Story: Kumbh Mela – Pilgrims of the Kumbh

Photography & words: Justin Hession

Place: India


Having spent two weeks in a makeshift tent studio at the 2013 Kumbh Mela, Justin captured some extraordinary portraits of the pilgrims who are drawn to the Ganges every 12 years in the largest human gathering on Earth. He decided to created studio style portraits against a plain black backdrop to strip away the Kumbh’s colourful, intense circus like environment to focus and highlight the gracefulness of the individual pilgrim. The Kumbh Mela project contains over a 100 portraits of ‘the real pilgrims of the Kumbh’ who are drawn to the unimaginably large, loud and chaotic event in search of a pure life and seeks to show the personal dignity of the great spiritual event of the Kumbh Mela.

Kumbh Mela Praying Boy
Photo of drummer boy at the Kumbh Mela
Dark Krishna posing in front of the camera at the Kumbh Mela
Portrait of old woman wearing a yellow sari at the Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela is held every 12 years on the banks of the Ganges at the confluence of the Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati rivers. It is said that bathing in the waters of the three rivers during the Kumbh Mela will cleanse a person of all their sins and turn mortal to immortal.
According to Medieval Hindu mythology, Lord Vishnu whilst carrying the Kumbha dropped some Amrita (the drink of immortality) at the four places where the present day Kumbh Mela’s take place. However it’s the location in Allahabad that draws the biggest crowds. It’s this combined sacredness of the three rivers coupled with the mythological legend that has made Allahabad the Tirthraja or, The King of Holy Places.

Photo of girl with cobra at the Kumbh Mela
Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India. Studio portrait of Hindu pilgrim
Studio portrait of white beard man at the Kumbh Mela

The Kumbh Mela brought together the largest human gathering of our time. It is estimated that on one day during the 2013 Kumbh, 30 million pilgrims bathed in its waters and over a one month period there was in excess of 100 million. It’s not only the pilgrims that make up the numbers. This make shift city offers many amenities and entertainment not to mention all the workers, cleaners, police, medical staff etc. It’s the combination of all that makes this the greatest fair the world has ever seen.

Hanuman at Kumbh Mela
Man posing with a rat on his head at the Kumbh Mela
Beggar at the Kumbh Mela
Portrait of garbage boy carrying a bag on his shoulder.
Child posing in front of the camera with his finger in the nose
Photo of bearded man with red suit at the Kumbh Mela
Tony Montana, Kumbh Mela
Colorfull Sari at the Kumbh Mela