/ 18 January 2007

Sadhus showcase spirit, eccentricity of India fest

Surrounded by throngs of Hindu pilgrims at India’s biggest religious gathering, holy man Kanhaiya Lal Maharaj says he has balanced a water pitcher on his head for 24 years and has the dent in his skull to prove it.

”This is a moving temple, like a mobile phone,” he said, perched on a stool and showing the pitcher to onlookers. Laughing, he lowered his shaved head to show an unmistakable indentation in his skull where the pitcher had been placed.

Maharaj shuffled in circles and chanted prayers to streams of pilgrims walking to the sacred Ganges river in India’s northern Allahabad city to wash away their sins in the six week-long Ardh Kumbh Mela, or Half Pitcher festival.

More than 80% of India’s one billion people are Hindus, many of them deeply religious despite an increasingly Westernised middle class.

The festival, held every three years, is marked by the simple rituals of millions of Indians who bathe in the Ganges after sometimes having travelled hundreds of kilometres, often filling up a small pot with sacred water to take back to ill relatives.

But much of the colour, eccentricity and, for many Indians, the spiritual heart of the Kumbh Mela are the thousands of ”sadhus”, or holy men dressed in saffron robes like Maharaj, who gather from all over India, some setting up temporary temples.

Many like to show off their talents: one sits on a swing made of nails above a fire for weeks, another holds an arm — now withered — above his shoulders.

Many sadhus have even made the Guiness Book of Records — including for one for continuously standing for 17 years. He reportedly slept while leaning against a plank.

Out of this world

”This festival is the world’s biggest gathering of sadhus,” said Surinder Nath, head of Delhi University’s anthropology department. ”They come from all over India, some from caves in the Himalayas. For Indians these are saints who can help them, whether to bring rains or cure illnesses.”

”Some by carrying out these eccentric practices are trying to show that they can overcome worldly restrictions and control their bodies in ways which we can’t,” he said.

Having renounced the material world in the hope of breaking the cycle of life and death, the holy men pray, take offerings from followers, meditate and offer cures for illnesses.

”I have had experience with sex, drugs and political activism and today all these things don’t matter to me,” said Ram Puri, a California-born sadhu who came to India over 30 years ago with $20 in his pocket and now has a website and a book.

While sadhus have a huge following, especially in rural India, some pilgrims criticise them for being too showy and profiting from their roles.

The Naga sadhus sect — naked apart from ash rubbed into their skin and who lead a ”royal” ritual bath into the Ganges — must declare themselves officially dead before becoming holy men because they are considered to have conquered earthly life.

The Naga sadhus are fiercely competitive and different groups of followers compete — sometimes coming to blows — for the right to be the first in the Ganges.

During the ”Royal Bath” — one of the most important of the ritual dips at the festival — sadhus with long batons threatened outsiders trying to bathe with a beating.

”There’s a lot of show here. There are lots of people trying to get publicity or make money,” said 32-year-old Dace Exermala, a Latvian pilgrim who sat around a fire with the smell of cannabis heavy in the air.

”But you can feel the spirituality here,” he said. – Reuters