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. 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.
31 March 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.