With the Babas, Kumbh Mela (Part 2), 13th April 2010, Haridwar, India


“Fear Not. What is not real, never was and never will be. What is real, always was and cannot be destroyed.”  Lord Krishna, Bhagavad Gita

Which begged the question, what is real?  Especially here in the heart of the Kumbh.

All is well and cloaked in a chillum induced fug. Common reality has left these banks of Haridwar for these fleeting moments to be replaced by the sensibilities and traditions of the Hindu sadhus; the ceremony and mysticism of these ancient ascetics, who are standard bearers of the ancient traditions of Hinduism that have profoundly influenced all religions and societies for possibly the last 12,000 years.

Bearded and beaming, we pass the chillum (ceremonial clay pipe) around fires; dried chillies are scattered on the embers, pujas (prayers) are offered to the Gods and the arrival of old friends seems the only distraction from the circle of energy that binds it all together.

Chillie Puja offered to Ajni

This festival of love, the Kumbh Mela 2010, seems to be building a sense of purpose and focus.  The air is charged with something.  We are gaining an insight an older form of perception here, just by experiencing this rarefied atmosphere, all is change for a time.  Many insights come without words, but many colours and only fleeting, normally erratic, movements.  The charras lifting us up.  Higher.

This focus will lead us soon (nobody seems to know when, but soon) to the great parade.  The mass procession and festivities, a volatile torrent of Shiavite Babas (sadhus) and diverse army of spiritual sorts; mendicants and hermits, holy men and celebrity gurus, some clutching swords reciting incantations, trance like.

A cast of millions whipped up for weeks into a religious fervour, a sublime devotion to Shiva and the divine, that will lead us to the shores of the holy Ganga and a chilled bath.  The water is icy, yet the air is scorching.

This mighty Goddess river, that supposedly flows from Shivas matted locks. From its source of Gaumukh in the Himalayan highlands, meandering through countryside and city until the fertile Bengali delta.  This Gangetic plain, the fertile cradle of so much ancient history.  Every inch of this river is sacred, every inch offering a rebirth of hope for Hindus.  These riversides where millions have prayed; made pilgrimages, ablutions and offerings, and ultimately returned to as ash having left their bodies.  It is said that if a vile of water from the Ganga is held by a Hindu, they cannot tell a lie (this could solve much, especially in the political arena!).  No river in the world is so revered.

We are somewhere in the vast network of camps and ashrams, temporary homes for the millions, that has been here for weeks.  Most ashrams are supported by donations from rich, city based devotees.  The charras (a form of pure, handmade hashish) is mainly free to the Babas.  Tonnes of the stuff is supplied by the government and transported to the Kumbh in large military wagons.

The consumption of charras is an integral part of the Shiavite Babas worship.  Shiva was the greatest yogi and loved nothing more than disappearing into the Himalayas for years, smoking charras in caves and meditating.  He is the alpha male rogue of the Hindu Gods.

Shiva Shamboh!

The Babas seem to spend alot of time visiting old friends and catching up on gossip and goings on.  Many Babas live in very remote areas and this is their only chance, once every twelve years, to re-connect with old friends.  They jump from camp to camp, all wearing their own style of Sadhu couture, all looking like a cast of ascetics who have wandered in from the old deserts of Sinai.

These are the men who could have inspired Jesus and Buddha (and many more who claim to be prophets) to follow the path of renunciation and set off on pilgrimages, living the life of a hermit.  For only with great silence of mind and detachment; great liberation and stillness in life, can the real treasures of being be unearthed.  The treasures that are on show in many of these mens eyes and actions.

“When the sage climbs the heights of Yoga, he follows the path of work; but when he reaches the heights of Yoga, he is in the land of peace.”  Lord Krishna,

Night falls over the Kumbh, no signs of modernity to light the way here (bar the occasional hanging light bulb).  Vision is made possible by the blue moonlight, as we pick a path through the melee of sleeping bodies and wide-eyed night wanderers.  From what appears to be a pile of orange rags, comes a bejewelled trident, thrust in our direction with a barked warning.  The Kumbh never sleeps.

Naga babas

We find ourselves led to a small corrugated iron hut, attached to a large billowing tent.  The type of tent you’d imagine Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta would have been accustom to.  I am then sat below a much revered Baba, with tiny sticks for legs that hang lifelessly as he swings on a chained plank hung above a ceremonial fire.  His body, like a sparrow, wrapped in greying rags.  His white beard cascades down, his eyes are translucent opal plates.

There is a hushed atmosphere of curiosity surrounding or presence, furtive glances are exchanged and hands are cupped to shield whispers.  There is the occasional muffled giggle.  Nobody speaks out.  The fire pit is surrounded by an assortment of Babas in clouds of heavy chillum smoke.  The one sitting opposite seems to be turning into a woman!  He has breasts and regularly flutters his eyelashes in my direction.

A large crowd of devotees sit and watch on, I imagine some had rarely seen such funny looking folk as us.  Ravi later told me that the swinging Sadhu lives in a small corrugated iron lean-to in a bus station in Lucknow.  He is, what you may call, the real deal.

(Ravi is a lovely fellow.  He spends six months a year riding his Enfield around India and smoking with Babas, hence his familiarity with many.  The other six months he bakes goodies for stoned travellers on the beaches of Gokana.  He is from a family of Brahmins (the highest caste, generally richer men well-educated in the Hindhu scriptures and traditions) and is a very chilled and blessed companion/ part-time guide in this adventure.  Helping our gang to make some sense of it all.)

An elderly Baba; with the screwed up face of a happy child, hair to his waist and perfectly circular bald spot, sits to my left.  Below the dangling legs and the swing.  His eyes are closed in deep meditation, yet each time the chillum is passed, he reaches out instinctively and accepts it with a sudden yelp.  He bellows the 101 names of Shiva in a guttoral howl prior to taking a giant lungful of charras.  Then passes it to me.  Difficult to follow such a performance.

The first time this happened, I almost leapt on the fire in sheer terror.  The small man could wail.  I felt hundreds of eyes focusing on me, as I fiddle with the pipe, recovering my composure.  Still a fumbling novice, but attempting to be respectful.  I gave it a good suck and hoped not to cough my lungs up again.

The roof is low, the smoke burns my eyes……are my eyes open or closed?….I feel a poke on the shoulder, it’s the kindly child face of the howling Baba offering me steaming clay cup of creamy chai.  During my time at the Kumbh, I only ever felt at home.  Each ashram we visited, we were treated like lost friends.

From the darkness outside the tent, many small bells begin to clang in unison and we all stood up and shuffle outside.  A hushed exodus to prayer.  A large crowd of sadhus from the ashram had gathered, wrapped in blankets to beat the cold night air.  We all sang and chanted before an altar as the Brahmins, with painted chests and shaved heads; lit candles and wafted incense smoke over the many golden idols.  Constantly arranging and re-arrange garlands.  Blessings were offered with milk and sweets as we began to make our way around the wooden shrine in a clockwise fashion.  We all acquiesce, maybe in a trance.

After what seemed like an age, we decided to stretch our legs and leave the warm fireside of the swining Baba.  We said our goodbyes and they seemed genuinely sorry to see us go.

It was late and the paths were filled with characters.  They surfaced out of the night, whooping ghoul-like figures glowing with white ash and blood-red eyes, receded into shadows.  We were told that one emaciated chap had been sitting cross-legged, in the same spot by the road for months meditating.  Some had bury their heads in earth.  Some had broad swords embedded in their arms and monkey tails hanging from their rectums.  Yes, these paths are filled with characters.  I felt suddenly exhilerated.  Where would they lead us next?  (See part 3)

Baba looks on

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