Juna Akhara, Haridwar, India 2010

A chela relaxes during preparations for the 2010 Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, india.

The Kumbh Mela, is a huge religious festival that occurs every three years and draws large numbers of Hindu ascetics and their chelas from all parts of India. In Hinduism, a chela is a religious student or disciple who serves a Guru (teacher). Generally, there are no age restrictions but the vast majority of chelas are young and probably drawn into service through socio-economic as well as religious forces. This particular chela is a member of the naga baba sect who eschew material possessions, choosing to smear their bodies with ash in place of clothing. The ash is typically gleaned from fire pits (and sometimes funeral pyres), and symbolizes the Hindu concept of death and rebirth (reincarnation).
Dasaswamamedh ghat, Kashi

A sadhu sits on the steps of the Dasaswamamedh ghat in Varanasi, India.
Sadhus are Hindu ascetics who chose to live life on the edges of society to focus on their spirituality. Most practice a combination of celibacy, religious discipline, and yoga in pursuit of their common goal, and they typically worship either Shiva, the destroyer of the universe, or Vishnu, the preserver. Some focus on chanting and meditation; others spend years living in isolation or subject themselves to extreme endurance tests that push their physical limits.
Sadhus occupy a unique and important place in Hindu society, particularly in villages and small towns more closely tied to tradition. In addition to bestowing religious instruction and blessings to lay people, sadhus are often called upon to adjudicate disputes between individuals or to intervene in conflicts within families. For many Hindus, Sadhus are considered living embodiments of the divine and are held in high esteem.
Varanasi, India 2009
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India 2010

A sadvhi stands in front of a vivid backdrop near the Har Ki Pauri ghat in Haridwar, India.

Sadhvis are the female equivalent of sadhus, Hindu ascetics who chose to live life on the edges of society to focus on their spirituality. They renounce materialism and have few possessions other than religious artifacts and the ochre colored clothing many wear. Sadhvis make up 10% of the five million (male and female) practicing this lifestyle. Most are middle-aged widows who chose to become sadhvi to escape the stigma of losing a husband. Sadhvis are far from the equals of sadhus, however. In a reflection of the generally subordinate position of women in Indian society, it’s assumed that women have to be born again as men before they can be spiritually liberated.
Varanasi, India 2009
Varanasi, India 2009
Varanasi, India 2009
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, India 2010
Haridwar, India 2010
Shiv Raj Giri (naga baba)
Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India 2010

A naga baba performs a ritual puja on the Ganges river during the 2010 Kumbh Mela.

Naga babas are a Hindu sect who eschew material possessions, choosing to smear their bodies with ash in place of clothing. The ash is typically gleaned from fire pits (and sometimes funeral pyres), and symbolizes the Hindu concept of death and rebirth. Naga babas, who follow the god Shiva, sometimes chose to endure extreme physical austerities, such as standing upright for years (if not decades) at a time, holding an arm aloft until it atrophies, and mutilating their genitals in displays of strength.
The Kumbh Mela, a huge religious festival that occurs every three years, draws large numbers of these Hindu ascetics from all parts of India.
Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi, India 2010

Light streams through a marble screen window in Humayun’s tomb.

Humayun's tomb is a complex of buildings built as the Mughal Emperor Humayun's tomb, commissioned by Humayun's surviving wife Hamida Banu Begum in 1562 CE, and designed by Mirak Mirza Ghiyath, a Persian architect. It was the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent, and is located in Nizamuddin East, Delhi, India, close to the Dina-panah citadel also known as Purana Qila, that Humayun founded in 1533. It was also the first structure to use red sandstone on a large scale. The complex was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, and since then has undergone extensive restoration work, which is still underway.
Dasaswamedh ghat, Varanasi, India, 2009

A brahman meditates on the banks of the Ganges river in Kashi (Varanasi), India.

“Kashi” (or “Kasi”) is the ancient name for Varanasi, one of India’s most significant cultural and religious centers. Millions of religious followers -- Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains -- make the pilgrimage each year to Kashi, which is located on the River Ganges in the heartland of Northern India. Many believe the river offers spiritual cleaning, and it is said that one drop of Ganges water erases a lifetime of sins. Dying in Kashi is considered to be particularly auspicious for Hindus, including “sadhus” or Hindu ascetics who seek liberation (“moksha”) from earthly bonds.
Varanasi, India, 2009

A group of people gather to perform early morning prayers as the sun rises on the Ganges.

“Kashi” (or “Kasi”) is the ancient name for Varanasi, one of India’s most significant cultural and religious centers. Millions of religious followers -- Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains -- make the pilgrimage each year to Kashi, which is located on the River Ganges in the heartland of Northern India. Many believe the river offers spiritual cleaning, and it is said that one drop of Ganges water erases a lifetime of sins. Dying in Kashi is considered to be particularly auspicious for Hindus, including “sadhus” or Hindu ascetics who seek liberation (“moksha”) from earthly bonds.
Varanasi, India, 2009
Varanasi, India, 2009
Varanasi, India, 2009
Shiv Raj Giri (naga baba)
Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India 2010
Haridwar, Uttarakhand, India 2010

about mark

Mark Thomas is a photojournalist and portrait photographer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe, National Geographic News and other publications. He grew up in Wales and has lived and worked in the United States for more than two decades.

Mark first visited India in the 1980s and, fascinated by its history, culture, and politics, has traveled there many times since to document the stories and lives of its people.