The Incredible Faces of India 2019 Trip Report

By Eric Rock on Feb 18, 2019

The Incredible Faces of India photographic journey promised travels into the heart of India and its diverse cultures, conjuring up images of ash-covered yogis and throngs of colorfully adorned tribespeople—and it certainly did not disappoint! The central “focus” of this photo tour was the world’s largest gathering of religious pilgrims, the Ardh Kumbh Mela, and its millions of devotees—while we made productive use of our own photographic pilgrimage along the banks of the mighty Ganges.  As an additional cultural experience, we were excited to have the opportunity to photograph the nomadic and colorful desert tribes of the Great Rann of Kutch in western India.
On the first morning of our photographic adventure our group of twelve gathered to capture the rich photogenic sites of “Old” Delhi. Here we found the bustling city scenes and incredible variety of street people to be a great way to shake the dust off of our cameras and get comfortable with the visual kaleidoscope that India has to offer. The crowded Delhi markets are a great place to explore with a camera. The buzz of people and crowded streets, food vendors and colorful merchants provided our group with an unending array of subject matter.  After a return to our hotel for a brief respite and bite of lunch, we wandered out for a visit to Humayun’s tomb which offered up its iconic prototype Taj Mahal architecture and the surrounding colorful landscape in India’s muted sunlight at days end.
The next day brought us closer to the Kumbh Mela. A short flight and overnight stay in Varanasi—the holiest of India’s cities— provided us the chance for an evening boat ride to experience the sights and sounds of this iconic location and a photo shoot of the famous Ghats. We also had a great opportunity to photograph the sunset Aarti ceremony, where priests burn offerings of incense and set huge butter lamps ablaze on the shores of the Ganges River.
The morning of day three dawned with a sunrise boat tour that offered many unique angles for capturing the myriad morning rituals that take place along the shore of the Ganges. Back on shore, we also photographed the bustling streets markets of Varanasi before continuing on our own pilgrimage to Allhabad and the Kumbh Mela.
Our travels overland to Allhabad soon revealed the incredible mass of pilgrims gathering for this sacred event.  Roads and streets became choked with thousands of cars, busses and trucks full of devotees, all of whom had concentrated on this section of the Ganges for the ceremonial bathing scheduled during the upcoming days of the Kumbh. We arrived into our camp just in time for a late dinner and a good night’s rest before spending the next four days photographing the festive setting of the Kumbh Mela and its mass of attendees.
Our luxury camp was situated about one hundred meters above the Ganges on a bluff overlooking the festival grounds. This would be our base as we set off to photograph each day.  At this proximity, we could hear the din of the festival below from the comfort of our well-appointed tents. 
Each day at the Kumbh found us exploring the festival grounds among the millions of pilgrims who had come to this location on the shores of the Ganges to bathe and cleanse their souls in its holy waters. The ash covered Sadhu leaders—in charge of protecting the tenets of the Hindu religion—were of particular interest and made extraordinary photographic studies.
The Ashrams of Sadhus were divided into camps of tents where the ash-covered leaders would meet, smoke and meditate as well as bless those who had traveled great distances to seek the blessings of these Hindu yogis. We made our way through the camps of Sadhus capturing candid moments as well as sitting down to choreographed portrait sessions, taking time to meet these charismatic souls and spend quality time photographing them in their surroundings. 
The big event came on the holiest of days, February fourth, when at sunrise millions of Sadhus and pilgrims made their way to the shores of the Ganges to bathe and wash away their sins. As a group, we navigated through the crowd to the river. Here we positioned ourselves in boats just off shore at the busiest section of river where could photograph the spectacle without the crush of the masses.  After our morning photo session, the return to camp took us through the parades of Sadhus in their marigold festooned chariots as they continued to make their way to the river’s sacred bathing site. Our marathon photography at the Kumbh Mela did not disappoint. It is an experience I would repeat in a heartbeat.
With the Kumbh Mela portion of our trip behind us, we set off for the western desert region of India known as the Great Rann of Kutch. This landscape of extreme seasonal wet and dry periods is home to many colorful nomadic tribes. Our lodging at a local safari camp allowed us emersion into this diverse landscape of cultures. Our three days here were focused on photographing the indigenous tribespeople who came to visit us from the surrounding Kutch area. With the help of some great local connections, we met and got to know several colorful groups at our camp for formal portrait sessions. Our sessions included both indoor settings with studio lighting as well as outdoors with natural light and backdrops. We took several field trips to visit some of the tribespeople in their villages and camps. These visits provided lots of opportunities to photograph these intriguing and hospitable people at home while they went about their schedule of daily tasks as nomadic pastoralists.
The Incredible Faces of India was a photographic exploration into a land of tremendous cultural diversity and (hopefully without being cliché) was a life-changing experience for most of our travelers. It is good to know the world still has room for diverse peoples and colorful traditional lifestyles. Sometimes our photographic travels are designed to take us to new places on a map, while sometimes they take us to new places within ourselves. Thankfully, this trip was one of those rare journeys where we found both.

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