Lauren Frayer

The first thing you notice, approaching the Ghazipur landfill, is a pack of emaciated feral dogs. Some of them are coughing.

That, and the stench — a putrid mix of rot, burning plastic and a dead animal somewhere close.

From afar, it looks like an arid plateau on the outskirts of India's capital. But this mountain isn't made of earth. It's made of trash.

Pakistani TV shows a bloodied Indian fighter pilot in captivity, sipping tea while being interrogated. He addresses his captor as "sir." But he refuses to divulge any information.

Tens of millions of Hindus took a ritual dip in the Ganges River this winter as part of the largest religious festival in the world — the Kumbh Mela. For centuries, the festival has been held in various cities in northern India, including Allahabad.

But when pilgrims arrived this year for the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad had a different name.

An hour after sunrise in India on Thursday, the world's largest exercise of democracy got underway. That's when polls opened on the first day of voting in Indian elections.

A nationwide election in India is a massive undertaking — with a population of 1.3 billion and nearly 900 million eligible voters. This year, there are 543 parliamentary seats up for grabs, including that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who's running for a second term.

In a Himalayan valley surrounded by military barracks, blasts of artillery fire often reverberate across the icy mountain peaks. This is one of the world's longest-running conflict zones. It's near where India and Pakistan recently traded airstrikes. So it's not unusual to see helicopters buzzing overhead.

But on a morning in early February, one particular chopper was not part of the conflict.

Updated at 4:53 p.m. ET

In a dramatic escalation of violence over their shared Himalayan border, India and Pakistan both claimed Wednesday to have shot down each other's fighter jets, and video emerged of a bloodied, blindfolded Indian pilot in Pakistani custody.

India says its fighter jets crossed a disputed border as they headed into Pakistan before dawn Tuesday, conducting airstrikes on a militant training camp and killing "a very large number of terrorists."

They play soccer in a disputed Himalayan valley prone to car bombs, strikes and heavy snow. Soldiers with machine guns patrol their home stadium. Players sometimes have to arrive at practice three hours early to avoid police curfews. Their team is less than three years old, with a budget that's one-tenth that of some of their competitors.

Shivering and blue-lipped but smiling, Niraj Shukla emerged from the Ganges River this week, flanked by his parents and millions of other people, feeling renewed.

"The water is very cold, but once you have a bath – it's sort of a miracle, you know?" said Shukla, a 32-year-old engineer who lives in India's capital New Delhi.

A few years ago, Veena had a problem: She couldn't find anyone willing to pick her coconuts.

Veena is a 37-year-old housewife who, like many people in South India, goes by one name. She lives on a small family farm in Kerala, dotted with coconut palms.

Kerala — "land of coconuts" in the local language, Malayalam — used to have plenty of coconut pickers for hire. They were usually lower caste men who'd shimmy up the trees and pick the nuts for a fee.