Feb 142011

In The Ashram

Still half asleep from the night

before, we arrived at the ashram

in Haridwar.  We were invited to

the fire ceremony and made

offerings with the residents.

It was unclear whether I would

be able to shoot or not, but

was surprised to find a devout

population willing to share their

lives within the ashrams walls.

Christmas lights and Vishwamitra or Voltar depending on your point of view. His name actually means "Friend of the world." Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/60th, f 2.8 @ ISO 400

-Vishwamitra or Zoltar-

What do Christmas lights have to do with Indian Gods?  In a strange mixture of first world technology and third world devotion, Indian temples are famous for using Christmas lights and neon lights to adorn their most revered statues.  In the West, light bulbs have an established pecking order.  From “Eat At Joe’s” neons to the LED’s of 5th Avenue boutiques, every light has its place.  Christmas lights are usually make an appearance once a year as wrapping paper begins appearing on the shelves.  When its all over, there is nothing tackier than a house wrapped in Christmas lights year round.

The inside of the ashram is paved in solid white marble. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/500th, f 2.5 @ ISO 400

The gates of the Ashram, like most places in India is decorated with armed guards.  Inside was an oasis of cleanliness, order, and quiet movement.  Once inside we removed our shoes, as is customary in most temples.  The marble floor feels clean under our feet, but cold.  The ashrams equivalent of a patron saint is a statue for Vishwamitra.  His role, like that of many Indian tales is one of supernatural feats of enlightenment.  Followers gather to make offerings every day and strive to live in the footsteps of this great master.  But just as the scene starts to feel somber, Christmas lights around the statues head come on.  Some people viewed this is a good omen, while others thought someone in the back room was playing a joke on everyone.  Miracle or prank, once the face was lit up, I could not avoid thinking, “He kind of looks like Zoltar, the wish granting fortune teller, from the 80′s movie BIG.”

A Crayola box of colors line up for morning prayers. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/180th, f 6.7 @ ISO 400

India mixes cheesy effects with thousand year or artifacts in a way that is fascinating.  To everyone at the ashram, this is perfectly normal.  In fact, most of the customs of the West are flipped on their heads in a temple or ashram, completely uprooting the idea that “Behaviors of reverence and decency are universal.”  That which is considered proper in once places is completely disrespectful in other places.  Everyone seems to agree on that certain things need to be addressed, like the treatment of the head or feet when entering a sacred space, but the solutions for every group are a little different.  Being raised in a church, but now spending more time in temples and zendos, I went from one set of rules to another, see below:

  • Church: Wear shoes, no hats allowed, modest clothing, sitting on the floor is considered disrespectful, speak quietly.
  • Zen Monastery: Never wear shoes, no hats allowed, wear robes, sitting on the floor is a must, no talking at all.
  • Indian Temples: No shoes, often no shirts for men, sit on the floor, talking is loud, and crowds are pushy.

Maybe enlightenment is hiding under a blanket. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/60th, f 2.8 @ ISO 400

Everyone comes to differing solutions for identical problems.  Its fun to play along and see how things work out.

There is a famous Zen quote came to mind as I watched this scene, "Before enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water. After enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water." Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/60th, f 4 @ ISO 400


Small fires are burning under the open pagodas.  Groups of devotees line up, in shifts, waiting for their turn to make the morning offerings.  At the head of the crowd, is one person, who also changes in shifts, leading the chants.  Looking through the metal gates, an eager set of shoeless devotees wait for their turn.  I lean in, with my lens between the grates and take a few pictures.  The low chanting drowns out the sound of the shutter.  There is hardly any light under the pagoda, so the small fire is the main light source.  The 75mm seems to suck up the dim light and render soft warm tones as the fire reflects on the devotees faces.

The light from the fire reflects on faces of the devotees. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/60th, f 3.4 @ ISO 400

One by one we push our way through the small gate and search for a seat next to the fire.  The whole process is a lubricated ritual, where everyone gets a turn and feels like they contributed.  We are instructed to pinch the offerings between our middle finger, ring finger, and thumb of our right hand (always the right hand in India) before placing it in the fire.  Then, as quickly as we arrived, the chants are finished, prayers are made, and offerings are complete.  The next group shuffles us out.

I never figured out what this guy was waiting for, but either way, it never showed up. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/250th, f 6.7 @ ISO 400

-Wandering With A Clue-

The rest of the morning was wide open.  People were allowed to explore or meditate.  I took this as a great opportunity to wander through the pedestrian streets of the ashram with the Leica 75mm Apo-Summicron I was testing out.  To my surprise, the community members were photo-friendly, did not shy away from me, and did not adopt the rigid portrait pose.  If you have never seen the India pose, it looks like they are mimicking a statue.  Arms at their side, feet together, it is the most unnatural thing you have ever seen.  One of the tricks of working in India is avoiding this dreaded portrait statue pose.

The sunlight liked to wrap its fingers everyone. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/180th, f 9.5 @ ISO 400

Every corner of the ashram had some type of activity.  A few hundred people live inside this complex.  With free room and board for a limited periods of time, it is a popular stop on the North Indian ashram circuit.  You could hear the echo of doors opening and closing all morning.  The closet, the bathroom, the bedroom, people were coming and going every which way.  Food was being prepared which offset the burning smell of the offerings and the ever present bathroom wind that is all over India.  One might not feel so close to life without the fragrance of last evenings dinner being returned to the earth.  But hey, its India! Things are just a little more raw here.

This guy kind of looked like an India Private Pyle, but I did not see any other Kubrick characters that morning. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/250th, f 5.7 @ ISO 400

-Moving Onward-

Without the aid of modern conveniences, like a dishwasher or a hair clipper, washing the dishes is transformed from a flashing light into a poetic allegory about mindful practice.  Leaving the ashram, I discovered two scenes capping off the morning’s wanderings.  Under a plaid canopy, a make shift barber shop was busy dry shaving young boys heads.  One swipe at a time, the hair fell to the pavers.  There was no lotion, no cream, not even any water as the barber scraped the scalps of each boy.

The road side barber shaves young boys heads with a straight razor in less than three minutes. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/250th, f 4.8 @ ISO 400

Next to the barber shop was a young fella washing aluminum pots in a road side sink.  I could not decide whether he was being punished or this was part of his daily chores.  The older man occasionally yelling at him, might have been reminding the young boy of his mistakes or simply telling him to hurry up.  Sometimes not knowing the language allows your mind to build its own narrative.  The details of the scene escaped me, but the boy was too occupied with his pot to care about me.  This allowed me to get right up next to him and snap away.

Punishment or penance, this guy had some dishes to clean in the communal sink. Leica M9: 75mm Apo-Summicron 1/250th, f 16 @ ISO 400

-Back In New York City-

The other day I was walking around with a friend back in New York and he was asking me how I felt about taking pictures on the street.  I said,

“I think its trickier (to photograph) in the City than it is in India because the daily activities in New York are commuting and shopping.  People don’t bath, shave, or wash their dishes in the street.  The easiest way to get close to people is by shooting people who are too busy to mind a photographer.  Why do you think there are so many great pictures pouring out of Egypt right now?  Its because people are too busy rioting, fighting, and now celebrating that no one cares about the photographers.  They can walk right up to the action.”

Even in the sanctum of an ashram people were consumed by meditation and not bothered by the sun, wind, or a photographer.  It makes for a wonderful opportunity to witness the intimate practices of devotion and silence apart from the shoulder to shoulder streets of Haridraw.

-Technical Notes-

The entire morning was shot using the Leica 75mm Apo-Summicron, which I will be reviewing later this week.  One thing I loved about this lens was the ultra smooth aperture ring.  Almost like the 50mm Noctilux it is a super fast ring that you can adjust in an instant.  Especially when shooting candid portraits, reaction time needs to be very quick.  Aside from the added bulk of the 75mm over my 50mm, it proved to be more nimble and responsive in the field.  And it renders low light incredibly.  The lens is I used is currently for sale at Photo Village.  I would not be surprised if the lens was sold by the time the review is released.

Link to barely used 75mm Apo-Summicron on sale for $3,195.


  2 Responses to “Leica Travel: Haridwar”

  1. Adam, I enjoyed your insight into how different it is to photograph people in India vs. those in NYC. It always has fascinated me how people in some countries (usually third world) seem so calm and content to be photographed while most westernized people do not and have a totally different attitude towards it.

    • Thanks Lisa,
      Glad you enjoyed the article. Paranoia happens everywhere, but you’re right, it seems more prevalent in the West.

      On the road, I find that most people are as curious about me as I am about them. With a little smile, most people are ok having their picture taken by “that funny white guy, with no hair and blue eyes.”

      NYC is a funny place because actual New Yorkers are really nice. I try to meet everyone on an individual level. When things are personal, most people are great.

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