National Geographic photographer Pete McBride has been photographing a long-term assignment along the Ganges River in India. Here he shares a glimpse into capturing the unique Ram Lila festival.
On edge of the Ramnagar Fort, on the eastern flank of the Ganges River across from India’s oldest city, Varanasi, the proverbial photography gods came together. It was mid-October and the festival of Ram Lila was unfolding throughout the region. The King of Ramnagar had ridden into the pageant of lights and people, leading a procession of dignitaries, to watch a performance celebrating good overcoming evil. This festival and its elephant caravan have been a tradition for centuries—locked in time.
I happened to be there at the right time during a source-to-sea expedition down the Ganges for National Geographic. Many events and festivals in India unfold either on the banks of the 1,500-mile-long Ganges River or have a connection to it—the sacred waterway believed to be divine by a billion Hindus.
I wanted to photograph this ancient tradition unfolding on the Ganges’ shore; the lumbering stride of the elephant and a king swaying above. But photography was strictly forbidden. So instead of risking the wrath of the Indian police, I lingered until after the procession, when the elephants were walked back to a makeshift corral of sorts—a dusty road and a crumbling wall of the fort.
I have deep interest in elephants so I was curious about how these giants were being handled. As the sun set over the festival, the bustle of lights and rickshaws and glow sticks started to light up the area. I asked the elephant handler if I could photograph and visit his friend. He angrily said “no photo” and shooed me away. The elephant seemed equally disturbed. Unlike many other domesticated elephants in India, this tall male seemed quite healthy and lacked the scars of abuse I’d seen on others.
But then without notice, the elephant spotted my friend and translator Madhav, wearing his signature long white shirt. Madhav happens to be a Hindu monk as well and takes his spirituality seriously. At the time, I don’t know what magical words or sounds Madhav spoke, but to my surprise, the elephant suddenly lumbered his way over and gingerly reached out his trunk, sniffing Madhav’s hands for a few minutes.
Amid the festival chaos surrounding us—rickshaw horns, kids joyfully screaming, music blaring—I crouched to capture the moment. The dusk light was just starting to dwindle and the lights from the road and rickshaws all joined forces to create a soft, subtle hue on this brief human-animal connection.
I love photographing during that dusky time between sunset and night but I am always grateful when I can pair it with a unique moment, human and/or elephant.
Incidentally, Madhav, the most honest man I know, later revealed that he had “a few peanuts” in his pocket. Indeed. The wise monk once again.
Photo Tip: Patience. Don’t stop working after the main event or if you hit a roadblock. Sometimes the image you get that works is not the one you imagined.
Pete McBride photographed with a Nikon D800, 20-70mm lens, at 1/15 sec., f/2.8, ISO 3200.
Follow Pete McBride on Instagram at @pedromcbride.