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January 25, 2001
The Rediff Special/ Prem Panicker
The main entrance to the Juna Akhara is barricaded, to cope with the huge rush of gawkers. Two Naga sadhus -- not naked ones -- carrying swords stand at the entrance, chasing away the faithful.
When the crowd gets too close to the barricades, one of the Nagas swishes his sword at the crowd. There are a few squeals, and some nervous laughter -- but no one is really alarmed.
If religion is the music of the soul, then the Nagas are the rock stars of Hinduism.
Wilful, capricious, prone to sudden bouts of friendliness and equally inexplicable fits of rage, the Naga encampment at the Juna Akhara has been attracting hordes of pilgrims and gawkers alike -- and not the least because a large majority of them walk around stark naked, and will -- if they are in the mood -- willingly strike poses, perform acrobatics and talk to you.
On learning that I was a newspaper reporter, one of them startled me by winking, and pitching his voice low, said, "Beta, you walk around the camp, taking the road to your left, then turn left again, then left again and you will come to the backside of the camp. There is no barricade there, you can go in." And then he chortled in glee -- presumably the thought that he had put one over on himself and his fellow guard tickled him no end.
The camp, which I enter through the back, is made up of long double-rows of tents, facing each other, with a walkway in between. Each tent is occupied by a Naga sadhu, doing nothing much in particular that you can see. They take their ease on their sleeping mats, a burning diya, a bowl containing vermillion and another open bowl for alms keeping them company. As you look inside the tents, some raise their hands in benediction, some glare at you, some ignore you.
Shiv Chandra Bharti's tent is crowded in comparison to those of his neighbours -- within it are a couple of foreign girls and a white man with hair so long and so heavily matted as to be the envy of the sadhus themselves.
In response to my salutation, Bharti beckons me closer, applies a vermillion tilak to my forehead, sprinkles on my head a few grains of rice coloured saffron and invites me to sit.
He is one of the garrulous ones and needs little prompting to talk of himself.
He is, he says, 63. And adds, in matter of fact fashion, that he has another 57 years to live before he voluntarily abdicates life. "And then they will bury me, and my disciples will offer regular pujas at the site."
How does he know how long he has left to live? "I know -- Baba se kya aisa savaal poochte ho? (How can you ask me such questions?)"
The language is colloquial, the mood mercurial, as he tells you how he ran away from home at the age of five because his father was a drunk and his mother had died. The runaway took up with a wandering Naga sadhu and made himself useful, doing little odd jobs for him in return for food.
"When the Baba thought the time was right, he made me undergo the diksha, the penance. I did penance for 12 years, eating very little, doing all that the Baba asked me to do, learning what he taught me. And finally, I was initiated."
Among other things, he had at that point to formally forsake all worldly things -- clothes, possessions, women, whatever.
From the age of 20, which is when he was initiated, to now, he has made the Badrinath Hills his base camp, where he lives along with several other Nagas. Most of his time is spent in the hills, from where he occasionally descends to take part in some religious mela or the other.
And what does he live on? "Our disciples give us alms; when we come to melas like this pilgrims give us alms, and that is enough for us," he says, talking of how the young disciples of the Nagas occasionally go to the nearest village to buy basic provisions. Food is a once a day affair, fruits, roots and herbs easily available in the forest are the staple diet. And, of course, there is the ubiquitous chillum, as much a Naga stamp as their naked, ash-clad bodies.
Where do you get the marijuana from? "We grow it ourselves," he grins. And why do you need it? "It helps to subjugate the senses," he says. But hasn't he achieved that already, thanks to his yogic studies? Why does he need drugs to achieve that state?
The question is greeted with a glare that signals I am transgressing. Yet, a moment later, he relaxes, then goes into a discourse about how the human mind is a hyperactive animal. You may think, he says, that you have tamed it. And if you focus on that one task, of taming the mind, you can do it. But when your attention is distracted by other things, then your control slips, and that is when the mind plays its tricks on you.
"See," he grins, pointing at the two young girls sitting in the tent, following the proceedings with evident mystification, "aren't they pretty? Now when they are here and talking to me, it is easy to get distracted. But the chillum helps to make sure I never am."
The girls, by their body language, appear to have realised they are the subject of the conversation. And simper. And look clueless. Which hugely delights the Naga sadhu -- somehow, as you spend time with them, you realise they love surprising you with their words and their antics, making you uncomfortable.
So when, I ask him, did the Nagas originate? "I don't know for sure," he says. "Our Mahants tell us the Juna Akhara is 300 years old."
He does not know, either, just how many Nagas owe allegiance to the Juna Akhara. "Thousands," he says simply. "Not all of them have come here."
The sadhus, he points out, have as rigid a social structure as the rest of us, for all their seeming freedom. At the apex there is the Mahamandaleshwar(s), with the Mahants below them. And each Mahant is spiritually responsible for the sadhus who owe him allegiance.
A young lad, clad in mud-stained saffron, interrupts, talks to Shiv Chandra Bharti in a language I don't know. "We have been called to prayers and lunch," he informs me. "You can go now."
Imperiously, he gestures for me to bow before him, then lays a hand on my head. "You are a good boy," he says. "You will have a happy life."
A further sprinkling of rice, a gesture that any alms I am desirous of giving may be deposited in the open bowl in front of his seat, and off he goes -- incongruously, stopping for a second to pat one of the girls on her head and to ruffle the hair of the other.
Both laugh -- a sound half-nervous, half-excited. And we all watch him go.
Lisa and Kate are from Brisbane, they tell me over cups of tea in a stall just outside the Naga encampment. Both are young, in their twenties, and besides the usual paraphernalia of the tourist, they are clutching a rudraksha necklace apiece, while Lisa is additionally burdened with one of those ubiquitous white plastic cans they sell all over the mela site. "Gangajaal, she tells me. "Oh, is it jal? Sorry."
And why would you be carrying Gangajal around? "They told us it is good to sip a little bit each day, and it didn't cost us anything, so..." A shrug.
What were they doing in Shiv Chandra Bharti's tent anyways? Did they understand what he was saying, do they know the language? "No, we were walking around, and looked in, and he gestured to us to come in. We thought it wouldn't be polite to refuse."
So did you bathe in the Sangam, I ask.
"Oh yes," says Lisa. "It was very cold, we went early in the morning, hired a boat..."
How much was it? "Oh, there are four of us, our friends are wandering around somewhere else. We paid Rs 4,000, was it too much?" I shake my head no -- no point letting them know that they were gypped. "We went in the boat, and a Panda (they pronounce it like the name of the little bear) came along and did some mantras for us, and we paid him and then went to the Sangam and had a dip."
So how did it feel? "I don't know, weird I guess," says Kate. Weird, why? "Well, I guess when you do it it means something to you, but for us it felt weird to be doing something we didn't know the meaning of."
They know now, having taken the trouble to ask someone they bumped into at Saraswati Ghat to explain it to them.
They are, it turns out, on a three-week holiday in India. "We've been wanting to come to India on holiday, we have heard so much about the place. So when we heard there was this Mela happening, we decided to time our holiday so we could visit here."
Impressions? "We came here first, to Allahabad," Kate says. "I mean, we passed through Delhi and flew to Lucknow, but we didn't do much of sight-seeing yet, we wanted to come here first. I don't know, it is kind of weird (a favourite expression in relation to India, it would seem). It feels a bit sad, really -- I mean, we are here and we can see the naked sadhus and those chaps who walk around with little knives pierced into their arms, and all the pilgrims and the elephants wandering around the Mela and all that, but we keep getting the feeling that there is a lot more we are missing out on. They need good guides here, people who know the stories and who can tell us the significance of the things we see."
Ed (pronounced Aid) Brinkkemper, of Zaandam ("That is just outside Amsterdam, our capital," Holland,) has been nodding agreement at various times. For the first time, he chips in with a comment of his own. "Yes, we need people who can tell us things," he says. "We can see but we cannot really understand."
It turns out that Ed is on his 10th -- "and last" -- visit to India. A projects officer in Holland -- "I make sure the company machinery keeps running" -- he has made a practice of coming to India every time he gets a holiday. "It is such a strange place," he says, "so varied, it is like a lot of different countries in one."
And where has he been? "Everywhere," he says. "I have been to the south and the north and to Rajasthan and Kerala and Goa and, you know, I go to a different place every time I come, and spend my time just wandering around."
This time round, Ed is here specifically for the Mela. "I have read so much about it, I thought, I must see it, to complete my India experience, I am staying here for three weeks," says the dreadlocked Dutch back-packer.
And what did you make of it all? "It is like she says," he gestures at Kate and Lisa. "There is this incredible energy, but you are on the outside of it looking in. You can see, but you don't understand..."
There is a wistfulness in the way they say it, about seeing sans understanding. The wistfulness you see on the face of children, gazing at a display of sweets they may not buy. A feeling that they are missing out on something big, hearing the sizzle, even smelling the aroma, without ever getting to eat the steak.
And that wistfulness pours out of them in a stream of questions....
Do you really believe that you can attain salvation by bathing here?
Why do some of these people walk around with knives piercing their arms?
Can anyone become a sadhu?
Why is... what is... where is... how is....
I answer, as best I can. Over many more cups of tea. And leave -- but not before the two Aussie girls take my e-mail address.
"Can we write to you and ask you about things?"
Design and illustration: Dominic Xavier
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