Female “sadhus” have broken away from tradition and formed a new all-female group that they hope will end male domination of spiritual practices.
India's first women akhara's Pithadhishwar Jagat Guru Shankaracharya 'Shri Sadguru Trikaal Bhawanta' (L) stands with her disciples outside her Temple in Allahabad. (AFP photo)
In Allahabad, a group of women sadhus formally established their “akhada”, holding ceremonies on the banks of the Ganga.
Mahant Trikal Bhavanta, a woman sadhu, said on Friday that the all-women akhada was believed to be the first in India.
An akhada is a group of sadhus. India has more than a dozen such groups, all male-dominated.
According to lore, it is believed the first akhada was formed by philosopher Adi Shankaracharya in the eighth century with the aim of safeguarding the Hindu religion's interests.
Bhavanta said the all-women group was facing criticism from male sadhus, who claim the move goes against age-old customs.
"Nowhere in the Hindu scriptures is it mentioned that women cannot have an akhada of their own," she said.
"We are facing criticism from men because the move ensures that from now on, sanyasins (women sadhus) will also stand to rise in the seers' hierarchy and the subjugation of women in the akhada system run by men will end," Bhavanta added.
Those who become women sadhus and renounce possessions in a quest for enlightenment are often widows. Every 12 years, the Maha Kumbh Mela is held in Allahabad, drawing legions of the sadhus. Smaller, similar events are held every three years in other locations around the country.
The event has its origins in Hindu mythology, which describes how a few drops of the nectar of immortality fell on the four places that host the festival -- Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar.
Bhavanta said her akhada would participate with its own flag in the Maha Kumbh to be held in Nasik next year.