Time has done little to fade my memories of the 2003 Kumbh Mela in Nashik
The spectacular religious event is back to keep its date with Nashik after 12 years and I for one, will be one of the millions thronging the Ram Kund and the Brahmagiri Hills in the coming days to see what weird-ass-bat-shit-crazy things are in store for me this time. Although this time I have an agenda; which is to trace and say hello to the dreadlocked, naked Naga Sadhu, who had let me stay with him and his followers.
Flashback: A stoned and soul-searching ride spanning four states that culminated in a ceremony initiating me and a friend into a Naga community at the foot of Brahmagiri Hills in Nashik briskly describes my Kumbh Mela experience of 2003.
The steps leading to the top of Brahmagiri Hills
An insightful week with the Naga community still lingers as one of my craziest travel experience--after all—it’s not routine to chill out with the dreaded ash-smeared holy men, let alone eat and sleep with them for days together. And where else can you light up a doobie in front of cops and they don’t give a damn.
That I had dumped my casual wear for saffron clothes to be and feel like one of them might have helped too.
Our—saffron Mundu and Veshti-- did grab the attention that assured a roof for the night from the August rain as the Nagas who found our appearance suspicious and curious signaled us into their shed for further inquiry.
Seated on a wooden bench with crystal eyes piercing out of an ash-smeared face adorned with long matted locks dangling towards the small of his back and a penis ring, the chief Naga baba--or Maharaj as his peers address him--listened to us as we explained our impromptu trip here.
Without any further ado he invited us to stay the night after a journey that started from Coimbatore through Kozhikode, Ahmedabad, Pune, Nashik and Trimbakeshwar, the destination we vaguely had in mind. A Bihari convict too was staying there who had been given shelter just like us.
“Bam Bam Bholenath,” the Maharaj cried out in salutation to Lord Siva, as he heavily pulled every ounce of smoke from his wooden chillum. He was flanked by a dozen or so saffron clothed Nagas who followed suit uttering the prayer with the Maharaj’s name tailing behind.
“Bam Bam Bholenath Kashivishwanath Maharaj,” the chorus echoed into the smoky wet night.
When you’re in Rome, be a Roman. Hence, when you’re at Kumbh, be a sadhu, for a more authentic experience.
A Shaivite Sadhu
As the days numbered, we too got used to the Naga routine except for waking up for their pre-sunrise prayers, for obvious reasons. They are fine with that. But there are certain rules or codes that you warm up to for a peaceful co-existence them.
I had to eat every bit of the scrumptious vegetarian spread I was given because they hate wasting food and I had to help them with some of their daily chores. I mean, why not, I was staying rent-free with a mountain view from where the second largest river Godavari originates, I was well-fed thrice a day and to top it off, I had access to some premium hash and ganja from different corners of the country, no questions asked.
Staying with the Nagas I got used to the idea that people--the crowd of pilgrims from different part of the country thronging to attend this spectacular spiritual Woodstock-- treat the Nagas with respect, almost god like, most of them out of fear. An old man even touched my feet thinking I was a Naga before I could stop him.
I encountered village and small town folks scurrying in and out of our shed bowing down to the trident and sometimes offering money and even ganja, as their eyes scuttled trying to comprehend the holy tribe or apprehending some kind of wrath from them. It is only during Kumbh these religious conduits interact with the masses and the latter’s apprehension arrives out of the mystical element surrounding this tribe with a license to toke.
The Nagas on the other hand have their don’t-mess-with-us reputation and do not think much of the rest of the world and its people and has no aversion to the concept of money, as far as I understood. But they are a peaceful lot in their own world, maybe because of all the ganja they smoke ceaselessly and the prayers and penance they practice.
A pilgrim praying to Hanuman carved on the mountain
After sundown the Maharaj and his followers gather around with stories and general chit chats galore. Chillums were doing rounds till eventually the tales got as hazy as the room we sat in.
When you have a rapport going with a holy man, there are many thoughts and questions that could use some answers: Are there really powerful Sadhus deep in the mountains? Are there people who have defied mortality? Do you guys do Tapas and other deep meditation? Questions like that.
My faint memory recalls stories about 300-400 year old Sadhus deep in the Himalayas, a Sanyasi with knowledge of alchemy, Sadhus with no communication with the outside world and so on...The Maharaj himself claims to meditate without food and water for 15-20 days in the forests, even during the winter.
“People wash away their sins in the holy river and we take our holy baths in the river during certain dates to soak up all that sin,” the Maharaj said metaphorically in answer to one of my queries.
The (Sinhasta) Kumbh Mela is held in Nashik every twelve years as it rotates along a three year cycle across four places, the other three being Allahabad, Haridwar and Ujjain.
History states that Nashik is one of the four places where the ‘elixir of immortality’-the amrit-fell to earth while the gods and demons were going at it.
Sculpture of a Sadhu on the hilltop
The holy town of Trimbakeshwar—a 45 minute ride from Nashik—is the den of Shaivites and houses one of the 12 Jyotirlingas in India. Godavari too originates from the Brahmagiri hills here. While Shaivites take to the hills most of the Vaishnavites in their white dhotis hang around the Ramkund in Nashik city.
Before my tryst with the Nagas I had bumped into a Vaishnavite in the city whose intention was to hustle me for some cash. He had dazzled me with his David Blainesque sleight of hands but unfortunately for him, I didn’t have much money to spare in the first place.
As the days passed the weed kept flowing in, the lump of charas (hash) next to the Maharaj kept shrinking in size. There was a case of a runaway teenager who sought asylum to become a Sadhu and was promptly shooed away by the Nagas. In another incident an Australian documentary film maker became the butt of Naga ridicule till the filmmaker finally gave up his intention of getting them on video.
He will shoot us, make a film and make money, but what will we get out of that, the Maharaj had scoffed.
After a week passed, we decided it was time to exit, but not before we were initiated into their community, the Atal Akhara, as some kind of unofficial members.
The ritual included a pooja, chopping a lock of my hair, wearing a Panchmukhi Rudraksha that was deftly threaded by the Maharaj himself and ended with him whispering a mantra in both my ears. In hindsight and even back then, I feel that episode was a potently concocted hour of confusion: Lost in a sense of wonder, I went along, without ever really knowing what the hell was going on.
One of the three hilltop temples
Now, 12 years on, I’m not sure of what’s in store as the Kumbh Mela unfolds this month in Nashik and Trimbakeshwar.
But I will definitely be on the lookout for Pandit Kashivishwanath Maharaj, mainly because I still need some questions answered; still have some loose ends to be tied up although I sometimes wonder if it may just be better not to meddle with things I don’t really understand.
Words and Photography: Mohan KK