#GuestPost Get Local: Sublime snapshots of Stripped-naked Sages at Kumbh Mela

Get your Shiva on,

by Siddharth Lalchandani

There is no greater gathering of Hindu devotees than the Kumbh Mela. Since it was popularized in the 8th century, the festival has garnered local and international fame as the “the world’s most massive act of faith.”

When my camera’s battery ran out, and I no longer had the lens to distance myself from the scene in front of me, the Kumbh experience was even more stunning.

The mela’s venue is decided every 12 years by looking at the astral positions of the Sun, Moon, and Jupiter. A practice that has its roots in ancient lore.

Legend has it that during a war between the devas (gods) and the asuras(demons), droplets of immortality elixir they were fighting over fell on four spots on earth. These places — Ujjain, Nashik, Haridwar, and Allahabad — are considered the holiest centres of Hindu culture.

Kumbh mela #kumbhmela2015 #trishul #shivapower #harharmahadev

A photo posted by Siddharth Lalchandani (@siddharthlphotography) on

This year’s mela was celebrated in Nashik under the western zodiac sign of Leo.

Lakhs of sadhus and thousands of  others come together to take in the energy of pure belief that simply vibrates over the water. Sinners, saints, common folk, and fools alike seek to evolve their spiritual being. Even the wind seemed to imitate their chant “Har har Mahadev,” along with the ever present beat of their drums. I’ve been back in Bombay for weeks, but the sounds still echo in my ears sometimes.

For me, their simple faith that coming together can move mountains is proof that human beings yearn to be driven by powerful forces.  They will continue to do so eons from now: evidence that people need not look further than themselves to find that transcendence.

The holy men at Kumbh mela fascinate everyone, but they intrigue me. Photography is the perfect tool to capture the aura of the mystics, who shy away from any verbal or written form of decoding their ranks. But, faces are not simply facades; they cannot help but reveal. Their faces tell unique stories; each line, every wrinkle cryptic and beautiful.

To an extent, perhaps, the magic of these people resides in my constant awareness that they could live in today’s world of instant gratification, but don’t. They renounce a convenience I take for granted.

At the other end of the spectrum, they choose to follow old arduous ways in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment.

I made it to the mela in time for the second shahi snan, the main bathing day.

The Naga sadhus were bathing the Godavari River, their ashen bodies were naked but for the swords and trishuls that they wielded.

Female Nagas are not as commonly seen. I was lucky enough to meet a four or five at the mela. They were standing no more than a few feet away from me — two of them aged, two young females. As they went about their ritual of bathing, shaving their heads along with their prayers, I could feel the deep bond they shared with each other. They seemed like a family, though, perhaps, they mean something indefinably more to each other.

The Nagas are a sadhu sect as old as the mela itself. They were created as a Hindu army. Almost always heavily armed, to this day they hold retreats called  chhaavni where they mock fight each other with swords, spears and tridents.

Though they have calmed down a great deal, till 60 years ago, it wasn’t unusual to hear of Naga sadhus killing someone even during the mela, which is a congregation for peace.

Nowadays, apart from sporadic allegations of inter-sect violence, the Nagas have even welcomed foreign journalists into their midst during the mela.

“I will always remember this festival as a place where I was surrounded by a number of naked men covered with ashes, living in extreme peace because they belong to a different world,” said French-Spanish war journalist Diego Buñuel who lived with the sadhus for 24 days.

These men are beyond definitions like strange or normal or bizarre. They seem far away from even the  cycle of death and rebirth, Samsāra. Yet, in their dreaded hair and their soiled skin lies the mythological history of India, stories that bind our carnal souls whatever we may be or believe in. Sadly, the Naga sadhus’ population is dwindling — the life of a mystic isn’t easy to sustain in a world intent on taking the mystery out of everything.

I sat with some of them while they smoked a few chillums, which they consider a sacred time. Two of them told me about how Triambakeshwar, the source of the river in which we were bathing,  was connected to the Maha Mritunjanay Mantra: a chant about liberation from the human form.

For them, life is about piercing the thin veil of their skins to reach the indescribable, un-nameable something that makes up the universe. To me, the journey itself sounds like nirvana.

Kumbh mela #kumbhmela2015 #shivapower #harharmahadev #photography #baba#bholenath#blackandwhite

A photo posted by Siddharth Lalchandani (@siddharthlphotography) on

Not all the sadhus are at peace with themselves,  though. Many are mentally deranged from years of hardship, others harbor sorrows beyond comfort or empathy.

A few did ask for money in exchange for being photographed, others like a light-eyed man asked me to take his picture.

Selfies were banned this time around, so this could have been his only chance at a photo, perhaps?

Some of them seemed like gangsters, unable to let go of the warriors they once were; sitting on either side of the river ghat like proud soldiers with no war to fight.

Pyjama side note:

Have you heard about this Rahul Mehrotra guy? He’s running around telling folks how the Allahabad Kumbh, the largest temporary settlement in the world, has a thing or two to teach mega-city planners. He even told Scroll.in that the mela could show a way of moving towards a more (perhaps sustainable?) migratory city in the future. We quote:

“My question is, can one make the temporary more deliberate? Can we build cities where temporary elements are given as much importance as the permanent ones? We need to think of reversibility more strategically when designing our cities for the future.”

  Hippie Harvard professor of our dreams, or what?  

Pyjama contributor:

Sid

Siddharth Lalchandani specialises in portrait photography that captures his subject’s soul, and the viewer’s heart.

Basically, he’s an evil spirit king, so watch out!

See more of his work on his Instagram and Facebook page, or here on PyjamaPeople.

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