Samnyasin monks at the Kumbh Mela of Prayagraj

Welcome to the world’s largest gathering of humans at the Kumbh Mela of Prayagraj. During the eight-week festival in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh, in the north of the country, nearly 150 million people walked to bathe at the confluence of the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical third river, the Saraswati. Among them, the Samnyasin monks, these renouncers in saffron robes, were also present.

Hindu ascetics lead 150 million pilgrims to the holy bath, despite political difference

Thick fog. Lithurgical music. Ghostly silhouettes. As early as 5:00 am before dawn, braving the morning freshness, many of the millions of Indians plunged into the Sangam which is the confluence of the Gange, the Yamuna and the mythological Saraswati. 

That morning, a human sample from each region of India converged, some of them barefoot, singing or praying towards the Ganges. Poor or rich pilgrims, sādhu, naga babas, saṃnyāsin and hijras walked proudly together that day, with a blissful smile on their faces, all side by side, chanting mantras.

The road is lined with illuminated trees such as Christmas trees. Posters feature Indian Minister Narenda Modi and Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, the saffron-coated monk, Yogi Adityanath, offering himself to the millions of potential voters who support their cause. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party sees a successful festival as a way to burnish its credentials as a defender of the Hindu faith.

And appeared as if by magic, the saṃnyāsin monks

5h30. The loudspeakers, as they do every day, deliver the ‘chalo chale’ chorus of the singer Malini Awasthi, announce the day’s programme or broadcast some messages from famous gurus such as swami Baba Ramdev who encourage sādhus to vow to quit smoking permanently during Kumbh Mela or messages that raise ecological awareness, warning not to throw plastic or offerings into sacred rivers. Near the banks of the Ganges, thick pieces of mist swirl around the surface of the water like lost souls, until they thicken. The flow of the sacred river slips in and escapes in a vague rustle at the bottom of all this whiteness. 

I expect to see Charon’s boat crossing the Styx for the dead entering the underworld. We are in India. These are sannyāsins, a stream of Hindu priests draped in their saffron robes and garlands of marigolds, emerges from the mist.

The monks gently move in my direction, leaning on their danda, their pilgrim’s staff, or proudly wielding their sword topped with a ring, while holding their kamandalam, an iron pot filled with water, symbol of their simple life made of wandering.

The sannyāsin smoking the bidi who was free

From the flow of saffron fabrics stands out one of the sannyāsins smoking the bidi. He gives me the sign of peace by raising his right hand. In very good English, he asked me about the purpose of my visit to these holy places. I wanted to see all India in Allahabad and… “Prayagraj! “he cut me off with a voice that is erased by tobacco addiction. 

He started laughing and coughing at the same time: “It’s true, you’ll see a lot of people around here but why photograph them?” I replied that in Europe, perhaps the curious people will know who these Indians are who have decided to leave everything behind to walk and meditate throughout India. Laughter and throat clearing. “Acha! Tell your curious people that we are simply free men. Let me tell you this story…” “ 

The story of the  sannyāsin who had given up everything even on precious stones

The monk put his hand on my shoulder. “There is a story I like to tell to explain what I call freedom. Listen :  

A saṃnyāsin monk led a wandering life, passing from holy place to holy place was approaching a village… He would settle under a tree and spend the night there. Suddenly a villager, running towards him, shouted: 

« - The stone! Give me the gemstone! - What stone? asked the monk in the saffron robe.  

 - Last night, Lord Shiva appeared to me in a dream, said the villager, and prophesied that if I went to the outskirts of the village at nightfall, I would find a samnyâsin who would give me a precious stone that would make me rich for the rest of my life…»  

The saṃnyāsin went through his bag and took out a stone: « He probably meant to talk about it, he said, by handing the stone to the villagers: I found it on a forest path a few days ago. Here, I give it to you…» said the saṃnyāsin, in all simplicity. 

The villager looked at the gemstone with amazement: it was probably the largest diamond in the world! He took the diamond and quickly walked away. The story could stop for that purpose, but throughout the night, the villager could not sleep because he was tormented by contradictory thoughts. The next day, at dawn, he went to meet the saṃnyāsin monk who had his march to new lands. The monk in the saffron robe then asked him what he was visiting and the villager then asked him:  

« - Please, give me the inner wealth that allows you to give this diamond so easily. End of the story »  

A sannyāsin is not a sādhu and a sādhu is not a  sannyāsin

The sannyāsins tapped his cigarette to drop the ashes.« Do you understand? We are free ». The bidi smoker, with an ecstatic smile, then rushed to sing the mantra ‘Sita ram Sita Ram’ and cough to spit out his lungs, only to melt back into the group of hundreds of monks who were erasing themselves like a memory in the mist.

Before I went to India, I didn’t know the difference between a sadhu and a samnyasin. There are nuances. For me, the sādhus, the saṃnyāsin were ascetic Hindus walking. I found these walking men fascinating. For these renouncers, walking is perhaps a moment of life in which presence in the world constitutes a form of spirituality, which provides a favourable distance from the world, an availability at the moment, plunges into an active form of meditation, solicits a full sensoriality.

The saṃnyāsin is a renouncing monk. He leads a wandering life, passing from holy place to holy place, from âshram to âshram, renouncing to the world’s tentations and dedicating his life to the realization of Brahman (the realization of the Self). The saṃnyāsin is quite close to the sādhus but this one is a monk and the sādhus is not. The saṃnyāsin belongs to a lineage, the sādhus follows a tradition.  

Shoot The Face Award, first prize and exhibition.

After participating in the shoottheframe photo contest, I won the first prize. I will be exhibited in Hyderabad, India, in October 2019, during the Indian Photography Festival (IPF). The portrait of sannyāsin, Indian monk, that was selected was taken during the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj, the largest religious festival in the world. I had made a report on the pilgrims and the Naga Babas who were the first to take the sacred bath in the Triveni Sangam, the confluence of three sacred rivers : the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswat. 

Western Zone of the Indian Railways

I heard there’s a train strike in Paris. The passengers know, and I regret this with a smile, some minor inconveniences. So I can’t resist the pleasure of telling you about the indian trains where, to use the formula of the quidam who wrote a special theory of relativity, “everything is relative”…

A few days late… trains.

The train leaves a few times a day late. It’s not because of the strike, no, it’s a delay problem. Western Indian Railways has indeed a complex network across the country. The slightest incident, even minor, has a domino effect of gigantic proportions in each state. For example, the Mumbai train may be delayed by the monsoon flood, the Delhi train may be held up at the station by a member of Parliament who is dragging his feet and taking advantage of Western Indian Railways. There are also mechanical problems, electrical problems, station loading problems, railway track problems, vandalism, theft on trains or accidents. Taking the train in India is an adventure. 
In France, the distances covered are limited to a few hours. In India, trips last more than one day, often two to four days. India’s rail network has a total length of 115,000 km. It is estimated that over 30% of India’s railways are overcrowded with trains. And to make it worse, most of India still has single-line connectivity. This creates problems at crossings. Trains have to make unexpected stops at many locations, again resulting in delays.   

To endure these incredible delays, the best thing to do it is to take the time to get the best of them… - What else could you do? 

If you are rich or if your name is James Bond (or Hercule Poirot), you can take the “Palace on Wheels”, the “Maharaja’s Express” or the “Rajasthan on Wheels”, with amazing interiors, sumptuous lights and remarkable cutlery. But if you like meeting India, the real one, take the 3rd class of Western Indian Railways. When the train starts, it moves so slowly that you can catch it running. If you have a quick trip planned, you may be a little disappointed. 

To better appreciate the Indian train, forget that you’re in a hurry. At this level, time no longer matters. You will have time to read a book by Amartya Sen or Suketu Mehta, time to share tea, time to take pictures, time to get off the train to buy doughnuts, time to sleep, time to look at the landscape, time to lose all notions of time, time to see India and time to finally meet again.   

The delay of the French trains is nothing compared to the Indian one. 

I took the train from Paris this morning, it was 40 minutes late because of the strike… I can’t believe how patient the Indian trains have made me. But with this winter cold, here in Paris, I must admit that the time seems longer on the train platform. “That’s relativity!” would have declared the father of the general relativity theory.

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