March 9, 2013

enter the sadhus

Filed under: festivals, travel within india — Tags: , , , , — cohn17 @ 6:06 pm
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militant and not-so-militant sadhus: a naga baba carrying a mace during his akshara’s procession, and a naga baba smoking a chilam, a clay pipe filled with tobacco and hashish.

while the pilgrims’ bath in the ganges is the biggest draw for the pilgrims, the sadhus’ bath in the ganges is the biggest draw for the tourists. specifically, the first two bathing days are when the sadhus go down to the water en masse, in processions organized by their various orders or sects. the most dramatic sadhu sects are composed of naga babas, the warrior ascetics. the naga babas were originally established to defend other shavaite (shiva-worshipping) sects: naked, covered in ash, hairless except for their wild hair, and armed with various weapons, they must have looked terrifying. the naga babas are organized into aksharas, or battalions, but they are relatively peaceful now – and they are often stoned, as shiva is the lord of hashish – but they still have a militant streak.

more on that in a moment.

on the 15th, our group assembled at 3.00 am and went down to the main bathing area, where the sadhus were going to march down to bathe starting at 5.00 am. the police had cordoned off an area for photographers without press credentials (the ones with credentials could go wherever they wanted). because the spot where a sadhu bathes is considered holy, the public had filled the banks and were taking their own dips in the water before the sadhus arrived. the area was packed with bodies until the police heard that the first akshara was on the march; then they quickly cleared the area.

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after about 20 minutes, we saw the head of the procession and the first group of sadhus, followed by the first akshara of naga babas.

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i was in one of the tourist-photographers’ corrals where i realized i wouldn’t be able to get any good shots, so when i saw our trip leader running with the sadhus even though he didn’t have credentials, i slipped through the fence and pushed my way into the crowd. i was too far back to get to see the naga babas go into the ganges, but i was able to photograph them celebrating when they got out. and then things got interesting.

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“akshara” is probably the best word to describe a grouping of baba nagas, because there isn’t another one that’s as appropriate. a bunch of nagas? a pride of nagas? a gang of nagas? perhaps a melee of nagas.

next: marching with the sadhus, or, things get even more interesting

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