In the Land of the Naga Sadhus

Since I was a child, I had this peculiar fascination for Naga Sadhus. Maybe it was the stories I had heard from my grandmother about the struggle they go through and the grit with which they face the hardships of life. Life is a journey from one hardship to the other she would say, and each has a lesson to be learnt from. This is how a human being grows and becomes wise. Long after she had left this planet, I still could not get over the feeling of awe that her stories had instilled in me. So I took it upon myself to visit the MahaKumbh at Allahabad and see the heroes of her stories. I packed my rucksack, filled up my bike and took off from Delhi.

On reaching Allahabad the second evening, with a night halt in Kanpur, I saw the city was awash with Saffron. Sweet houses had sprung up at every corner. People were mostly on foot. It was like a river of villagers, religious men, women, old and young rushing somewhere.Talking to them I gathered few more bits and pieces about these Sadhus and the mystery kept growing. They surely were superheroes to these people. They said, if I got to see a Naga, millions of blessings would fall upon me from the heavens. Now I was even more kicked to get a glimpse of at least one. I dropped into the river of people. Suddenly I was overcome with a feeling of triumph, having reached the place but it was still a battle half won.
Slowly and steadily, keeping up with the flow, I reached the banks of the Ganges. It had become invisible and a mini city of thousands of tents had sprung up there, with every religious sect having their allotted tent settlement. Here they prayed, sang songs, ate, slept, while they waited to take a dip in the Holy river.

The Nagas, I found were to reach the river at 5 a.m. next morning. In the chaos I could not find the Naga settlement and dismayed, stepped into a tea vendour’s stall. I had to have a considerable amount of tea to get most of the information from him but his stories about the Nagas were as good as his tea.

According to Raghu, the tea seller, in the sixteenth century, Madhusudana Saraswati of Bengal got together a section of the Naga (naked) tradition of armed Sannyasis in order to protect Hindus from the tyranny of the Mughal rulers. It is said that the famed Afghan cavalry launched itself against the Nagas only to be met with a wild and reckless counter charge. Fearless of death with utter disregard for their own lives, these men sent the Afghan attackers retreating in confusion and defeat. Reinforced, some time later the Afghans returned and a bitter struggle ensued. Dharma and valour personified, their exploits have even inspired the freedom fighters of the twentieth century standing up against the British rule in India.

After filling me with various stories of the Nagas and my empty cups with fresh tea, Raghu asked me to chill at his stall and wait till the morning.The Nagas, he said, would pass right in front of his stall before they hit the river as they always did. I could not believe my luck and sleep the whole night in anticipation. At the first light of dawn, I saw them at last.

Smeared with ash beyond the boundaries of make-up, they daubed me with that indomitable spirit. Their eyes took me to the realms of the madness they reigned and the recklessness they ruled. With each step they took, faith walked the tight ropes on their head, balancing the act of life and death for them. Adept with living between a rock and a hard place, ever equipped with the tri-shul they could have given the Cro-Magnons a run for their money as well as their lives.

Seeing not just one but a whole army of them in front of me, I suddenly felt raw energy flow through. Like in a trance, I started following their horde to the river and could not help myself meet them personally and share their smoke. Smoking marijuana in a clay pipe called Shivmuli, they say their old friend, Shiva, once came down from the mountains and saved the universe by drinking the whole lot of Halahal (Poison) brought forth by the great churn (SamudraManthan) before the gods and demons could realize the elixir of life (Amrit).

Once Amrit came up from the Manthan, the gods and demons struggled upon which side gets to take the first sip. Midst the hullabaloo it was spilled from the pitcher (Kumbh) on the banks of the river Ganges at Hardwar, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nasik.

In memory of that Holy spill and the melee, a Mela is held at these four places sequentially every three years and each time the stars align themselves, these God-men make it a point to come down and take a plunge in the river along with millions of mortals at the Kumbh.

Being there and hearing the stories of their hardships and their life somehow brought me closer to my grandmother and to life itself. It was as if I was living her story along with her heroes who gave me a true insight, that to understand life one needs to detach one’s self from the feelings and emotions one goes through and look at it as it is, feel it and then let go.

All images contributed by and copyrighted to Niladri Bhattacharji

  • Written byNiladri Bhattacharji

    A vagabond at heart who can’t stay put at one place for a long time. Believes we just get one chance at life hence keeps learning and moving from one thing to the other. Read English Literature in Delhi University for a while, moved on to do a post grad in marketing communications. Somehow worked in advertising for ten years then got bitten by the film making bug, now doing a full time post grad in film editing. A day dreamer, photographer, rock climber and a biker. Plays around half a dozen musical instruments, writes, plans the next travel and just rambles.



    Comment: A great read Niladri. Keep writing


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