welcome to the kumbh mela

the kumbh mela is a hindu pilgrimage during which tens of millions of hindus come to the banks of the ganges to bathe in the holy waters. the kumbh mela is held every three years on a rotating basis at one of four sites – hardiwar, allahabad, nasik and ujjain – where, according to legend, drops fell when the gods and demons fought over a pitcher of the nectar of immortality. this year’s kumbh mela was held at allahabad, which is especially significant because it is the point where three rivers – the ganges, the yamuna, and the mythical saraswati – converge, and it is estimated that 100 million pilgrims came for it.

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they came by truck, they came by foot, they even came by bicycle.

during the kumbh mela, the pilgrims stay on the banks of the river, so one can imagine that the logistics would be a nightmare. however, the authorities handled the arrangements really well: tents and camps were well-laid out, there was running water and electricity, pit latrines and trailers with toilets, roads, and pontoon bridges crossing the yamuna river at various points. the bridges were organized so that you could cross only in one direction on the odd numbered bridges and only in the other direction on the even numbered bridges, and the police actually enforced this.

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some ashrams had fairly large and festive camps, while other folks lived in more basic conditions that weren’t so well-situated when the rains came. the roads were dirt, but with metal plates laid down for cars. the organizers even had clean-up crews for the river banks.  all in all, the logistics were impressively done.

the highlight, of course, is the bathing.  the current was strong enough that the organizers built fences as close as 20 feet away from the bank, at some points, to keep people from being swept away; and they also lined the more crowded parts of the river bank with sandbags to keep it intact.  these arrangements gave the river a less than organic feel, but with 100 million people trampling along the river banks, the damage would have been significant otherwise.

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                          bathing can be a contemplative, solitary affair …
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… or something a bit more hectic …
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… or just an irreverant good time.

next: more bathing.


because he’s just so goddamned cute.

over labor day, we went to ooty, a hill station in the nilgiri hills of tamil nadu. james and i drove the 12+ hours each way so we could bring the dog, while our wives flew to meet us. the drive was typical for tamil nadu – fantastically smooth national highways punctuated by the occasional lorry traveling toward you head-on; state highways that wind through villages, on which you will get stuck behind two buses with no room to pass; and mountain roads that are full of switchbacks, on which you will get stuck behind two gravel trucks with no room to pass. (see my post about yercaud.) generally, if you’re traveling in india and google maps say a drive will take 6 hours, it’s wise to add another 3 hours.

lymond house. unfortunately, we had rain for much of our trip, so it was hard to make the place look cheerful in photos; and the housing that crept favela-like up the hill behind us didn’t help.

ooty historically was the place that the british, and the elite more generally, spent their summers when madras (as it was known at the time) was too hot. the colonial influence is still felt through the architecture. see, for example, lymond house, the inn we chose for our stay because they take dogs.* the people at lymond house were very nice, even when cooper jumped up on the duvet with his muddy paws and later barked at them for walking around what was now his house.

180° mciver, a sister property. again, very classic british architecture, but with a surprise in the bathroom off the dining room. next, the church of st. stephen – you can just feel the englishness.

the hotels and architecture are not the only reasons to visit ooty. one of the main attractions is tea: the british introduced tea to the hills in 1838, and nilgiri tea is an ingredient in many of the international blends today. there are plantations all over the area, and we were fortunate enough to meet one of the owners at dinner. he invited us to his home for tea the next day, and then to the factory to see how the leaves are processed. we learned that the tea is harvested throughout the year; pickers take just a few fresh leaves off each bush every ten days, leaving the older dark leaves where they are. the fresh leaves are poured into troughs with mesh bottoms, to allow hot air to flow through; the dried leaves are then poured through holes in the floor to go through a series of shredding machines. the shredding allows the leaves to be coated with the flavors from the leaves. the leaves are then oxidized (to turn the tea black), heated and ground to one of three sizes before being packaged and shipped out to the blenders. in comparison, green tea is turned in a rotary machine to compress and roll the leaves; green tea leaves are neither shredded nor oxidized before they are packaged.

tea leaves; tea pickers.
a worker among the drying troughs. the shredder. a worker cleaning on of the machines.
views of tea fields and the surrounding hills.

*it’s actually very difficult to travel with a dog in india, since most hotels won’t accept them, restaurants won’t let them in, and dogs aren’t allowed in parks. the guard at the botanical park told us dogs weren’t permitted in as a street dog trotted across the lawn behind him; when i met with the manager and pointed that out, he explained that if a dog is under control on a leash, then he has to keep it out, since it would bother the other 8,000 tourists who visit the park each day; whereas if the dog is a stray and not under control, there’s nothing he can do it stop it coming in (regardless of how people feel about it), so he ignores those. the tenacity with which he clung to this twisted logic was nothing short of breath-taking.

the fourth post about ladakh

our last full day in leh coincided with al quds day, which falls on the last friday of ramadan. al quds day originated in iran in 1979, and its proponents hold demonstrations to show solidarity with the palestinians. naturally, a protest in favor of the palestinian people wouldn’t be complete without anti-israel and anti-america rhetoric and signs.

i came across the children first. they were sitting in neat lines behind a banner that read “we must all rise, destroy israel and replace it with the heroic palestinian nation.” some of them carried their signs with conviction while others looked like they were dutifully attending a school field trip. a few of the boys acted embarrassed when i raised the camera, so i decided to tease them: “if you’re going to carry the sign, be proud of what it says. don’t hide behind it.” a few of the girls sitting near me quietly called across, “yes, don’t hide, be proud.” it probably wasn’t the most politic thing i’ve ever done, but i was annoyed by my suspicion that at least 20 percent of the kids in the demonstration couldn’t have cared either way about the palestinians.

the adults – overwhelmingly men, of course – seemed committed to the cause, yelling along with the megaphones and raising their fists. a small number smiled for my camera as they passed, but the majority either ignored me or looked warily. (by contrast, when i photographed political marches in tirana, the demonstrators threw themselves in front of my lens with huge grins and thumbs up.) the women who watched from the sidewalks and balconies, on the other hand, regarded the whole thing in relative silence.

there was a significant police presence, so i felt no sense of danger, although i did get the sense that if i’d identified myself as american and jewish(ish), it wouldn’t have earned me any brownie points. there was something thrilling about the experience, although it wasn’t a fun thrill – more of a sense that this was real work in real time, and i had to move fast. in terms of the mechanism of photography itself, i used only two lenses – a 35mm and an 85mm – and there is something liberating about going old school and not worrying about how far to twist the zoom, but the accompanying challenge was to frame the shot with a fixed focal length. picking the right depth of field wasn’t always easy, either, and half the time everything was on manual. i’m not ready to go to aleppo yet, but it beat shooting conferences for usaid.

the first post about ladakh

abby and i are just back from two weeks in ladakh, which is at the northernmost tip of india, bordering both china and pakistan. the ladakh region was under water before the continents fully formed. although it is now a himalayan desert, you can still see the rocks that must have littered the ocean floor.

it was hard to avoid taking photos from the car window.

the sportstar tabloid

on may 25, 2012, the hindu newspaper ran this advertisement. the text begins:

we are a crazy cricket nation.

amidst all the fireworks this ipl [indian premier league], there are a few ticking time bombs. a recent sting operation has revealed that cricket’s old nemesis, fixing, may have infected the ipl. …

it’s true there are numerous allegations of corruption and match-fixing in the ipl, but the ad displays u.s. dollars and, as i’ve circled in the ad, an israeli shekel note as the associated currencies: in other words, this advertisement suggests that the problems of corruption in the ipl are caused by the americans and the israelis.

i’m trying to come up with a reaction that doesn’t have the words “fuck them” in it.