The bare facts

The bare  facts

Self expression: Naga babas assemble for a quick 'ganja’  session before  the ritual bath.  Photos/ Sanjay Austa

As you saunter through the rectangular tented camp to reach the back of the make-shift accommodation, you almost bump into a stark-naked primitive figure bent near a water tap in a corner. With four-foot long braided tresses hung over his face, trunk and back, the dishevelled male is vigorously rubbing ash on his groin and legs. “Baba namaskar. Are you a Naga?” you ask after presenting your credentials. The baba nods and continues to massage residue on his limbs unabashedly. “I am Baba Ramayan Giri from Rae Bareli (Uttar Pradesh). I renounced the world 15 years ago after quitting my job in a footwear factory,” he narrates without any prodding.

“Don’t you feel the cold?” you shoot encouraged by the affable smile of the Naga. “Who says I don’t? But there is no alternate. An ascetic is supposed to bear it,” he claims, picking up the wet dust from near the tap. The massage, he adds, closes the pores on his body and helps him fight the chill in the air. “It works like a blanket,” he declares, unwinding his three-feet-long pleated blonde beard for a rub.

The Nagas collect the ash from a fire pit around which they discuss various issues, pray and smoke marijuana. Besides borrowing warmth from fire and ash rub, the Nagas, says Ramayan Giri, practice different yogic postures and exercises to beat the winter. Due to daily ingestion of marijuana, cannabis leaves and grass, the eyes of Nagas, look burnished yellow.

Giri is soon joined by two other ascetics who became Nagas several years back. Ask them why they are oblivious to the crowd of onlookers despite being naked and they chorus, “Koi hai lakhi, Guru koi hai khaki, Vankhandi van mein tapasya kare (salutations to guruji who is meditating in the forest indifferent to wealth or poverty).”

 The duo claims nudity helps Nagas to be blasé to the material world. Interestingly, only Shree Digambaras, unshaven and carrying swords, among the ascetics live naked around the year. The rest of the Nagas walk naked only for the royal bath during the Kumbh fair.
You enter the next camp and find over a dozen naked ash-smeared Nagas congregated around a fire pit and smoking chillum. They belong to Dada Darbar, a sub sect in Jodhpur, affiliated to Juna Akhara, the largest among the 13 groups of Nagas in the country. Walk another 10 metres into a cramped bylane and you find Naga camps on either side of the squelchy street where hundreds of naked sadhus can be seen puffing out rings of white marijuana smoke. Some of them have foreign hippies for company. The intake of marijuana and grass is attributed to the pursuit of higher consciousness (sleepless sleep in Naga parlance). 

You set foot in a camp on your right and sit behind the congregation of Nagas. Bhairav Giri (30), an ascetic for eight years from Bareli, is in your audible range. “Don’t you get attracted to women?” you somehow gather courage to mumble. “Sab feel hota hai (we feel everything) but we control the urge through dhyan (meditation),” he says after passing the chillum (smoking pipe) to his next colleague.

Naked parade to Ganges
An hour later, the ascetics emerge from their camps led by a music band. Walking in columns led by a charioteer, a horse rider or some elderly man (Acharya Mahamandleshwar) under a much-embellished canopy, their march towards Har-Ki-Paudi, the sacred most bathing ghat on Ganges in Haridwar, for first royal bath, is soaked in as much festivities as the Republic Day parade!

The ghat was believed to have been built by king Vikramditya in the memory of his brother Bharathari. Like the different defence regiments and State pageants which parade during the Republic Day carnival on Rajpath, the Nagas hold aloft their respective flags, proudly swivel their arsenals, make merry and are watched by thousands of onlookers from sidelines and top of nearby buildings.  

But for a difference, the Nagas walk naked with only ash smeared on their bodies and wreaths wrapped around their waists and heads. Also unlike the soldiers who exhibit their modern weaponry, the Nagas flaunt their traditional arms like canes, axes, swords, maces and tridents. They also exhibit their braided tresses, beards, elongated fingernails and martial skills and even yogic postures — elements which make their dash into Har-Ki-Paudi, an exotic, out-of-the-world spectacle. No wonder, the hordes of Indians, NRIs and foreigners flock into Haridwar to be witness.

The 42-day-long Kumbh fair which climaxes on April 28 in Haridwar is organised to commemorate the mythical sprinkling of drops of nectar from a kumbh (pot), Lord Vishnu was trying to protect from the demons. The event takes place after every three years alternately at Ujjain, Allahabad, Nashik and Haridwar, the four places where drops of nectar were supposed to have fallen from the pot.  Har-Ki-Paudi is reserved exclusively for the Nagas on all the three day reserved for royal bath during the Kumbh. The ongoing Kumbh had royal baths earmarked on February 12, March 15 and April 14.

Democratic setup
Shree Digambaras and Digambaras live in caves in Himalayas and at other camps spread in different parts of country and only come down to Haridwar for the bath. In their absence, the sprawling ashrams, temples, orchards and other properties of the akharas are managed by the akharas respective secretaries and shree mahants. The shree mahants and secretaries are elected by a vidhayika (legislature having four to eight members) and are part of karyapalika (executive having four members). Ravinder Puri, the shree mahant of Mahanirvani Akhara and spokesman of Akhara Parishad, an umbrella body of the akharas, says that the akharas also have a wing of nyaypalika (judiciary).
Puri looks after the huge property, including Daksheswara temple of the Mahanirvani Akhara in Kankhal, a town about three kilometers south of Haridwar. “We own 70 percent of Kankhal,” says Puri, who travels in a luxury car and keeps personal security guards. Like Mahanirvani, the other six active akharas — Juna, Avahan, Niranjani, Agni, Atal and Anand — also own assets worth millions of rupees. This often leads to cut-throat rivalry and violent clashes in the akaharas. “There are definitely conflicts over property. Some of the properties get caught into family disputes. (But) crookedness can happen to anybody,” reasons Mahant Kumarananda, a Malaysian businessman, who joined Juna Akhara during Ujjain Kumbh in 2004. Only an ascetic initiated at Allahabad is eligible to be a shree mahant.

Secular in nature
A hitherto lesser-known feature of the akharas is their predominant secular character. Besides the seven active akharas of Digambaras, there are six others, including Lama Math (for Buddhists), Kabir Math (for Sufis) and Sardar Math (for Sikhs)  which have almost shrunk into oblivion over the years. Also the Naga akharas do not lay down a particular spiritual path for their follower and allow him full freedom to choose his path. This makes it possible for diverse gurus like Somnath Giri aka Pilot Baba (he prescribes meditation techniques), Soham Baba (a tantrik baba) and a Russian renamed Vishnu Devanand Giri to be Mahamandleshwars in Juna Akhara.

“There is no structured sadhna in Nagas. They don’t say come and join this path, and provide flexibility. There was not even a rule book. Now Baba Devanand Giri — a former Indian Foreign Service (IFS) officer — has written a rule book,” discloses Kumarananda, a former merchant marine consultant in Malaysia.   

The akharas were established by Adi Shankaracharya in the eighth century AD to protect Hindu pilgrims and ascetics from robbers and other enemies. Shankaracharya divided the Nagas into two categories — Astradharis (weapon holders) and Shastradharis (scripture holders).

Although every akhara is autonomous and has its own secretary and shree mahant (administrative heads), an acharya mahamandleshwar (top religious teacher), in case of a dispute between two akharas or more, Mahant Hari Giri, the national head of all akharas, has a major role to play. The initiation of four categories of ascetics — Naga, Sanyasi, Mahapurush and devotee — take place at the hands of acharya mahamandleshwar during the Kumbh melas, organised at Allahabad, Ujjain, Nashik and Haridwar alternately after every three years.

The distribution of titles — Mahamandleshwar and Acharya Mahamandleshwar — is also done during the Kumbh fair. According to Shree Mahant Ravinder Puri, there are about 150 Mahamandleshwars (35 in Mahanirvani) in all in seven akharas.

An overwhelming majority of Nagas hail from the countryside. The urban youth turns up at Kumbh more out of curiosity to either watch the ‘freak show’ or capture rare shots of the naked ascetics. There are families in the rural belt who donate children to their Naga gurus out of reverence.

You come across many adolescents in Naga camps who were donated by their parents. There are also orphans who land at the akharas because no close relative is prepared to bring them up. In recent years, a number of foreigners have been attracted to the akharas due to their exotic appeal. “There are 15-20 foreign Nagas. This includes the Russian Mahamandleshwar who is constructing 108 temples back home,” claims Mahant Kumarananda.

But the initiation of foreigners into the akharas has also brought into open certain practical difficulties. For one, the foreigners, who are here mostly on tourist visa, are supposed to return to their countries after the expiry of the visa. They end up leaving sadhna and returning to their work. “The new visa regulations have created problems. We are trying to raise it with the government,” says Kumarananda.

During initiation into an akhara, a person is required to attend symbolic funerals (pind daan) of his relatives and his own. He is also rechristened by his guru. However, many of them are called by humourous and ingenious pet names. I got to meet a Pagal Baba, a Danger Baba, a Bartan Baba and even an Albino Baba alias Angrezanandagiri. None of them objected to be called by the epithet.

Does becoming a Naga or Shree Digambara lead to the proverbial moksha, nirvana or liberation? No one knows for sure or would not disclose to a journalist. Many of them do look indifferent to their surroundings but there are also others who seem to savour the publicity.
       

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