He’s definitely not the Liril girl and he’s not quite the Lifebuoy boy either. Call him the Big Dipper, the Showerless Sadhu, the Un-bathtubable Baba. Just when you’re trying to calculate the difference between a Maha Kumbh and an Ardh Kumbh and the many variations in between, you’ll find him taking an elaborate dip in the Ganga today, tomorrow... maybe the day after tomorrow at the Sangam in Prayag aka Allahabad.
My only tryst with the not-so-intricate procedure of absolving my sins took place four years ago. There were two reasons why I had travelled to Nasik: too witness the chaos that accompanies the congruence of a major Hindu religious activity and an almost non-religious tradition that has all the flavours of a full-blown carnival.
Along with the bookstalls selling various editions of the Gita and the Upanishads, there was candy floss and peanuts being sold near the banks. While individual families had the option of sitting down in one of the many temples scattered across the Ram Kund, paying full attention and full fees to the attending pandit, others were busy dunking themselves and others in the pretend sea-side.
What I lacked in religiosity, I made up in curiosity. I wanted to know the hierarchy of the sadhus — easily determined by the order in which they entered the sahi snan. While I had befriended a sadhu with a synthetic tigerskin wrapped around his waist (actually, it was the other way round, considering that I spent one whole day trying ‘de-befriend’ him after he offered me a shortcut to spiritual salvation if I accompanied him to the nearby Trimbakeshwar), the clear winners were the Nagas.
The Naga akhada was founded in the 8th century by Adi Shankara Acharya, who established this warrior-class of sadhus whose job was to protect pilgrims and fellow sadhus from robbers and other rotten guys. For reasons that become obvious by taking one look at their visages, the Nagas pretty much always get precedence in taking the holy dip.
And if you thought you’ve seen a cavalry charge in movies, the en masse surge of the Nagas to the bathing ghats makes Mel Gibson and his folks in Braveheart look like Maria and the Von Trapp kids from The Sound of Music.
Even if the Ardh Kumbh gives half a glimpse of the Nagas in full gear (which isn’t much, really), I’ll be getting my virtues’ worth.