Thursday, April 28, 2016

Xtra ordinarily Unusual occupation – The Naga sadhus

X tra ordinarily Unusual occupation – The Naga sadhus 

It is late winter afternoon on the banks of river Ganges in Varanasi.  On the long and ancient Ghats along the river  are overwhelmed tourists clicking away pictures, local washer men washing the clothes at the dhobi ghat, the milkmen washing their buffaloes at the Gaay Ghat, the boatmen on a siesta on their boats, young boys from the streets above playing cricket with a cricket ball that would float if it were to be hit for a sixer and would drop into the river . Then there is the lonesome traveler strumming a guitar joined by a stranger, yet another lonesome traveller from elsewhere singing or playing along.
Ok. I will spare you my description.
Watch this video because they say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Down the stairs at the river bank a group of men are bathing in the river. They are stark naked.  A few minutes later, they sit up on the banks and smear a thick paste of ash all over their freshly bathed wet body.   I move on although I am intrigued. 

I pass by yet another ghat. Two ash smeared men are sitting by the corner near a small shrine under a Banyan tree where some monkeys are running amok chasing each other. The two ash smeared men sit on the floor on a soft red rug that has been spread out. 

It is nearly impossible not to attract attention. I am aware I could be rude if I clicked a picture particularly in this case as one of them was naked sitting cross legged smeared completely in ashes. His hair is all matted and so is his beard. I am emboldened a little bit and decide to take a chance and discreetly click his picture on my mobile phone from a distance. 

It is after all a public place and there are plenty of onlookers, I reason out to myself.

 The Naga Sadhu is quick to sense my cheekiness and makes eye contact with me. I am  embarrassed and slightly scared. He calls out to me and asks me to come and sit down with him and have a chat.

My head tells me to run as quickly and as far away as possible. 
My heart tells me not to be silly and  to stop by.

This is a classic case of me against myself 

You-are- responsible-for –your-own- safety-don’t- you make-a fool-of- yourself says the head.
You-were-always-intrigued-about-Nagasadhus-and-they- cannot- be- that- dangerous-anyway- it-is- a-public- place argues the heart.

Eventually the me against myself tussle is going on and my heart and the head are at loggerheads, intrigued and emboldened, I slowly inch forward towards them despite that head- heart tussle going on inside me. 

I walk towards him and stand at a reasonable distance refusing to sit down on the sheet spread out in front of him. 

To do that would be to acknowledge being his guest. 

There is another European man, possibly stoned with marijuana who was sitting at the farthest corner cross legged on the sheet.

The Naga baba embarrassingly reads out my mind. 'You must be feeling uneasy and wondering if it is safe to be here at all. There is really no need to worry. You and we are not that dissimilar. We all came from the ashes and will ultimately dissolve into the ashes. That is what all this is all about', he says showing his ash smeared face and body.

He asks me where I come from and I reply in a monosyllable as though I was a nervous kid being interviewed for school admission. 

'You must be thinking you came here buying yourself a ticket. That is true, but only at a physical level. In reality it is the Ganga mata, Mother Ganga who beckoned you here. It is she who has beckoned all of us here'. 

He goes on and talks about the world and his penance in the Himalayas near a glacier where he stood one legged for months together. As much as it is supposed to be  conversation, it is almost a monologue and I am listening to him with rapt attention.  

A while later he passes on to me a CD case . On the cover is his photograph standing one legged, bare foot amidst snow in what looks like a Himalayan mountain. 

'Naked in Ashes' is the name of the documentary that featured him and the tells the story of the initiation of one of his disciples, a fourteen year old boy, into the sect of Naga sadhus. The documentary shot in 2005 went on to win many international awards. 

Naga Sadhus are a sect of monks who have renounced all the worldly pursuits. They are followers of the ascetic Shiva the Hindu god of destruction. They smear themselves in ashes and live more or less naked.  They rarely appear in public but have known to attract attention particularly those of photographers during Kumbh mela, a Hindu pilgrimage that takes place once every twelve years  at various places on holy River banks. 

In the Himalayas particularly near Gaumukh, the Gangotri glacier, from where the River Ganga originates, is supposed to be the abode of Lord Shiva.  It is in these mountains amidst the cold Icy Glaciers that the Naga Sadhus are known to meditate in different postures.  They liberally smoke Marijuana and drink an intoxicant known as Bhaang following the footsteps of  their  god Shiv Bholenath who is also believed to smoke Marijuana. On his wedding day celebrated as Shivaratri among the believers, the potent intoxicating drink made of local herb the  Bhaang is distributed freely across to devotees who throng his temple.
A couple of days from then would be Shivaratri.  The auspicious day when the Ascetic Shiva marries Parvati his consort.  At Kashi which is Lord Shiva’s abode is the Kashi Viswanath temple, where thousands of devotees would throng on this auspicious occasion to seek the Lord’s blessings where he is consecrated in the form of a Linga - a stone in the shape of a phallus. The Naga Sadhus from the Himalayas were congregating at Kashi for this occasion.

When the Naga Sadhus are not meditating somewhere in the Himalayas, and when they are at pilgrimage centers they appear in public places and devotees throng to seek their blessings.  The devotee gives in donation the money that is then used to undertake pilgrimages, renovate temples, build Shrines and perhaps buy some Marijuana when it is not freely available in bushes and shrubs unlike in the foothills of Himalayas.  It takes a lot of tests and tribulations to follow the path of a Naga Sadhu and ultimately to be initiated into the sect.

I am amazed by the boldness and the sheer confidence with which the Naga sadhu was striking conversation with everyone.  His conversations are in Hindi and English.  His name, I would learn later is Naga Sadhu Shivraj Giri. The man who was fixing his chillum, an earthern pipe filled with marijuana was his understudy.  

The CD case that he has passed on to me is about a Documentary made by Paula Fouce who followed the Naga Sadhus to the Himalayas, particularly the fourteen year old who was getting initiated into the sect.  On the cover is the photograph of Naga Sadhu Shivraj Giri standing one legged atop the snow peaked mountain. 

Naga Sadhu Shivraj Giri is angry with the makers of the documentary, since he feels they used him, and his youngest understudy and his eight year penance that went into making that documentary. According to him he did the film to dispel the myth of Naga sadhus and to spread the truth about ‘Sanatana Dharma’ to the world. Instead of giving credit to him and his sect, these people have gone on to make crores of rupees after the documentary became a hit  (Knowing the economic factors involved in the business of documentary film making, I think crores of rupees is an unfair exaggeration … But I let it pass)      

Suddenly the men sitting by the side who double up as touts or boatmen in the evenings indulge him and tell him he should legally sue the makers of the documentary. It is evident that they are enjoying taking a shot at him and provoking the Naga Baba. 

He suddenly gets agitated and shouts at the man who is prodding him, by calling him a errr ...certain-anatomical-description-of-a-part-of-his-mother’s-body-followed-by-his-sister’s. 

I am a little taken aback.  This is very contrary to what I believe saints would behave like. A little startled, my lady-like upbringing feels uneasy and rouses the dormant feminist in me. The fact that his foul language has made him fall down in my eyes is evident to the Naga Baba. As if he were reading my mind he goes on to say there is nothing bad nor good in the world. All this chaos in the world has been created by our ‘andha vishwas’ blind beliefs. 

I fail to understand the connection between foul language and blind beliefs and feel he is being incoherent probably because of the effect of the marijuana. Possibly he wanted to say 'moral perspective' or some such thing.  

A Russian couple passes by and the Naga Sadhu waves at them. They come closer to where we are,  fold their hands in front of the Naga sadhu as if they were greeting him and take leave to move on. “The awareness about Sanatana Dharma’ is now slowly spreading in Russia as well, he tells me, after they have left.

The stoned European who was sitting expressionless all this while is now hungry and Naga Sadhu calls for some food for him. There are two huge two litre bottles of packaged mineral water in front of him. Soon some hot khichdi and subji arrives in a steel plate fetched by a young and modernly dressed man and is served to the European. Naga Baba realizes that the European would not be able to eat that semi liquid food with his bare hands and summons for a spoon. A spoon is nowhere to be found and someone brings in a dry Banyan leaf rolled up to eat the semi-liquid khichdi.

Meanwhile the Baba pulls up another deep puff from his pipe of marijuana and resumes his conversation with me.

My heart and my head are still at logger heads. The head pleads with me to leave the place at the next possible excuse and the heart nudges me to stay on.

Naga Baba man is interesting to listen to. Arguably he is a little incoherent, boastful and pompous. He uses the foulest of language at the slightest of provocation, but at the same time he is exceedingly funny. From a different perspective I have to admit he is also very profound and brutally honest. Most importantly he is a mind reader. There is no doubt he is seeing through what is going on in my mind as though it were a transparent glass. And he makes no bones out of it. He has probably seen many skeptics like me intrigued by the way of life that these naked sadhus lead. 

 He is sitting cross legged and right in front of me at what I deem to be a safe distance. He shifts his legs and I cannot but shift my eyes away after I notice that his private parts are exposed. In a flash of a second, perhaps embarassed, I turn my eyes away. Since then my eyes are shifty and I am being careful not to be caught in that embarrassing position again. I look into his eyes and intently listen to his conversation on all worldly matters. The state of the rivers, the receding water tables, the current avatar in which god has come to earth and the relentless Human greed that will cause a huge disaster soon enough.   

He calls for some more chillum -  the pipe filled with marijuana and his understudy gets busy preparing one. In between all this conversation, perhaps sensing my uneasiness, he summons his understudy and asks him to get his langot- the loin cloth. The understudy goes around to fetch some marijuana, but forgets to get his langot. He reprimands him for his forgetfulness and asks him to get his Langot.  

The Langot a piece of white cotton cloth is drying out in the sun closer to the river bank. When the understudy fetches it to him it is crisp and white as if it were a freshly starched  piece of cloth. He carefully folds it into a long loin cloth and wraps it around his waist without shifting his legs. 

Meanwhile his monologues are on, interspersed by my monosyllabic answers to his questions. A crowd of curious onlookers have gathered up. His talk is interesting and engrossing and people stop by to listen to him for a few minutes and then move on. This has been going on for a couple of hours. He talks with me in Hindi and intermittently in English. He is boisterous, pompous about his abilities, his powers and unabashedly argumentative with anyone who challenges anything he says.

So far I haven’t taken any chances to counter his statements but the boatman sitting on the bench with his back to the wall by the temple is constantly ridiculing him with a smirk or a laugh and provoking him onto controversial conversations.

We are talking about how the makers of the documentary have made name, fame and money in the name of these Naga sadhus. He takes a deep puff into his pipe of Chillum. He is not anymore angry with the makers of the documentary as he was about a couple of hours earlier.  

He calmly says that money or fame are of no use to him. If he wanted money he would summon his powers and money would come knocking. He once needed money to renovate an ancient Shiva temple in the Himalayas that was in a dilapidated state. He came down to civilization possibly to Haridwar where he thought he would go begging and ask for donations to renovate the temple. 'But I probably smoked too much of chillum like today and totally forgot about it' he says, laughing unto hinself and then briefly pauses. 

'It was then that suddenly a white woman from some country came around and silently put some money in mys kamandal. (The begging bowl). I thought it would be a few ten or hundred rupee notes, but no... they turned out to be dollars. A lot of dollars. More than enough for the pursuit that I had set forth for. Now if this wasn’t Shiv Bholenath’s miracle, what was it?, he asks as if to prove his point.

He says their occupation is not to go begging, neither are they the cult that is seeking attention. We are like anyone of you , he emphasizes once again. 

I am a brahmchari, he tells me. 

No sure if I have understood the sanskrit word for celibate, he explains in English, ' I am nebher habing sex'. (sic)

Naga Sadhus are celibate and take the vow of celibacy to preserve their veerya – the life giving energy in the form of semen to seek a higher form of consciousness. 

It is therefore that he claims that he can do yogic postures and stand in a single posture for days together. Most popular among his public display of his seemingly bizarre powers is when he pulled a jeep filled with people with his Penis in front of the Indian Parliament. 

It is now my time to speak. The chillum pipe has been doing multiple rounds. 

'Baba, from what I understand, to excel in Yoga you need to be free of intoxicants. Even tea and coffee can cause havoc. How is it that you pull it all off, I ask, while he takes a break. 

He ties up his loin cloth, steps aside near the wall and spits what I assume was tobacco or weed and comes back to his position. He now takes a deep puff of the chillum from the earthern pipe that has also been passed around to his understudy and the onlookers alike. The place is dense with the smoke and the smell is intense. Later I would  associate this to be the smell of marijuana. 

Me against myself is creeping up again ...

The head is now crying out just-get- the-hell- out-of- here- before-you get-into-any-sort of-trouble.
But then I am at a public place, reasonably in my senses. The smoke of marijuana is dense. I am passively smoking it . Its effect has not got on to me, well ... it has not yet got on to me, but-it-may-get-on-to-you-and-you-will-never-know says the head. 

Naga Baba keeps the conversation on, while he orders for tea. Considering all that has been going on in my head, I, perhaps in a slightly over defensive tone say I do not drink tea and open my bottle of mineral water and start sipping. 

Naga Baba is a very reasonable host. Sensing that I am still a little distrustful of their clan and fearing that the drink might be spiked, he says calmly, perhaps a little mockingly, ' We are having tea; do not worry if you do not want to have with us, that is fine as well' 

I know he has read my thoughts once again.

The smell of Marijuana around the place is getting dense and the chillum is passed around once again. I take my cue and decide to leave. A young man dressed in black T-shirt and jeans who prepared their Chillum some time ago, now pulls up on his Android phone the youtube video of the trailer of the documentary the ‘Naked in ashes’.

I watch a few minutes of the trailer of the documentary that shot Naga Sadhu Shivraj Giri to his 15 minutes of worldwide fame. The connectivity on his mobile phone is intermittent. I promise to look it up on you tube and also watch the entire Documentary when I get home and take leave.

The Naga baba raises his hand to bless me and I instantly know I have made a friend. 
An 'X'traordinarily unusual friend ...

Although it may give you an entirely different perspective of the Naga Sadhus from what I have experienced and written over here please go ahead and watch this 113 minute documentary 'Naked in Ashes' through this youtube link.

Well … did they not say it takes all kinds to make the world?

To be continued :
Y- Yogis and Sadhus from the Himalayas 

This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.


  1. This is all a million miles from the world I am used to seeing; a world where the acquisition of money and material things rules; a world that I fear is spreading from its traditional home in north America and Europe and taking over the world.
    To describe what I am seeing here as a refreshing change does not do it justice.

    Keith Channing A-Zing from

  2. Awesomee post Jayanthi. WoW! You've travelled a lot and got the dare in writing such a beautiful tale about the Sadhus. I will not judge them but I feel though there might be Bol Bachchan, deep there are a few lessons to learn from them. What an incredible theme for A to Z.


  3. Forgot to add, the music is soothing and spiritual...I wanna visit the Ghats once in my life:)

  4. Forgot to add, the music is soothing and spiritual...I wanna visit the Ghats once in my life:)

  5. very interesting read. Well written. Liked it immensely. Keep it up

  6. Thanks for sharing nice information with us. i like your post and all you share with us is uptodate and quite informative, i would like to bookmark the page so i can come here again to read you, as you have done a wonderful job.
    lock n load pipe


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