The Incredible Faces of India

Kumbh Mela Festival, Varanasi & the Nomadic Tribes of Gujarat

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It is the Kumbh Mela—one of the largest gatherings of humanity on the planet.  Every twelve years, tens of millions of Hindu men, women and children congregate during this 40-day religious festival to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges River. An immersion in its waters is said to wash away all sins and free the bather from the cycle of reincarnation. In 2021 the festival is in Haridwar—an ancient city in North India's Uttarakhand state—one of the seven most important Hindu pilgrimage sites. Here, the sacred Ganges emerges from the Himalayan foothills. 
"Outstanding trip with superb photographic opportunities. Exceptional experience at the Kumbh Mela, a once-in-a-lifetime trip."
- A. Tourney
The Kumbh Mela is a spectacle of a lifetime—an incredible photography journey like no other. Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris offers the most intrepid photo traveler a unique front row seat for this spiritual celebration with photographic opportunities few Westerners ever experience. From our elegant and luxurious tent encampment erected in the heart of the festival’s photographic action, we are enveloped by the visual tapestry surrounding us.  Each day we are accompanied by Lakshmi Singh—a princess of the royal family of Tikari in Bihar and daughter of the last Maharaja—who confidently leads us through the sea of humanity. Her incomparable connections provide us with exclusive one-on-one photographic access to dreadlocked, ash-covered holy men (sadhus) as they prepare for the massive bathing rituals, and help us capture the festival’s colors and chaos as large groups of Naga sadhus sprint into the chilly water for a holy bath, some brandishing Shiva’s trident, others chanting, praying and dancing.
Throughout the festival, Haridwar vibrates with energy and anticipation as the streets become a sea of ash-covered bodies decorated with garlands of bright orange marigolds. The colorful sights, music and aromas of incense overwhelm the senses. The akharas—club-like sects also referred to as Shiva’s army—are among the most fascinating groups to photograph at the festival. Each akhara maintains its own tented camp. We have the chance to observe and photograph as these groups meditate and perform religious ritual. Here we meet the Naga Babas, a radical faction of Hindus who renounce all their possessions, including their clothes, and live in remote mountain forests and caves. Followers of the Lord Shiva, the Kumbh is a significant event for the Naga Babas as it is the only time they come down to these spiritual flood plains from the Himalayas.
Prior to the Kumbh Mela, we meet in Mumbai where we photograph around the city before we venture out to the open solitude of the Great Rann of Kutch in the Thar Desert of Gujarat. This vast expanse of salt desert flows outward to the horizon in every direction like a sparkling white carpet draped across the landscape. Our lodging places us in a region home to fantastically photogenic nomadic tribes, including the Rabari, Ahir and Jat. Few Westerners have had the opportunity to come face to face with these nomadic peoples whose lives are determined by the moods of the desert.

During the wet season, the salt plains turn into impassible shallow marshlands. During the dry season, this land is home to these enigmatic people. Some days we may travel over 50 miles to visit remote nomadic villages, while other days we work with numerous and diverse tribespeople who come to our lodge for more formal photo sessions where we set up professional studio lighting and background screens. The incredible faces of these nomadic tribes—from Jat women wearing huge, heavy gold nose rings to the Rabari shrouded in the region’s famed colorful embroidered fabrics—make for stunning images.
Then, in preparation for “the Kumbh,” we spend a short time acclimating to India’s spiritual energy in the country’s holiest city, Varanasi. Set along the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi is one of world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and another important pilgrimage site. Here is the chance to photograph the city’s iconic ghats (broad steps on the riverbanks) and an evening aarti ceremony, where priests set huge butter lamps ablaze as the crowd sings hymns of praise. We observe the spiritual ceremonies of Varanasi from a boat ride at sunrise, but we also have the unique chance to be immersed in fascinating rituals celebrating the goddess of danger at the Sankata Devi Temple.

This tour provides amazingly diverse opportunities to capture vivid images of the nomadic tribes and religious pilgrims of India with your camera—at Mumbai, Gujarat, Varanasi and the Kumbh Mela Festival.  The Incredible Faces of India will remain in your memory—and images—long after your journey home. Check out Eric Rock's trip report from our 2019 Incredible Faces of India photo tour

Tour Itinerary

Day 1
Depart home.
Day 2  (Feb 25, 2021)
Participants arrive in Mumbai, India. Upon arrival at the international airport and clearing customs, our representative meets you for the transfer to our hotel.
Day 3
This morning we travel by boat to visit and photograph the Elephanta Caves.  These rock-cut Hindu temples are located on Elephanta Island, 6 miles across the harbor, and provide exciting glimpses of Indian sculpture dating from 600 AD. Huge panels depict episodes relating to the Lord Shiva, the central panel being the most imposing with a five-meter bust of the God representing his three aspects as creator, preserver and destroyer.
This afternoon we visit colorful Dhobi Ghat, the world's largest outdoor laundry.  Here we photograph the dhobi wallahs, or washer men, scrubbing sheets from Mumbai's largest hospitals and hotels at this world’s largest outdoor laundry.  (BLD)
Days 4–6
On Day 4 we fly to the western town of Bhuj, the ancient capital city in the heart of the Kutch District in Gujarat. We head to our lodge near the Great Rann of Kutch in the Thar Desert. Our lodge, by this glistening world of white sand, allows us wonderful in situ encounters with several nomadic pastoralist tribes who dwell in this harsh desert environment during the dry season. The word kutch means “island” in traditional Sanskrit. The Great Rann ("desert" in Hindi) of Kutch was once submerged as a vast shallow in inlet of the Arabian Sea. As earthquakes and geological uplift closed off its connection to the sea, this immense shallow briny lake dried up becoming a vast desert of saline flats and salt marsh. The Great Rann of Kutch is one of the saltiest deserts in the world and the salt harvest persists as an important industry here.
We enjoy lots of quality time photographing the distinctive nomadic peoples of this desert region. Visiting villages and camps, we are immersed in their world and have some of the best opportunities to meet and photograph these tribespeople, at home, adorned in their traditional colorful clothing. We invite some to visit us at our lodge, where more formal studio settings with professional studio lighting systems are supplied, to create iconic portraits of these nomadic tribespeople.
The 4000-year-long habitation of Kutch resulted in many trading and migratory relationships between ancient civilizations as far flung as Zanzibar, the Middle East and Greece, fostering today's unique ethnic mix of people and tradition in the region. The Rabari, Ahir and Jat are renowned for their exuberantly detailed embroidered costumes and conspicuous jewelry. During ceremonies, married women are frequently adorned with large gold nose rings, earrings and neckpieces—often decorated with rubies, sapphires and emeralds—given to them as a bride for a dowry by her soon-to-be husband's mother.
To live in this environment requires its inhabitants to be highly adaptive. Along with traditional cattle herding, camel breeding, seasonal agriculture and salt harvesting, handicrafts (especially intricate textiles), tourism has changed the financial landscape of the 25-odd villages in these barren salt pans. Here we work on environmental portraiture to convey the life of a person by combining portraiture with a sense of place—the kind of house they live in and how they decorate it; about what kind of work they do and where they do it; family life and their relationship with their livestock.
At Nirona we learn about art of Rogan—fabric dying using a castor oil base. The process begins with boiling the castor oil till it thickens. When the consistency is right, the artisans apply the paint on the palm of one of their hands and rub both palms together so that the body warmth creates a stringy gooey paste from which the color can come off on an iron rod or wooden stick, like threads. With these ‘threads’ of paint, the artist makes an outline on one half of the cloth and then folds it to repeat the process on the other half. After that, the outlines are filled with color.
Ludiya is located 70kms north of Bhuj. The total area of the village is about 5 square kilometers and the population is about 2000 people predominantly Muslims and a few Harijan families. (Harijan, literally ‘child of God’ was a term coined by Gandhi to refer to the lowest caste people in the Hindu religion hierarchy) The main occupation of the women folk in the village is making beautiful embroidery work and traditional crafts.
Though the tribespeople are compensated as photo subjects during this part of our trip, it is our job to interact with them to create a comfortable atmosphere where we are able to capture unguarded moments and genuine emotion that enlivens the photo when a person's character shines though. A substantial number of rarely photographed tribespeople come to our lodge from distant locations around Kutch for portraiture in our makeshift portrait studio. Our trip fees provide their meals, transportation and accommodation to create this unprecedented photo opportunity.  (BLD)
Day 7
We travel overland to Dasada to photograph the striking Rabari and Mir people of this western desert region.
Rabari myths and legends haunt the history and origins of the Rabari in Gujarat, intriguing researchers and lending a sense of mystery to their existence.   Related to Shiva, which according to legend descended through their ancestor Sambal, the Rabari are one of the last nomadic peoples of the world. Even today, their nomadic movements follow ancient routes which traverse through the arid plains of the Thar Desert in northwest India in search of pasture for their flocks. Based on their dress and ornate adornment, researchers believe their ethnicity may originate from as far away as Afghanistan.
On the periphery of Dasada dwells a community of 15 families of nomadic Mirs. Their dress is Rajasthani and their homes are temporary. Traditionally they kept the genealogy of Rabaris. The Rabaris would pay them in kind—goats or sheep—to record their births, marriages and deaths. Each Mir oversaw a lineage. Today, though they no longer live in Rajasthan, some 10,000 Mirs live all over Gujarat but particularly in Vagad, eastern Kutch, and north Gujarat.
Women wear colorful and intricately patterned textiles including a chundadi (a 5-meter veil). Most striking are their jewelry ornaments: copious necklaces and tassels fashioned from beads, coins and trinkets, and their white bangles from wrist to shoulder.
Though Muslim, each Mir has both a Hindu and a Muslim name. Today Mirs do manual agricultural and construction labor. The women are expert in beadwork and in Dasada they have started making beaded bangles.  (BLD)
Day 8
Following breakfast we transfer to the airport for our flight to Varanasi. We check into our hotel this afternoon.

Varanasi, known to the devout as Kashi, is said to have been founded by Shiva, Lord of the Universe. Situated on the banks of the sacred Ganges, the city has been a center of learning and civilization for over 2000 years. This evening we visit Dashaswamedh Ghat for the aarti ceremony along the holy river. We are driven to the neighborhood of Benia Bagh and from there walk to Dashaswamedh Ghat amidst the crowded local market with bustling shops and street vendors selling spices, cloth, fruits and vegetables on hand-pulled carts. We arrive at the ghat in time to photograph the glittering aarti ceremony. Large butter lamps are set ablaze—an offering of fire—and held aloft by priests while the assembled multitude chants hymns. Numerous small floating candles and flowers are set afloat on the holy waters of the Ganges.  (BLD)
Day 9
We are up before dawn. Boarding our boat, we head out onto the Ganges where we position ourselves at a respectful distance from the pilgrims who have come to the 100 or more ghats lining the river to pray and immerse themselves in the river at sunrise. There is an unmistakable peal of temple bells as the sun crests the horizon. Almost on cue, a conch sounds from somewhere along the banks, reflecting what Hindus believe to be the primordial sound that heralded the birth of the universe. Smoke and mist drifts across the river in the morning light. Fires from funeral pyres blaze on the shore. There is never a time when there is a lull in our photography at Varanasi. Here, we have taken a step back in time into the vibrant chaos of humanity.

After Lunch transfer to the airport to board our flight to Dehradun. Upon arrival, we drive to our luxurious camp in Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela.
Haridwar is a sacred territory where pilgrims come from around the world. It is among the most revered pilgrimage centers of India and occupies a prized position in hearts of Hindus. The meaning of Haridwar is 'Gateway to God'. It is set amidst calm and attractive surroundings at the foothills of the mesmerizing Himalayas. It is believed in the Hindu traditions that one must visit Haridwar at least once in a lifetime. It is a place where the holy river, Ganges, enters the Indo-Gangetic plain of North India. The scenic beauty of Haridwar is equally mesmerizing. The views of the Ganges and majestic mountains are sights to behold.  (BLD)
Days 10–12
Welcome to the Kumbh Mela! From our luxurious oasis of calm amidst the crowds and hectic religious fervor, we venture forth with cameras in hand to capture the color, excitement and pageantry of the Kumbh Mela as it has been practiced here for centuries.

Photography at the Kumbh is all about people. People, people—and more people—in one of the most photogenic and varied assemblages of humanity on the planet. Our photographic success is all about being at the right location at the right time to shoot the incredible spectacle as it continually unfolds minute-by-minute. Our exclusive access to a group of sadhus (holy men) is attained with the help of Lakshmi Singh whose deep connection with these holy men and spiritual gurus allows us the opportunity of portrait photography in our chosen settings. On one morning we will be up early to be with “our” sadhus as they cover their bodies and dreadlocked hair prior to their holy dip—an exclusive invitation to photograph a ritual few westerners have the privilege to experience.
Historic architecture, massive crowds of bathers, holy men, sacred rituals, camels, horses, street vendors, musicians, playful children, and a spectacular variety of eye-catching photography subjects present themselves as this photographic event of a lifetime unfolds. Even if you have been to India before, you’ve never witnessed anything like this.  So, if you are eager for an extraordinary experience, this festival is right for you. It has been described as ‘The Burning Man of India!  (BLD)
Day 13 (Mar 8)
We spend our last morning photographing at the Kumbh Mela before driving to Delhi.
Upon arrival in Delhi, we head to our hotel where you can relax and freshen up in a day room before transferring to the airport for your flight home.  (BLD)
Day 14
Arrive home
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Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris Enrollment Information

The Incredible Faces of India

Feb 24, 2021 - Mar 09, 2021

A deposit and completed and signed Registration Form are required to reserve a place for you on a Joseph Van Os Photo Safari.


All prices are quoted in US dollars and all payments must be paid in US dollars. For deposit only, we accept Visa, MasterCard or American Express. Final payment of the trip fee is due 120 days priors to departure and must be paid by check or bank transfer. Trip deposits are non-refundable and non-transferable.

A deposit of $1,000 per person is required. Full payment of the trip fee is due 150 days prior to departure date. We must receive written notice of your cancellation, at which time cancellation fees in the following amounts apply:

If Written Cancellation is Received:
122 days or prior:
121 to 91 days prior:
90 or fewer days:
Cancellation Fee:
100% of deposit
50% of trip fee
100% of trip fee

Emergency evacuation insurance is REQUIRED for this tour. As noted in Section 3 below, we send a brochure for trip insurance to US and Canadian residents. The policy offered includes the emergency evacuation coverage required for this trip. Participants purchasing trip insurance on their own—that is, not through our office—should confirm that emergency evacuation is included in their policy.

No partial refunds are made for unused portions or services of a trip for any reason whatsoever. Trips are sold as a package only. This policy also applies to tour extensions and independent travel arrangements. Cancellation fees are not transferable.

Protect your travel investment and purchase a trip insurance policy that includes emergency evacuation coverage. A trip insurance brochure will be sent with your enrollment confirmation.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris are within the capabilities of average people in good health. Some of these trips require the capability of walking for several miles over uneven trails, stepping from a small boat to a wave-washed rocky beach, flying in small planes and helicopters, and occasionally hiking at high elevations—all while carrying an assortment of camera equipment. If you have concerns about your own capabilities and/or fitness as it relates to a trip, please inquire with our office before reserving a space. By forwarding a signed Registration Form and trip deposit, you certify that you do not knowingly have any physical or other conditions of disability that would create a risk for you or other trip participants and you agree to inform our office in writing if changes in your health occur any time prior to the tour. We reserve the right to request a doctor's statement of good health. The company's or trip leader's judgment shall provide the ultimate determination of an individual's ability to embark upon or to continue a trip. Once a trip has been confirmed, medical circumstances will not be considered as exceptions to our cancellation policy. We assume no responsibility for medical care or for special dietary requirements. “Meatless” meals are normally available at most locations. Due to the remote nature of many photo locations, and the growing diversity of today’s dietary trends, participants requiring special food items are encouraged to bring their own.

Tour members are asked to refrain from smoking with or near the group.

Participants will receive three emails before the trip departs: 1. Initial Tour Information sheet confirms the deposit and provides pre-departure information. 2. Invoice/Practical Information provides clothing and photo gear recommendations, climate data, applicable health advisories and reading list. Visa information will also be included (if applicable). 3. Final Tour Information includes arrival instructions, itinerary revisions (if any), hotel addresses, trip telephone contact information and participant list. We provide the trip leader's telephone number(s) and/or e-mail address with final documents so you can inquire about special photographic questions you may have regarding your trip. We welcome your calls or e-mail messages to

Information supplied upon enrollment describes the specific costs that are included in your trip fee. Generally these costs include lodging in double room occupancy, all meals (specified in the itinerary as BLD denoting breakfast, lunch or dinner), ground transportation during the trip in vans or small busses, air transportation as specified, meal and baggage tipping, and guide services provided by the trip leaders. Not included are airfare or other transportation from your home to the trip staging location, airport departure taxes, insurance, alcoholic beverages and bar expenses (plus bottled water and soft drink expenses on international tours outside of North America), tips and gratuities to local guides abroad, phone calls, passport or visa expenses, laundry or items of a personal nature. Gratuities to Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris trip leaders are optional and always appreciated. Rates are based on group tariffs; if the trip does not have sufficient registration, a small party supplement may be charged.

Single accommodations are available for a supplemental cost in many locations; see the pre-departure trip information or call our office for details. You will be charged the single supplement fee if you desire single accommodations or if you wish to have a roommate, but one is not available. In some remote locations, clients with single rooms are infrequently compelled to share a room due to circumstances beyond our control. In such cases, appropriate per diem refunds will be made reflecting the direct cost of the single room at the facility where clients are required to share. There is no additional single supplement fee on ship-based cruises, if you request a roommate and one is not available.

Cost increases may occur unexpectedly due to rising costs of airfares, ground transport, fuel surcharges, accommodations and currency fluctuations, among others. Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. may be compelled to amend prices, and we reserve the right to do so without prior notice. An increase in trip prices shall not be sufficient grounds for any refund of funds paid for the trip other than as determined by the terms of our cancellation policy.

Whenever possible, our trip participants are lodged in comfortable, modern hotels. We select among the best available accommodations, but refrain from extravagance. Some interesting photographic destinations are far removed from modern amenities, however, and where necessary we will be accommodated in rustic country inns, cabins or tented camps.

Meals are always a special part of our trips for the camaraderie they engender and the opportunity they provide to try new foods from different areas. Depending on the trip and specific locale, participants order restaurant meals from the full menu or, less frequently, table d'hôte. Some trips include picnic lunches in the field. Fruit juice for breakfast and coffee or tea are included with the meals. Soft drinks are included with meals on tours within North America. Participants are responsible for their own bar tab (including bottled water, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages on tours outside of North America) at restaurant lunches and dinners.

Our itineraries are intended as examples only. Participants should allow for flexibility due to changes in weather, natural history or cultural events, or other logistical arrangements deemed necessary by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. or our leaders.

The second tour leader (and any subsequent additional leaders) listed for each trip on the website will be added as the group size warrants. If only one space remains on a trip, and logistics permit, we accept two persons traveling together, even if it exceeds the trip maximum.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. and/or their Agents act only as agents for the passenger in regard to travel including, but not limited to, sightseeing, meals, lodging, transportation, and all other services whether by railroad, motorcar, motor coach, boat, ship or aircraft and they assume no liability for injury, damage, loss, accident, delay or irregularity which may be occasioned either by reason of defect in any vehicle or for any reason whatsoever, or through the acts or default of any company or person engaged in conveying the passenger or in carrying out the arrangements of the trip.

They can accept no responsibility for losses or additional expenses due to delay or changes in air or other services, sickness, weather, strike, war, volcanic eruption, terrorist acts, political unrest, quarantine or other causes. All such losses or expenses will have to be borne by the passenger, as trip fees provide for arrangements only for the times and locations stated. Baggage is at the owner's risk entirely.

The right is reserved to 1) substitute hotels of similar category for those indicated and to make any changes in the itinerary or transport where deemed necessary, or caused by changes in air schedules or equipment substitution; 2) cancel any trip prior to departure, in which case full refund of the paid trip funds will be given, but Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. is not responsible for any other trip preparation expenses such as penalized or non-refundable air tickets, visa fees and medical related expenses; 3) substitute trip leader(s) for the leader(s) originally specified, in which case the substitution is not a basis for participant cancellation or refund other than provided by our normal cancellation policy; or 4) accept or retain any person as a member of any trip.

Trip prices are based on tariffs and exchange rates in effect at the time of publication and are subject to adjustment in the event of any change therein.

A Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section must be signed by each participant prior to the commencement of the trip. Participation by any trip member will be declined in the absence of the signed Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section, with no trip fee refund. No modification to the Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section will be accepted.

Should Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., or anyone acting on their behalf be required to incur attorney's fees and costs to enforce this agreement, the enrolling trip participant(s) agree(s) to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs. In the event a lawsuit is filed, the enrolling participant(s) agree(s) to do so solely in the County of Lewis in the State of Washington. Certain ship owners require the use of pre-printed ticket forms that limit the ship owner's and operator's liability. When such tickets are used, the passenger is bound by the terms of these tickets with respect to the passenger's legal relationship to the owners and operators of the ship, their agents (Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc.), and the ship's crew.

The Incredible Faces of India : Moderate Activity Level

Scheduled in-country jet flights, mini bus transportation and walking.  Expect relatively easy two to three miles walking (each day) on level, hard packed soil when photographing at the Kumbh Mela Festival. Shorter walks on uneven terrain of under a mile each day while exploring villages of the Gujarat area.  Necessary to occasionally climb stairs, walk on worn uneven streets, alleys, and walkways while shooting in Varanasi.
Trip Details
Feb 24 - Mar 09, 2021
Fee: $13,795 from Mumbai, India*
Deposit: $1,000
Limit: 15 participants
Activity Level: ModerateModerate

Includes 3 internal tour flights
  • Photograph one of the largest gatherings of humanity on Earth
  • Experience a cultural phenomenon like no other
  • Exclusive photographic access to sadhus (holy men) as they prepare for their ceremonial dip in the Ganges
  • Reside in a world-class luxury camp in the heart of festival activity
  • Create portraits of the incredible nomadic tribespeople of the Thar Desert using professional studio lights and scrims
  • Photograph nomadic tribespeople in their remote tribal villages
  • Visit the sacred city of Varanasi and photograph its Ganges riverside ghats by small boats at sunrise
Tour Leaders
Eric Rock

Eric Rock

And Local Guides
This is an amazing trip. The sights, smells, tastes, and people are experiences to last a life-time. The colors range from monochromatic to brilliant. The food bursts your taste buds. What I will cherish most is the friendliness of the Indian people of all ages.
J. Anderson