“ India is another world “ said Kipling. For 42 days, Allahabad was like another planet. Seventy million pilgrims from the four corners of the subcontinent took part in the Maha Kumbh Mela, the biggest ever religious gathering, with origins that go back to Antiquity.
The Middle Ages and the atomic era met in 2001 producing the most extraordinary, modern, and fantastic Kumbh in India’s history. The State astrologers had announced that the planets would form an exceptional configuration that would not happen again for 144 years. It was not to be missed.


On 24 January 23 million human beings bathed in the sky. In waves of 25 000 every fifteen minutes, people from different religions and castes washed away the sins of a lifetime in the purifying, muddy waters. Bathing where the Ganges and the Yamuna meet on that day was equivalent to a thousand sacred baths. Thousands of yogis, of Naga sadhus, who live naked and covered in ash, and of anchorite saints, who are never seen at any other time as they have renounced the world and live naked in the solitude of the Hamalayas, form a procession on floats decorated with marigolds and brocades.

Though the Maha Kumbh Mela of 1860 caused 18 000 deaths, that of 2001 left only a few injured press photographers. Two young Western women who were a little drunk posed nude covered in mud next to the Nagas, who, furious that their souls had been affronted in this way, banned the use of cameras while they were having their sacred baths.
Those who attempted to get through the barricade of mounted police were administered some heavy blows and ended up in hospital.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, who covered the Kumbh Mela in 1966, said that in all his life he had never experienced anything more dangerous.
He would have been surprised to see that this year, 70 million pilgrims gathered together in a settlement of tents 1500 hectares in size (in effect no bigger than a postage stamp) had become an army of smiles. At the dawn of the third millenium, another king of photography was needed who could see without being seen. Tiane Doan na Champassak is such a photographer.

Claudine Vernier-Palliez

Tiane Doan Na Champassak

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