tent life

apart from processions and interesting acrobatics, the sadhus just hung out in their camps and went about their business.

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at times, pilgrims would come to the sadhus’ tents for blessings. the sadhu on the left is placing ash on the forehead of a follower. the photo on the right shows one sadhu who was born with a spinal deformation; this may have made him more holy in some manner.
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otherwise, life out of the spotlight was pretty mundane. the sadhus ate, smoked, drank tea and talked.

there was a second class of sadhu, however, that didn’t stay in large established camps. these were the mendicants (or as i called them, the “fraudhus”), who relied on the charity of the ashrams and larger camps. they seemed to spend a lot of time waiting in line for free food and not a lot of time in meditation or prayer.

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watching these guys beg and quarrel, as in the photo in the lower right, made me realize that anyone can put on the orange robes, but not everyone can lead a life of spirituality and balance.

next: more stuff about the kumbh mela.

just some sadhu portraits

so, to take a breather from the last post, let’s just look at some sadhu portraits. the first guy was typical of the many mendicant sadhus at the kumbh mela in that he was willing to pose, but only for money; the next one was simply grooming after his bath, and ignored me. clearly, he’d been busy, but he wasn’t there to beg, either. the next two are baba nagas (including one who is out of “costume”).

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next: tent life

the penis trick

the sadhus set up large camps while at the kumbh mela, and there were all sorts of activities going on when they weren’t in the bathing processions. that’ll be the subject of the next post, but in the meantime, here’s a little something the baba nagas did to entertain the crowds. it’s something they said is related to yoga, but we just called it “the penis trick.” don’t try this at home.

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first, take your penis, and wrap it around a stick.  make sure it’s good and tight. next, pull the stick back between your legs, one end at a time, so that it creates a little stand under your butt. finally, have your partner stand on the stick. ladies and gentlemen – the penis trick!

next: more scenes from the kumbh mela.

more marching with the sadhus

after the adventures described in the previous post, the rest of the event went fairly smoothly.  i didn’t get down to the river bank in time to see the sadhus bathing (and in fact was kept from pursuing them by the police who were stationed at the entries to the bathing area), but once they came back out of the water, i moved in.  a few times i was pushed on by police or by sadhu-minders, but for the most part no one was bothered by my camera – in fact, quite the opposite.

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the fancy sadhus (the “god-men”) were coming in on their trucks as the naga babas were leaving. coming out of the water. later, they put ash on the dog.
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didn’t mind the photography. definitely didn’t mind the photography. celebrating with a very fancy chilam.
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on the way back to the camp. a group of pilgrims. traffic jam on the procession route.
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again, didn’t mind the photography. some sadhus get initiated at a very young age. a group of us looked at this photo and think that the crawling sadhu is unable to walk, and the others are keeping his hair out of the dirt.  either that, or he’s a pledge.
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women get in on the act as well.  a group of female sadhus. one of the god-men, with advertising. the line of god-men vehicles was pretty long, and the traffic backed up considerably.

next: the penis trick.

marching with the sadhus

after the sadhus finished celebrating, they lined up and began their march back to the camp, and we photographers ran alongside them. more photos from that:

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notice, in the second photo, the man in the crimson t-shirt pointing at me: this guy (who was also holding a thick, pointy bamboo staff) was one of the parade marshals/sadhu minders/akshara hangers-on with thick pointy bamboo staffs who accompanied the naga babas on the procession route.  his reaction to my taking the photo signifies the ambiguous position that we non-credentialed photographers held: the sadhus, for the most part, were happy to have their photos taken once they’d bathed in the ganges, yet we weren’t exactly supposed to be walking along the parade route with them.  i shrugged this off because i wanted the photos, but i also had no idea what was coming next.

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the heavy police presence should have been a tipoff.
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we finished the route and went down to the neighboring akshara camp to await next procession. this was the jura akshara, and the jura have a reputation as the “bad boys” of the naga babas – the most militant of the various aksharas. while the naga babas would be as happy as the previous group after they’d bathed, i was warned that some of them might be pretty keyed up beforehand; and also, that the sadhus who escort the naga babas could be rough, hitting and slapping people who get in the way of the procession. i decided to keep as far to the edge as possible.

when the procession started, everything was hectic but fluid, and i was running along with our group leader and having a great time; suddenly, i felt a hard slap to the back of my head, followed by about two more that knocked my hat off. a policeman warned me to get out of the way, so i grabbed my hat and ran; but the sadhu (it turns out) who had begun the slapping chased after me, and he continued to smack me in the head.  my glasses went flying into the crowd; one of the lenses popped out into the tangle of people, and that was that – until one of the ladies in the crowd found the lens.  i jammed it back into the glasses frame and ran off after the naga babas again.  it ain’t a kumbh mela until you’ve been smacked in the head, and besides, you have to get the photos, right?

not everyone was serious – some of these guys were posing for the cameras, and the one to the far right was throwing flowers into the crowd – but the two sadhus in the bottom photographs clearly weren’t going to take any nonsense from us.  the photographer in the orange robe (to the left of the dancing naga baba) was probably trying to camouflage himself. i heard later that a photographer who disguised himself as a sadhu got smacked around pretty hard; i don’t know if this was the same guy.

next: more marching with the sadhus

enter the sadhus

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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

throwing the baby into the bathwater

for many people, their children’s first dip into the ganges is a major life event. the ceremony might begin with tonsuring – i.e., shaving the baby’s head – and then the parent or grandparent carries the baby into the river. for some, a splash on the legs is enough; for others, only full immersion will do. either way, the baby isn’t going to be happy about it.

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see how much fun this is? i guess not. and again, not so much fun.
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the legs are okay … … but not in the face!
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some babies don’t handle head-shaving as well as others. fortunately, by the time they get older, bath time isn’t so traumatic.

next: the sadhus take a bath.

welcome to the kumbh mela

the kumbh mela is a hindu pilgrimage during which tens of millions of hindus come to the banks of the ganges to bathe in the holy waters. the kumbh mela is held every three years on a rotating basis at one of four sites – hardiwar, allahabad, nasik and ujjain – where, according to legend, drops fell when the gods and demons fought over a pitcher of the nectar of immortality. this year’s kumbh mela was held at allahabad, which is especially significant because it is the point where three rivers – the ganges, the yamuna, and the mythical saraswati – converge, and it is estimated that 100 million pilgrims came for it.

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they came by truck, they came by foot, they even came by bicycle.

during the kumbh mela, the pilgrims stay on the banks of the river, so one can imagine that the logistics would be a nightmare. however, the authorities handled the arrangements really well: tents and camps were well-laid out, there was running water and electricity, pit latrines and trailers with toilets, roads, and pontoon bridges crossing the yamuna river at various points. the bridges were organized so that you could cross only in one direction on the odd numbered bridges and only in the other direction on the even numbered bridges, and the police actually enforced this.

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some ashrams had fairly large and festive camps, while other folks lived in more basic conditions that weren’t so well-situated when the rains came. the roads were dirt, but with metal plates laid down for cars. the organizers even had clean-up crews for the river banks.  all in all, the logistics were impressively done.

the highlight, of course, is the bathing.  the current was strong enough that the organizers built fences as close as 20 feet away from the bank, at some points, to keep people from being swept away; and they also lined the more crowded parts of the river bank with sandbags to keep it intact.  these arrangements gave the river a less than organic feel, but with 100 million people trampling along the river banks, the damage would have been significant otherwise.

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                          bathing can be a contemplative, solitary affair …
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… or something a bit more hectic …
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… or just an irreverant good time.

next: more bathing.