31 March 2010

Observations of an Agnostic - Kumbh Mela 2010

The pilgrims, and the Sadhus. They are essentially the people who make Kumbh Mela the largest human congregation in the planet, gathered for a single religious purpose. But the ones who grab the limelight at the Kumbh are a particular sect of Sadhus. The Naga Babas. Naked, smeared in ashes and sometimes found throwing obscenities as though echoing the thoughts of a deeply demented mind, the Naga Babas (aka Digambars), I must say, has greatly colored my Kumbh experience. The story I had etched in my mind never happened, I ended up following a group of Naga Babas instead. I've tried to keep a very open mind and made a record of my experiences as it unfolded itself. The Juna Akhada, the oldest and perhaps the largest organization of Sadhus were nestled within a few paces from the Ganges river in Haridwar. This is were the Sadhus and the Naga Babas from this sect were camping during the time of Kumbh. As I mentioned before, while in search for a subject, I had stumbled across a group of Naga Babas. They welcomed me inside. But I was forbidden to shoot. After two days of waiting, I was granted permission to take a single picture. The emergency lamp was switched on in my honour. But I was strictly forbidden from publishing the image just then. Later I found out that he was called Santhosh Giri Maharaj, a Naga Baba from a village near Agra. There wasn't much that they would do during the day except for sitting huddled around a fire smoking charas and drinking chai. I would wait nevertheless, hoping they would let me shoot and wishing my shutter didn't make half as much noise as it did. I was a guest at their place after all. They were free to ask me to leave any time. The room was always filled with blue fumes, with the Thrishool at its epicentre. One day, Guruji (as I was instructed to call him) decided to introduce me to his friends in the Juna Akhada. An emissary in the form of Pawan Giri Baba of Bhopal (first from right) was sent along with me. "Bacchi he. Photu se naam kamana chahthi he.." (She is a child. She wants to make a name for herself through her photos..) . I was thus introduced at each tent. In a tent I found parents of a Sadhu serving their son as his devotees. Perhaps, as the years sped by, they realized that renunciating their son wasn't a great idea after all. Camps were made in partially constructed buildings as well. The more popular Sadhus had plastic banners advertising their presence. By default, the least any Sadhu would offer a devotee was his blessings. Quite an inexpensive gift I must say.. ...And there were some who loved to enlighten their visitors along with some refreshing masala chai. Demented is the word that creeps into my mind when I think of this Naga Sanyasi. He had a way of repeating the same question over and over again. He would frown for a while, nod his head, look around him and then repeat the same question. He was not very pleased with the picture when I presented him with a print. I was told that he was from Kashmir. He was a Digambar (meaning clad in sky, naked). He had wrapped a blanket around him in honor of my camera and the presence of a woman. Pawan Giri Baba transforms himself into a Dikambar on the day of Shahi Snan (an auspicious date for a bath, when the Ganges turns into nectar) on Feb. 12, 2010. There is no doubt that a lot many Sadhus and Naga Babas loved being photographed. And most importantly, a lot of them had a very high business acumen. Pictured below are two popular Naga Babas from Mumbai. At one such photo-friendly room, the Baba showed me pictures sent to him by international photographers. Some were pictures of him when he was a teenager, posing for the foriegn lenses during one such Kumbh Mela. "Sirf angressi log photu bechthe he" (Only the English sends back the pictures), he said. Often I was reminded that this was a Kumbh in modern India. The Sadhus were definitely not averse to the idea of broadcast entertainment. As per custom, on the appointed days of Shahi Snan (royal bath) when the water turns into nectar(as per popular belief), the Naga Babas rushes into the Ganges followed by the Sadhus and then the pilgrims. In the past Kumbh Melas violence had erupted between various Akhadas for the right to bathe first in the Ganges on the auspicious dates. A police constable (with whom I happened to converse during the course of my stay in Haridwar) theorized that since the Kumbh Mela was a result of a war between the Gods and the Demons, perhaps these Naga Babas felt that no Kumbh is complete without a fight.

Pawan Giri Baba had a flair for story telling. Intoxicated, he narrated tales of wars fought along the banks of Ganges. "Ganga lal ho gaya tha uss dhin!" (The Ganges had turned red that day) he concluded with an exaggerated gesture.

The pilgrims nevertheless continued on their journey to wash away their sins. The daily Ganga Aarthi is by far one of the most important customs in Haridwar. Although my friends who have been to Varnasi tells me that it isn't half as beautiful. Haridwar was dotted with beautiful Ghats. My favorite being the Birla Ghat near the Lalkar bridge. I wonder what kind of faith grips the pilgrims to force themselves into the freezing water early in the morning. Atleast, my fingers had gone numb trying to click a picture! They come from lands far far away, with hardly any money in their pockets but braving all the hurdles that comes their way. The Kumbh Mela was a great networking platform for the Sadhus. Old friends, devotees etc came in search of their favorite guru at the Mela. And the Sadhus some times went on social visits along the ghats. The Shiva Giri Baba was by far the greatest showman on the ghats. He did not hestitate to call me for a 'photo opportunity' when he saw me loitering around the ghats with a camera. Feb. 12, 2010. The day was auspicious. It was Maha Shivarathri and the Naga Babas were gathered at the Maya Devi temple in Juna Akhada for the procession to the Ganges to begin.
And I was obviously not the only photographer around :)
The place was swarming of Sadhus and their devotees cheering them on.
It was a queer sight. Watching blue naked bodies struggling to grab a piece of garland! And then there were children dressed as Naga Babas. My prejudiced mind wished they were safe. They seemed to be enjoying themselves. I've heard many stories about how poor people give up their children to Sadhus simply because they are unable to feed them themselves. But I believe one needs to look beyond the Kumbh Mela to get to the real story. Even as the days sped by, pilgrims continued to flock into Haridwar...hoping to be released from the cycle of life and death. Hoping to attain Moksha.

28 March 2010

Saturday Evening

I was working until late this afternoon, then watched a psychotic movie, tried to read for sometime, dosed off to sleep and finally decided to set up some lights at home. Of course, I forgot my evening plans in the process!
Lights courtesy Aniruddha Ghosh

26 March 2010


24 March 2010


The villages of Alanganallur and Paalamedu are hardly 17 to 20Km away from Madurai. It was the month of January, the weather pleasant.The quaint green landscape betrayed no signs of the oldest and bloodiest sport held every year in these villages. The villagers stood around the village temple debating this year's bravest fighters and the fiercest bull, while the 'Saami Kaallai' (God - Bull) placidly chewed on some fresh grass. Not far from this scene, a sport was raging to celebrate Pongal, the Tamil New Year. Young men were trying to tame bulls. I had to rush back to the venue. To witness the spectacle of Jallikattu. Jallikattu has a history of 2000 years, the most popular event being held at Alanganallur near Madurai. About 600 to 800 bulls and hundreds of young men participate every year. Some say that the spirit of Jallikattu is in their blood. Some risk their lives in an effort to impress the young women of the village. Some young men participate because their friends are participating. Some men do not survive to say why.

I was quite shocked to find the prizes that were being offered to the winners. A police officer standing near by pointed to the rows of cycles hung near the podium. Those are the rewards of the highest order; meant for the 'Veerans' (heroes) who manage to catch bulls with a reputation of being the fiercest in the state. Other prizes include steel vessels, dhotis, underwear, plastic cots, satin ribbons etc.

Tens of thousands of villagers and tourists had gathered to witness the event. The prime spot was somewhere near the 30m mark until which the participants are supposed to cling on to the bull. The crowd reeked of arrack and the Jallikattu of Paalamedu concluded with a man from the audience falling prey to the rages of a bull.

The wall art in these villages were mainly adorned with pictures of politicians. The popular ones sponsored uniforms, prizes etc. and watched the event with their families seated at an elevated podium specially made for them like the Kings watching gladiators at the Colosseum in Rome. Nobody was fond of talking about the Supreme Court ban on the event or its subsequent reversals by the State Government.

Sure, there were bamboo barricades every where. But at some point, I was sure that the crowd will break it open.

Back stage, the bulls were refusing to move towards the narrow passage clogged by the participants. A little birdie told me that bull owners often resort to rubbing lime in the eyes of the bull and other inhuman activities to pep up the show. When questioned about it, quite predictably, they staunchly refused. But the bottom line was that the poor animal was scared.

Once the bull is released into the arena, the more enterprising young men lung for the bull hoping to cling on to its back until they reach the 30m victory mark amidst the great din raised by the excited crowd.

A lot (actually most) of the participants ('Veerans' as they are popularly called) were terrified of the charging bulls. In fact, it was quite difficult to tell who felt more threatened - the men or the beast. The men tried to scramble over the crumbling bamboo fences and the beast would be struggling to throw the man of its back to just escape the crowd and the noise.

One of the low points for a Veeran is when a bull manages to throw him off its back and when he lands right in front of the bull, thus making himself an easy target for the beast. Although there have been a lot of instances in the past where the participants were gored by the bull, this year, the participants managed to keep themselves alive although some of them sustained injuries.

All that the bull seemed to care about was the route of escape. Only, the field opened into the village where the bull would go charging into anything it finds in its way. Much of the Jallikattu causalities happen during this time, when the half drunk, half dazed villagers are caught by surprise by the bull.

If the bull manages to shake the participant off its back before the 30m mark, the bull owner gets the prize, if not, the Veeran gets the prize. But often, more than one Veeran clings onto the bull (which is against the rules of the sport) and often all the men who clung on to the same beast are disqualified. Fist fights are common. Wounds are preserved fresh in the memories until the next year's Jallikattu. All in the name of a trophy in the form of a steel vessel.

The spectators seemed never once disappointed. They were omnipresent. Perched on roof tops, walls etc. Cheering on, whistling, hooting.

The event went on for the entire day and the bull owners left with a promise to return next year. Disclaimer : These images were shot in RAW format and later converted to its present avatar using Photoshop (the filter is called 'stamp'). If you'd like to try something similar, I would highly recommend you to try out this effect first, because afterthoughts just don't work.