Saddhus gather in their millions to bathe in the Ganges

When it comes to curious habits, Amar Bharti has perhaps one of the strangest. In 1970s he raised his right arm 90 degrees into the air and decades on it’s still up there. His fingers have long since withered through misuse and his knuckles are white with rot, while his nails have grown long, gnarled and twisted.

At 63 most men think of retirement, of taking up sedentary hobbies that fill their twilight years. Of DIY, pond fishing, even gardening. But not Bharti. Naked and smeared in wood ash, he coquettishly flicks back his long, white dreadlocks and takes another huge lungful of hash from his wooden chilum.

Bharti’s declining years will be spent living in the Himalayan cave that’s been his home for almost four decades. He’ll continue to cadge his food from the local villagers and his hash from the local government and when the grim reaper finally calls him to account, his body will be burnt and his ashes cast into the River Ganges. But talk of retirement is of little consequence to Bharti because as one of India’s most respected monks, or Saddhus, he is already dead.

I hate festivals. Makeshift cities of tents and squalor, where legions of hedonists make out for a few days with an ardour bordering on the religious, while espousing alternative everythings. Like casual sex, it’s over in a jiffy and not to be taken too seriously.

Saddhus, however, are deadly serious about festivals and sex and once every12 years they preside over the mother of all gatherings on the northern Indian plains where the Ganges spills out of the Himalayas. Last April eight million celibate Saddhus and pilgrims flocked to the dusty, featureless town of Haridwar, population 25,000, for the last Hindu festival or Khumbh Mela of the millenium.

Devotees treked vast distances on spiritual sojourns to sing, bathe and even die in the holy river. In Haridware human waves gridlocked the tiny streets and bazaars, being nimbly pushed aside by garishly painted elephants carrying nonchalant mahouts. Naked holy men smeared in grey wood ash argued with panicked militia men who blew on whistles and clutched ancient Lee Enfield rifles. Untouchable gypsies hawked incense and holograms of ganesh, the god of fun, while the whole panoply of India’s brittle caste system pushed its way onto the banks of the Ganges to wash away a lifetime of sins. Gazing disapprovingly down onto the astonishing spectacle were families of monkeys, only jumping to street level to pilfer something from an unwary pilgrim.

Bharti and his pals had been set up and stoned in tent city outside town for over three months by the time others started to arrive. They idled away days gossiping, debating and even fighting, while consuming literally tonnes of hash. Smoking narcotics releases the holy men from desire, so they say. One 96 year old Saddhu I met attributed his long life to the lack of any sexual contact, although he admitted to chain smoking cigarettes and hash for most of the 20th century.

“It was very painful keeping my arm up for the first year and a half. Very painful indeed,” Bharti said choking on the freshly made pipe passed to him by a smirking, red-eyed man humming and swaying languidly in the lotus position.

Bharti attributed his arm raising antics to a form of meditation, a religious calling linked to his karma. Every Saddhu has a similar calling. Next to him other holy men claimed they had not sat down for a dozen years, while outside one man balanced rocks off his penis. An extreme case even by Saddhu standards was the follower of the monkey god Hanuman. He was naked, painted maroon with a tail poking from his anus and a large kitchen knife wedged through his left wrist, which was held aloft. He looked like an Indian Charles Manson with an insane gaze and, like the pilgrims, I gave him a wide berth.

For many of these men life did not always revolve around drug taking and idiosyncratic hardships in the back of beyond. In fact, many of them came from high castes and previously held down jobs, had families, mortgages, cars and went on annual package holidays with the local equivalent of Thomas Cooke. Another Saddhu I spoke to, Ashok Puri, had once lived in New Delhi working as a civil servant. One day he had what he termed an intellectual crisis and literally took off from his job and his family. To this day he has never seen them, some two decades later. His body, like his past life, is now officially dead, waiting for karmic ressurection.

“The mind can be very dangerous,” Puri said through the obligatory cloud of has smoke. “There is no past, no future, only the present. To want a home, a car, a family means nothing to me anymore. I want to rectify myself from past lives. As a Saddhu, I have peace.”

Ironically, Haridwar was anything but peaceful when I arrived. War had broken out among the Saddhus, who began arguing over which group should be the first in the river on the holiest day. There were scuffles and running battles throughout tent city as militant monks wielded swords and three-pronged tridents at their opponents. One of the leading spiritual gurus even took to riding on horseback among his enemies slashing at them with his sabre. And more than a dozen monks had to be rushed to hospital. The militia were eventually called in, firing shots above head height to calm the holy riot. Hundreds of Saddhus were led away to the local cells to cool off.

Meanwhile the pilgrims, by comparison, were a picture of meditative calm. Each day they’d gather at the river bank and carry out ritual burning and washing ceremonies, floating offerings in banana leaves on the fast current. Around the river plain anyone who could make a deafening noise did. Blowing into trumpets, banging gongs, drumming tablas, while everyone hummed and sang a mesmerising tune that reverberated in the still, evening air.

On the main bathing day of April 14  most Saddhus, like sulking schoolboys, boycotted the ceremony as a sign of their displeasure at having their order still under arrest for the previous week’s violence. Nonetheless, a few thousand opened the day’s processions by marching over to the main bathing ghat, all stark naked except for smeared wood ash. In their midst were the main gurus carried like kings on embroidered palanquins and accompanied by newly adopted Saddhu initiates, with heads shaved bald for the occasion.

For miles, millions of pilgrims squinted on as the Saddhus arrived at the sacred ghat and threw themselves beaming with delight into the Ganges like thousands of children newly arrived at a seaside resort after a long coach journey. Their gurus taking a more respectable amount of time to wash, after slowly dismounting from their carriages.

Following the Saddhus into the river were the hordes of pilgrims daintily washing their feet and behind their ears. The following day it was all over and monks and pilgrims headed out of town in streams of humanity up into the Himalayan foothills or out to the railway station and home. Haridwar once again settled down to its mundane, featureless existence in the shadow of the nearby mountains and forests. Bharti, Puri and the other Saddhus would once again be left alone to ruminate about karmic matters in the quiet of their caves and jungle homes. For most Saddhus, even the mother of all festivals was a crushing anticlimax.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post in 1999