The chant of “Har Har Mahadev” rumbled through the upper road in Haridwar. Devotees lined up on both sides of a 50 m wide road. Some even climbed to rooftops while others leaned over their balconies. It was the auspicious day of the shahi snan (royal bath), and they were all waiting for the stars of the Kumbh Mela—the Naga Sadhus.
Sure enough, moments later groups of stark naked sadhus started appearing. These elderly warriors of Hinduism in hundreds from different akharas (hermit communities/club), came marching on the road that led to the river Ganges for a holy dip.
Some strode horses, others travelled on foot; most of them high on ganja. They headed to Brahmakund (the bathing venue) in Hardiwar’s Harikapauri. The Juna akhara led the procession, followed by the Niranjani and Agni akharas. Next in line came saffron-clad mahants (head sadhus) and mahamandleshawars (women sadhvis) in motor driven chariots, who in turn were accompanied by music and more devotees. Added to this scene were hordes of camera-wielding tourists milling around.
The three month-long ceremony that began on January 14, saw 10 million people pour in to take a dip in the Ganges with the objective to attain Nirvana. Legend has it that taking a dip in the holy river frees a person from his sins, and while these ritual baths are performed everyday, the day of the shahi snan has special significance.
This auspicious day for the shahi snan, which takes place once in every 12 years, is decided following the positions of the Sun, Jupiter, and the constellation of Capricorn. The influx of tourists, including foreigners eager to understand the meaning of it all, has meant soaring hotel tariffs in Haridwar. People camped out on the streets, the ghats and the banks of the river while waiting for their turn for the holy dip.
According to Hindu mythology, after the gods and demons churned the seas with a serpent, the gods became afraid that the resulting amrit (nectar) of immortality would fall into the hands of the demons. So Jayanta, Lord Indra’s son, disguised himself and stole the kumbh that contained the nectar. He was then chased by the enraged demons for 12 years.
During this chase, the amrit spilled from the kumbh at Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjayan and Nashik, designating these sites among Hinduism’s holiest. The shahi snan commemorates the day the amrit fell into the river mythological years ago.
So, ostensibly, most people come here to be cleanse their sins. However, the exotic-looking naga sadhus, like Naga baba Shivrajraj Giri, were an undeniable draw.
The naked sadhu, from the Juna akhara, smeared himself in ash and performed acrobatics and complicated yogic postures on the banks of the river. People who passed him by bowed to him in veneration, and made offerings of anywhere from a rupee to a hundred bucks. The scent of sandalwood lingered in the air. His long dreadlocked hair fell to the ground like the roots of the banyan tree which had become his home. When not found here, he would be anywhere in Indore, Allahabad, Faridabad, Ranchi or Asansol.
The Indian government had deployed security personnel—many of who have been pulled out of insurgent areas of Jammu and Kashmir, and the North East—to escort the naga sadhus on their march to the Brahmkund. Often, people rushed out of the crowd to touch the feet of the naked men. Equally often, the sadhus turned angry and threatened onlookers. It was unclear whether the bulletproofed and helmeted personnel were supposed to protect the naked fakirs, or the spectators.
But the naked and spiritual bodies lined up methodically, and the procession continued along the main road of Haridwar.