On the face of it lounging on the ground surrounded by stark naked men, sharing a chillum pipe of dubious origin might not sound like a particularly spiritual pastime, but in India, anything is possible. India is renowned for its massive festivals. Forget the Hajj, the Kumbh Mela festival attracts sometimes tens of millions of people, yet seems to often pass without raising more than a flutter in the international media. This immense festival happens on a twelve year schedule, in one of four different locations in India. Every twelve years or so it comes back to the same location. The most auspicious is known to Hindus as Prayag (Allahabad) and every twelve Prayags is the most auspicious of all – happening every 144 years and being known as a Maha Kumbh. India being India there are also Ardh Kumbhs (every six years), but for us Kumbh aficionados, these don’t really count.
These festivals are attended by thousands of sadhus, of holy men, who have renounced all material possessions and walk around naked, covered only in ash from fires and sporting long matted dreadlocks. These are the extreme end of Hinduism. Many of them are trained in martial arts, and perform astonishing acts of self-mortification. Some perform standing penances where they are on their feet for years at a time. Others will hold their hands in the air for many years until they shrivel. They are a fascinating, if unpredictable and unfathomable group of people, and a living link with the great religious and spiritual history of India.
I have been to three Kumbh Melas, including the last Maha Kumbh in 2001, where the numbers peaked at nearly 35 million on the most auspicious day. Although it is probably considered bad blog-etiquette, this story of mine says more about the experience and about spending time with than I can fit in here.
Many writers get hooked on India – especially British writers. India and Britain are still endlessly fascinated with each other – a bit like a relationship that has ended, but where each partner just can’t quite move on. We have each influenced the other in so many ways. British influences on India are well-known: language, cricket, railways, bureaucracy and the legal system. Yet India still has a great influence on the UK. Many words have crossed back into English – bungalow, jodhpurs, pyjamas, loot, thug and even juggernaut all have their roots in the sub-continent. Indian food is supremely popular in the UK. There are apparently more Indian restaurants in London than in Delhi, and statistically our post popular dish is not Roast Beef any more, but Chicken Tikka Masala. The greatest influence though has been in the immigration of so many people from the sub-continent into the UK who have brought excelled in many fields from medicine to commerce and from culture to cuisine and have made this country richer in so many ways.
One great writer, who often writes about India is William Dalrymple. Dalrymple has written a number of books that feature India, including The Age of Kali and City of Djins, but you can read some of his work on the Travel Intelligence website. Travel Intelligence website, amongst them Among the Sadhus, The Gangesand Primate Suspect: The Terrorist Apes of Jaipur.
Dalrymples work is phenomenally researched and characterised by well observed dialogue – an example of proper writing in a field so often swamped with waffled first impressions, clichés and hyperbole.
Words and images of sadhus © Steve Davey/stevedavey.com