Kumbh Mela 2013: Holy Men

Naga Baba Jai Giri Ji and his long, long hair. Photo: Ravinder Bawa.

Naga Baba Jai Giri Ji has long, long hair. He hasn’t cut it for 15 years, and when he dances in the processions that the holy men lead to the sangam on bathing days, he loops it over his arms so that it doesn’t trip him up.

Lakshman Giri's headgear. Photo: Laura Spinney.

Lakshman Giri is also famous for his headgear, but in his case it’s a crown of rudraksh seeds that he says he’s worn for 16 years. Nearby is another sadhu, or holy man, who claims to have stood on one leg for 10 years. The naga sadhus, including these three, are naked—or more poetically, digambara: “wearing the sky”. Pilgrims gather to stare at their impressive feats, and the holy men beckon them into their tent, to sit around the fire, hear their wise words, and perhaps, join their cult.

This sadhu has stood on one leg for 10 years. Photo: Laura Spinney.

Like any city, the Kumbh Mela serves many functions. It’s a site of pilgrimage, but it’s also a market, a party and a religious trade fair. The holy men come to recruit disciples. Their prestige and their livelihood depend on it, since disciples bring donations. Some sadhus are lone operators, but there are also 13 akharas—groups or sects of holy men—that advertise their existence via billboards and the palatial gates to their camps, which are lit up like Disneyland attractions.

Gateway to the compound of an akhara or sect. Photo: Laura Spinney.

One of the most elaborate camps belongs to Bhaishri Rameshbhai Oza. He’s known as a great orator, but also for his message that one can achieve peace without renouncing wealth. There are a lot of smart cars parked outside his camp, but bizarrely, the temporarily discarded shoes are all old and worn. A security guard explains that rich people leave their good shoes there on entering, and poorer pilgrims stop by to upgrade their footwear.

The decor at Bhaishri Rameshbhai Oza's camp. Photo: Laura Spinney.

Pilgrims come to the Kumbh searching for moksha, or Nirvana, which they obtain through penance or tapas. The ones who take this most literally are the kalpwasis, who are arriving in the city now in large numbers. They will stay for a month in the most spartan conditions, bathing in the Ganges before dawn, eating one frugal meal a day, and renouncing all worldly temptations—notably gossip.

Kalwasis arriving at the Kumbh Mela. Photo: Laura Spinney.


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Laura Spinney is a science journalist based in Lausanne, Switzerland who writes for The Economist, Nature and National Geographic, among others. She is also the author of two novels in English, as well as a human portrait of a European city, Rue Centrale, which is out this month in French (publisher: Editions L'Age d'Homme). Visit Laura Spinney's website for more information and contact details.