easy and even a small change can be difficult. I was psychologically affected,” says Lalit. He finds joy in photographing faces with something to hide, where the expression only surfaces at certain moments. Such faces are very common at large gatherings.

“I took thousands of shots and narrowing down to 20 for this exhibition was a difficult task but you can see that all my pictures tell a story.”

After two Kumbha Mela outings, did he find any awakening?

“Well, I spent six hours in the water everyday and I felt no difference so I haven’t had any realisation yet!” jokes Lalit. “It’s a belief and sometimes, faith can keep you happy.”

A young sadhu.
A young sadhu

Lalit Verma’s Kumbha Mela exhibition is on at Sutra Gallery, 2 Persiaran Titiwangsa 3, Kuala Lumpur till July 14. For a gallery appointment, call 03 4021 1092. More info:

Tags / Keywords: Entertainment, India, Kumbha Mela, Religious, Ganges River


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