Unusual Occupations

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Unusual Occupations - Zardozi embroidery from Benares

Z - Zardozi embroidery from Benares

Mohammed Feroze grew up in the by lanes of Shivala where every household is engaged in some form of trade that involves embroidery work at various stages.  

His forefathers from the days of Mughal emperors of the 17th century have been Zardozi artists and have lived and worked on these impossibly narrow and meandering alleyways about 500 yards away from Shivala ghat on the river Ganges.  


Zardozi embroidery came to India from Persia during the reign of the Mughal emperors.   Apart from India, Zardozi embroidery work is also found in Azerbaijan, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  This intricate embroidery done with fine tubes of metal used to embellish the attire of the kings, their ministers and the royal families since the 17th century have patronized this art. In the days of Mughal kings this would adorn the walls of royal tents, wall hangings and other paraphernalia particularly of the regal elephants and horses.

The royal patrons of the 17th and 18th century would commission elaborate designs using real gold leaves and silver wires. To these would be added studded stones and precious pearls hand-woven with intricate designs.  In this generation the craftsmen make use of a combination of copper wire with a gold or silver polish and add silk thread to it.  The pearls and stones have now been replaced by look-alike plastic beads and stones.  However once in a while an order comes around for a Bridal lehenga for a very rich or powerful family when real gold, silver , pearls and stones are still used. These are normally commissioned by top designers who outsource the work through a chain of middlemen before a piece of that work lands in the bylanes of Shivala ghat area.      

Shivala ghat is’nt just about Bridal lehenga and Banaras sarees.  It may as well have been so until about 50 -70 years back in time.  But with changing trends there are sarees of all designs and varieties that get created and finished within the bylanes that is home to thousands of men, women and their families within a few square kilometer radius.   



As we step into Naseem Bano’s house, Naseem Bano and three of her daughters are busy sticking bright plastic beads on a hand woven saree which has been spread out on the massive cot which occupies about 90% of the drawing room.  The fourth daughter, the youngest one has just arrived from school and is chatting about her day at school. Naseem Bano asks her to get changed, pick up some food from the kitchen and start work on the saree. 

When the entire saree has been finished with the beads that are being stuck using fevicryl, Feroze would come over in the evening to collect the finished product.  The labour for the entire day for the combined effort from the four of them would earn about fifty rupees. 

‘It hardly fetches any money, but the fact that I get work sitting here at home and can work while supervising the house work and my daughters help me out.  

It helps me make some money to supplement the income.  Otherwise just the cost of vegetables for the day can be more expensive than what we earn from this work’. 

Naseem Bano’s four daughters work on Zardozi work that men like Feroze bring to them when they get their orders from the wholesalers.  There are many women and their families along those narrow  bylanes and the work gets divided amongst all of them.  The eldest of Naseem Bano’s  daughter has finished her Master’s  degree in arts from a nearby college.  The other two are doing their bachelor’s degree and the youngest daughter is in high school. The four sisters have a younger brother who goes to school.

One of the girls has learnt the art of ‘Badge’ making from their uncle who has his workshop in the adjacent room in the same by-lane.  She shows me the badge that she has made and I instantly recognize this as the one they use in public schools over the uniforms, the one that is used to decorate the soldiers and to design the coat of arms in England and Scotland.   
  

The badge embroidery uses silk threads of various colours to design the coat of arms of churches, football clubs, schools and of the army uniforms of many countries when a soldier gets decorated.  For the Indian army and airforce uniforms, the artisans from shivala  used to get orders many decades ago.  

However these are matters of government contracts and the powerful and the connected usually bag them and give them to their own connections.  

The India army uses the Zardozi workers in Malerkotla in Punjab, to embroider their unifroms with the badges. At Shivala  ghat there are very few artisans left who are skilled in this type of art work that requires absolute precision of font, colour and design.























Arifa, Naseem Bano’s daughter introduces me to Shakeel Chacha in whose workshop which in itself is 10 feet by 10 feet room there are three others focusing on making the coat of arms for a church in Belfast. The design has been supplied to him with exact specifications for color and size by a trader from the city who has in turn procured this order from another tradesman in Delhi. 


The trade especially for orders that come from abroad is fraught with a chain of middlemen especially English speaking middlemen who take the amount in dollars, pound sterling or Euros while the final artisan who actually spends his 12 hours of the day poring over the intricate design actually ends up getting paid a pittance. 

It is not uncommon for us to undercut each other and that is why we earn what we earn !!! Says an old craftsman who is poring over the alphabet 'H' that he is embroidering for a bulk order that has come from Europe.    

A shop run by Nazeem bhai in the middle of the by-lane stocks and sells these products to the entire mohalla or neighbourhood whose artisans are mostly engaged in this trade. 
Nazeen bhai  would procure the raw materials from Mumbai or Surat and stock them. Today most of the raw materials required come from Luang Zhong from China and is much cheaper than the ones that used to come from Dharavi in Mumbai or from Surat. Nazeem bhai has never stepped out of the city. His son carries out his orders over whatsapp and his contacts in Mumbai (that is the port where the China goods arrive for this trade) and Surat send him over what is required.  They are all networked and in the absence of the social media network they had carried on the trade by word of mouth and through a network of known contacts in the trade.



Arif sits in a corner of the verandah of his house on the edge of his by-lane.  In a less modest world his business card could read fabric designer.  However he is unaware of the word or a business card, possibly because he is illiterate.  

He sits on the corner and draws out various designs on a translucent trace paper with slight creative variations to each design and pattern.  About 6 -12 such patterns if approved by the wholesaler would fetch him about 150 Indian rupees. 


These designs would then be pored into small holes and rubbed with kerosene and colour powder in order to etch it on the fabric. The fabric would then be embroidered by other women in their house further down the lane or set into a handloom where the design would then be reproduced over yards and yards of sarees woven with silk, cotton or gold embroidered threads. 


We stop by Feroze’s  godown where he has procured and stocked raw materials from the wholesaler. He has come there to pick up a receipt book or something when a middle aged matronly woman way lays him and asks him why he has not been giving work off-late to her.  Feroze replies in a matter of factly manner that he has not been getting as much orders as she thinks from the wholesalers.  She nudges him and says that she knows others have been getting work from him and that he is avoiding her. 

He introduces me to her and we get talking. Meanwhile Feroze has stepped out to talk to some business acquaintance. The woman is in a mood to offload her rant.  She tells me there are girls in her house who are waiting for work.  They cannot come down to the lanes to collect the work so she comes down to his shop to ask for work.  Her two daughter-in-laws and a daughter would do any work that comes their way.  She herself is too old and her eyes have given way over years of poring into intricate embroidery that she is no more able to see the needle and the thread clearly. 

Feroze is back after a brief chat  and promises her work next week.  He asks her if he may get me to their home to see and talk.

I am invited to their house.  Later in the day Feroze walks me through a by-lane and stops. He calls out for the old lady in the first floor and she peeps out of the window.  After some initial conversations he tells me he would wait at the landing of the stairs and I could go up to meet the matronly woman and her family.  Three flights of stairs upwards in a bizarrely constructed house with no plastering from the outside, I can see the bricks with the cement layers in between. At the landing of the second floor a young woman is cooking possibly the lunch for the day on a kerosene stove while another is washing the utensils.  

One more flight of narrow stairs upwards opens into a room which  consists of a huge cot where I am made to sit along with the matronly woman. On top of the wall is a Television set re-telecasting   the recent India-Pakistan cricket match.  There is plenty of bric a brac like glass tumblers, photo frames and other plastic items gathering dust on the wall above the cot.  I am served an extremely sweet and milky tea in one of the cups picked up and washed from that dust laden shelf. The house is extended beyond the possibilities of space vertically and horizontally. 

 We get talking and the woman tells me that the money here is meager and her sons have had to go to Kuwait to make a living.  Both of them were the finest Zardozi embroidery workers in the entire mohalla - neighbourhood.  They did intricate zardozi work for the rich and royal families not only from Benares,  Allahabad and Lucknow but even from Delhi and Mumbai. Big designers who outsourced their work got it done through them. 

Word got around and her eldest son was summoned to the Gulf to work on high quality Zardozi work  over there.  Kuwait apparently has a fledgling Zardozi craft and patrons which is where he went to.  

The younger one later joined him, but he works as a tailor, although when there are orders he could double up as a Zardozi craftsman.  Her daughter comes in to show some of the work that her brothers had done when they were back at home, which I guess must have been some years ago, .  The Zardozi embroidery on one of her dresses is intricate and clearly a class apart from all that I had seen earlier in the day.   It was a pretty worn down dress that she had picked up from the clothes lining and it is semi-dry, but the Zardozi embroidery is firm, intricate and gorgeous.  A small piece of work like that would cost in tens of thousands of Rupees in the fashionable boutiques in bigger cities. 

The irony is not lost on me. 

The daughter who explained to me the difference between real Zardozi and the kind of junk work that comes their way these days, studies in a local college.  When stepping out of home she is draped in her head scarf as are her sister in laws.  She understands design and fine art.  She herself has learnt some of the Zardozi work from her brothers and is clearly in awe of her brother who in his days was the master craftsman in Zardozi embroidery in the entire neighbourhood at a very young age.           

While her two sons send money home from Kuwait to make ends meet, the matronly woman also goes out to get some work for the younger women in the house who in their free time could supplement their income.  She is now aspiring to send her youngest son abroad and join his brothers. They had almost managed to get his visa and tickets done for Kuwait when at the immigration in Delhi airport it was discovered that they had been duped and the visa  had turned out to be a fake one. About 100,000 thousand Indian rupees were spent on getting his passage out of the country which had gone down the drain. The family was into debt and she was desperate, for any kind of work to pay off the debts and to make money to send the boy abroad again, this time without getting duped. They were already in talks with a trustworthy agent known to the family.   

As times change, fashion changes and the demands also change.  The Zardozi workers have also adapted to the changing times. Feroze reckons that in his career he sees a fashion or a fetish for a particular design last about 2-3 years.  In his childhood days when he apprenticed with his father and uncles, every Hindu bride carried at least 21 or 51 Banares hand woven sarees in her trousseau.  

Today a couple of Benares sarees for a religious function and a heavily embroidered Zardozi lehenga for a reception are all that a bride would want for the traditional aspect of her trosseau. Most would prefer Punjabi suits or jeans and T-shirts for a normal wear.  

Fashion and times have changed.  Occasions to wear a grand benarasi saree are far and few. However with the population increasing manifold and the number of artisans practicing the craft the demand for Benares handloom silk is still going strong.  With times the Sarees have now changed to other fashionable dresses and Benares silk also finds itself in as varied and unusual patterns like the ethnic file folders and other souvenirs that are sold the world over.


 The current fashion among the lower middle class consumers seems to be the embroidery pattern on the back of the choli or the blouse. Thanks to the mid-afternoon soap operas that have caught the fancy of housewives in small towns,  no choli or blouse is complete without exquisite embroidery work on the back.  There apparently is a bulk order for a particular design of choli embroidery and artisans all over have set up their wooden frames with choli materials. In a day an average artisan would embroider about three to four blouses and that would fetch him anywhere between 60 to 100 Indian rupees for an eight to twelve hour day.           

‘Could they not advertise their skills online?  That could cut off a lot of middlemen. The online revolution has in fact successfully eliminated a chain of middlemen in many occupations in the last decade or so?’  I ask Feroze.


The old man sitting over the intricate hand embroidery designing the coat of arms for the Church in Belfast just laughs it off.  

I would learn later from Feroze that they are all barely literate to read and write. Having an online presence is just beyond them, but more importantly, there are very few of the next generation of artisans left to carry on the art.  These are people who are resigned to the fact that the art will die a natural death over a period of time.      




Friday, April 29, 2016

Uunusual occupations – Yogis from the Himalayas

Unusual occupations – Yogis and Sadhus from the Himalayas

Prelude - Naga Sadhus 
As prelude watch the documentary - Naked in Ashes by Paula Fouce

Among the many Yogis and renounciates who live in the Himalayan mountains, the most intriguing ones from the perspective of the so called 'civilized' world are the Aghori Sadhus.


Aghori Sadhus are monks who are worshippers of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of Destruction. They are most famously known for eating human flesh from the dead corpses, human excreta and urine.  They use a dead person’s skull as their begging bowl.  
Shiva the ascetic God of destruction does not differentiate the good, bad and the ugly. It is exactly this philosophy that his followers of the Aghori sect follow.  It is believed that all that has been created gets destroyed in the current form and reincarnates into another. In the scientific world it is known as decomposition.  It is therefore that Aghori Sadhus believe in attaining and awakened consciousness by following the most savage path to nirvana or liberation.  

The Aghori peeth / headquarters of the Aghori sect is located in Ravindrapuri in the heart of Varanasi city and is known as Baba Keenaram’s Ashram after the most influential Aghori Sadhu who lived in the 17th century.   It is a quiet monastery and an impeccably clean one with huge ancient trees dotting the campus. 

Devotees who are followers of Baba Keenaram throng the place. Photography is prohibited. There are pictures of the current head of the Aghori sect, Siddhartha Gautama, who looks very modern, unlike what one would imagine an Aghori saint to look like. 

About 200 meters towards the east of the Ashram flows the River Ganges at the Harish Chandra Ghat.  Harish Chandra ghat is one of the two Ghats where the dead are cremated in Kashi.  It is believed that the soul passes directly into eternity when the ashes are immersed into the holy Ganges.  Hundreds of corpses are cremated in these Ghats every day.

I spot an Aghori Baba near the cremation Ghat . I have identified him based on his black attire and the iron Trident that they carry with them.  He is chatting up with some locals on the stairs that lead down the river.  Not sure how to break into a conversation with him I ask one of the locals where I could find the Aghori Babas  and their Ashram. 

He points out to the Aghori Baba and says, he will sit on cremation ground after sunset and mediate. At dawn he would carry the ashes from the cremation ground for the daily worship of the deity at Baba Keenaram’s ashram.

Do they eat dead corpses in the night? I ask the local man who is walking with me to direct me to the Baba Keenaram’s  ashram for which I had asked him directions.

He laughs and says, that while they do eat human flesh, I must have been intrigued after seeing the films that have been made and put on the internet. I nod and say that is correct.
He says the one film that is doing the rounds on YouTube was taken by a desperate documentary filmmaker who wanted to show it all raw and sensationalize it for his film. 

He had an Aghori Baba get drunk and by the night, leased a boat, had him to eat the limbs of a corpse for the filming.  They do eat human flesh but just as the way they eat chicken, mutton, fish and drink liquor and smoke marijuana like anyone else.  It is not all that spooky as the filmmakers project it out to be.      
              
I had reasons to believe the local man as the Aghori Baba that I was trailing that day was casual and striking conversation with the locals at a small tea shop like anyone else. 
Aghori Babas congregate at Baba Keenaram’s ashram at noon time and soon after dusk for their lunch and supper.  The lunch and supper is free for anyone who visits the ashram at that time. Unlike most other Hindu religious temples which follow a strict vegetarian regime for food, at Baba Keenaram’s ashram the free food offered to devotees  is fish curry and rice. The breeding of fish happens in a huge pond filled with a species of fresh water fish. Devotees either take a dip in the pond or take a handful of water and sprinkle it over themselves and take a sip as a mark of respect for the holy site of Baba Keenaram.  

The pond is clean and devotees are forbidden from offering anything to feed the fish.   
The fresh ash from the cremation ground is consecrated and offered to devotees by the priest.  The significance of the ash is that these belonged to the souls who have passed on the day before and have escaped the cycle of birth and rebirth by having been cremated by the holy river.     

I finally get to meet and talk to an Aghori Sadhu sitting by the riverside chanting his Mantras the next day.  I instantly recognize the Aghori sadhu by his skull and black robes. 
I am intrigued by the electronic watch that he is wearing in one hand which to me seems like a misfit to the image of a monk. 

Neverthless it is a picture postcard moment, however I hesitate to take a picture as many of them, I was told are known to object being photographed for the fear of being misrepresented.  
   
I walk up to him and place some money in his begging bowl and strike conversation with him.  I am intrigued by the skull. He says it is a real one, if that is what I want to know. It looks smaller than usual and ask him if this may have belonged to a child. Aghori Baba tells me that this must have belonged to someone young about 18 to 19 years old and may have been a woman. The skulls of little children is not very hard and sturdy and slightly smaller in size.


It is this skull that is his kamandal ( begging bowl) and he was initiated into the Aghori sect with this skull.  He shows me the skull upside down and I see that the connection with where the head could have been and the throat is a small hole for the nerves to pass through.  It is not hollow as I would have imagined a begging bowl to be. 

Aghori Baba says that the skull belonged to someone who had an untimely death. In this case the young girl took her own life. According to the Hindu belief, the souls of people who take their own lives do not pass into the next world. Their bodies are not cremated and are left to float in the river.  It is these dead bodies that the Aghori sadhus eat and then use the skull as their begging bowl.  
    
I ask him, how he got initiated into the sect. He says he would not lie.  It was his biological father (the Aghori sadhus do not believe in the institution of marriage) who took him along wherever he went. When he came of age, he expressed interest in being initiated into the Aghori sect.  His father asked him to think through.  The initiation into the sect involved hard core rituals that meant eating not only human flesh but also the excreta and drinking the urine.  
It meant training oneself to not feel any repulsiveness towards anything that is considered dirty or polluting. 
It meant being ordained by Lord Shiva himself to clean up the old and the decomposed to make way for the new.   

He had seen his father all along and when he knew his time had come, he had expressed his consent in being initiated into the Aghori sect. To live the life of an Aghori Sadhu does not obviously come cheap especially if you are living amidst civilization.   It is a different matter in the wild and in the mountains where animal flesh is easily available.  Aghori Sadhus are nomads and keep travelling on pilgrimages throughout the year.

Despite the hype of being the monks who practice cannibalism and known to eat human excreta and drink urine, they are highly respected and sought after for being blessed by their devotees. The devotees normally host them and feed them while they are on their way to pilgrimages.

I ask if there are any more Aghori sadhus who would be initiated in the generations to come. The Aghori baba smiles and says that there are many Aghori Sadhus who live a life of anonymity, away from mainstream civilization spread over the dense mountains in the Himalayas. 

If I were asking if educated modern people would take to being an Aghori Sadhu, I should look up the internet and would find an engineer from the south (of india) who has embraced the Aghori sect. 
  
Living beings are being constantly destroyed and revived. There are many awakened souls who are not necessarily known to the civilization.  The Aghori sect does not believe in making much contact with the non-believers. However those who believe in the awakened consciousness of Aghori Sadhus like Baba Keenaram  know of the infinite power and compassion that he spreads across the universe. 

Finally Aghori Baba obliges for me to take a photograph of him with his skull and the wrought Iron trident.  

He says he will be leaving in a few days for Ujjain where there is a Kumbh Mela on the banks of River Narmada which is held once every twelve years.  

Many Aghori Sadhus will also congregate over there this year and if I were to visit I would see how big and spread out the Aghori sect is.      





Here is the interesting YouTube video of the educated and once upon a time a well paid engineer who renounced the world to become an Aghori sadhu



Thursday, April 28, 2016

Xtra ordinarily Unusual occupation – The Naga sadhus

X tra ordinarily Unusual occupation – The Naga sadhus 




It is late winter afternoon on the banks of river Ganges in Varanasi.  On the long and ancient Ghats along the river  are overwhelmed tourists clicking away pictures, local washer men washing the clothes at the dhobi ghat, the milkmen washing their buffaloes at the Gaay Ghat, the boatmen on a siesta on their boats, young boys from the streets above playing cricket with a cricket ball that would float if it were to be hit for a sixer and would drop into the river . Then there is the lonesome traveler strumming a guitar joined by a stranger, yet another lonesome traveller from elsewhere singing or playing along.
  
Ok. I will spare you my description.
Watch this video because they say a picture is worth a thousand words.




Down the stairs at the river bank a group of men are bathing in the river. They are stark naked.  A few minutes later, they sit up on the banks and smear a thick paste of ash all over their freshly bathed wet body.   I move on although I am intrigued. 

I pass by yet another ghat. Two ash smeared men are sitting by the corner near a small shrine under a Banyan tree where some monkeys are running amok chasing each other. The two ash smeared men sit on the floor on a soft red rug that has been spread out. 

It is nearly impossible not to attract attention. I am aware I could be rude if I clicked a picture particularly in this case as one of them was naked sitting cross legged smeared completely in ashes. His hair is all matted and so is his beard. I am emboldened a little bit and decide to take a chance and discreetly click his picture on my mobile phone from a distance. 

It is after all a public place and there are plenty of onlookers, I reason out to myself.


 The Naga Sadhu is quick to sense my cheekiness and makes eye contact with me. I am  embarrassed and slightly scared. He calls out to me and asks me to come and sit down with him and have a chat.

My head tells me to run as quickly and as far away as possible. 
My heart tells me not to be silly and  to stop by.

This is a classic case of me against myself 


You-are- responsible-for –your-own- safety-don’t- you make-a fool-of- yourself says the head.
You-were-always-intrigued-about-Nagasadhus-and-they- cannot- be- that- dangerous-anyway- it-is- a-public- place argues the heart.

Eventually the me against myself tussle is going on and my heart and the head are at loggerheads, intrigued and emboldened, I slowly inch forward towards them despite that head- heart tussle going on inside me. 

I walk towards him and stand at a reasonable distance refusing to sit down on the sheet spread out in front of him. 

To do that would be to acknowledge being his guest. 

There is another European man, possibly stoned with marijuana who was sitting at the farthest corner cross legged on the sheet.

The Naga baba embarrassingly reads out my mind. 'You must be feeling uneasy and wondering if it is safe to be here at all. There is really no need to worry. You and we are not that dissimilar. We all came from the ashes and will ultimately dissolve into the ashes. That is what all this is all about', he says showing his ash smeared face and body.

He asks me where I come from and I reply in a monosyllable as though I was a nervous kid being interviewed for school admission. 

'You must be thinking you came here buying yourself a ticket. That is true, but only at a physical level. In reality it is the Ganga mata, Mother Ganga who beckoned you here. It is she who has beckoned all of us here'. 

He goes on and talks about the world and his penance in the Himalayas near a glacier where he stood one legged for months together. As much as it is supposed to be  conversation, it is almost a monologue and I am listening to him with rapt attention.  

A while later he passes on to me a CD case . On the cover is his photograph standing one legged, bare foot amidst snow in what looks like a Himalayan mountain. 

'Naked in Ashes' is the name of the documentary that featured him and the tells the story of the initiation of one of his disciples, a fourteen year old boy, into the sect of Naga sadhus. The documentary shot in 2005 went on to win many international awards. 

Naga Sadhus are a sect of monks who have renounced all the worldly pursuits. They are followers of the ascetic Shiva the Hindu god of destruction. They smear themselves in ashes and live more or less naked.  They rarely appear in public but have known to attract attention particularly those of photographers during Kumbh mela, a Hindu pilgrimage that takes place once every twelve years  at various places on holy River banks. 

In the Himalayas particularly near Gaumukh, the Gangotri glacier, from where the River Ganga originates, is supposed to be the abode of Lord Shiva.  It is in these mountains amidst the cold Icy Glaciers that the Naga Sadhus are known to meditate in different postures.  They liberally smoke Marijuana and drink an intoxicant known as Bhaang following the footsteps of  their  god Shiv Bholenath who is also believed to smoke Marijuana. On his wedding day celebrated as Shivaratri among the believers, the potent intoxicating drink made of local herb the  Bhaang is distributed freely across to devotees who throng his temple.
   
A couple of days from then would be Shivaratri.  The auspicious day when the Ascetic Shiva marries Parvati his consort.  At Kashi which is Lord Shiva’s abode is the Kashi Viswanath temple, where thousands of devotees would throng on this auspicious occasion to seek the Lord’s blessings where he is consecrated in the form of a Linga - a stone in the shape of a phallus. The Naga Sadhus from the Himalayas were congregating at Kashi for this occasion.

When the Naga Sadhus are not meditating somewhere in the Himalayas, and when they are at pilgrimage centers they appear in public places and devotees throng to seek their blessings.  The devotee gives in donation the money that is then used to undertake pilgrimages, renovate temples, build Shrines and perhaps buy some Marijuana when it is not freely available in bushes and shrubs unlike in the foothills of Himalayas.  It takes a lot of tests and tribulations to follow the path of a Naga Sadhu and ultimately to be initiated into the sect.

I am amazed by the boldness and the sheer confidence with which the Naga sadhu was striking conversation with everyone.  His conversations are in Hindi and English.  His name, I would learn later is Naga Sadhu Shivraj Giri. The man who was fixing his chillum, an earthern pipe filled with marijuana was his understudy.  

The CD case that he has passed on to me is about a Documentary made by Paula Fouce who followed the Naga Sadhus to the Himalayas, particularly the fourteen year old who was getting initiated into the sect.  On the cover is the photograph of Naga Sadhu Shivraj Giri standing one legged atop the snow peaked mountain. 

Naga Sadhu Shivraj Giri is angry with the makers of the documentary, since he feels they used him, and his youngest understudy and his eight year penance that went into making that documentary. According to him he did the film to dispel the myth of Naga sadhus and to spread the truth about ‘Sanatana Dharma’ to the world. Instead of giving credit to him and his sect, these people have gone on to make crores of rupees after the documentary became a hit  (Knowing the economic factors involved in the business of documentary film making, I think crores of rupees is an unfair exaggeration … But I let it pass)      

Suddenly the men sitting by the side who double up as touts or boatmen in the evenings indulge him and tell him he should legally sue the makers of the documentary. It is evident that they are enjoying taking a shot at him and provoking the Naga Baba. 

He suddenly gets agitated and shouts at the man who is prodding him, by calling him a errr ...certain-anatomical-description-of-a-part-of-his-mother’s-body-followed-by-his-sister’s. 

I am a little taken aback.  This is very contrary to what I believe saints would behave like. A little startled, my lady-like upbringing feels uneasy and rouses the dormant feminist in me. The fact that his foul language has made him fall down in my eyes is evident to the Naga Baba. As if he were reading my mind he goes on to say there is nothing bad nor good in the world. All this chaos in the world has been created by our ‘andha vishwas’ blind beliefs. 

I fail to understand the connection between foul language and blind beliefs and feel he is being incoherent probably because of the effect of the marijuana. Possibly he wanted to say 'moral perspective' or some such thing.  

A Russian couple passes by and the Naga Sadhu waves at them. They come closer to where we are,  fold their hands in front of the Naga sadhu as if they were greeting him and take leave to move on. “The awareness about Sanatana Dharma’ is now slowly spreading in Russia as well, he tells me, after they have left.

The stoned European who was sitting expressionless all this while is now hungry and Naga Sadhu calls for some food for him. There are two huge two litre bottles of packaged mineral water in front of him. Soon some hot khichdi and subji arrives in a steel plate fetched by a young and modernly dressed man and is served to the European. Naga Baba realizes that the European would not be able to eat that semi liquid food with his bare hands and summons for a spoon. A spoon is nowhere to be found and someone brings in a dry Banyan leaf rolled up to eat the semi-liquid khichdi.

Meanwhile the Baba pulls up another deep puff from his pipe of marijuana and resumes his conversation with me.

My heart and my head are still at logger heads. The head pleads with me to leave the place at the next possible excuse and the heart nudges me to stay on.

Naga Baba man is interesting to listen to. Arguably he is a little incoherent, boastful and pompous. He uses the foulest of language at the slightest of provocation, but at the same time he is exceedingly funny. From a different perspective I have to admit he is also very profound and brutally honest. Most importantly he is a mind reader. There is no doubt he is seeing through what is going on in my mind as though it were a transparent glass. And he makes no bones out of it. He has probably seen many skeptics like me intrigued by the way of life that these naked sadhus lead. 

 He is sitting cross legged and right in front of me at what I deem to be a safe distance. He shifts his legs and I cannot but shift my eyes away after I notice that his private parts are exposed. In a flash of a second, perhaps embarassed, I turn my eyes away. Since then my eyes are shifty and I am being careful not to be caught in that embarrassing position again. I look into his eyes and intently listen to his conversation on all worldly matters. The state of the rivers, the receding water tables, the current avatar in which god has come to earth and the relentless Human greed that will cause a huge disaster soon enough.   

He calls for some more chillum -  the pipe filled with marijuana and his understudy gets busy preparing one. In between all this conversation, perhaps sensing my uneasiness, he summons his understudy and asks him to get his langot- the loin cloth. The understudy goes around to fetch some marijuana, but forgets to get his langot. He reprimands him for his forgetfulness and asks him to get his Langot.  

The Langot a piece of white cotton cloth is drying out in the sun closer to the river bank. When the understudy fetches it to him it is crisp and white as if it were a freshly starched  piece of cloth. He carefully folds it into a long loin cloth and wraps it around his waist without shifting his legs. 

Meanwhile his monologues are on, interspersed by my monosyllabic answers to his questions. A crowd of curious onlookers have gathered up. His talk is interesting and engrossing and people stop by to listen to him for a few minutes and then move on. This has been going on for a couple of hours. He talks with me in Hindi and intermittently in English. He is boisterous, pompous about his abilities, his powers and unabashedly argumentative with anyone who challenges anything he says.

So far I haven’t taken any chances to counter his statements but the boatman sitting on the bench with his back to the wall by the temple is constantly ridiculing him with a smirk or a laugh and provoking him onto controversial conversations.

We are talking about how the makers of the documentary have made name, fame and money in the name of these Naga sadhus. He takes a deep puff into his pipe of Chillum. He is not anymore angry with the makers of the documentary as he was about a couple of hours earlier.  

He calmly says that money or fame are of no use to him. If he wanted money he would summon his powers and money would come knocking. He once needed money to renovate an ancient Shiva temple in the Himalayas that was in a dilapidated state. He came down to civilization possibly to Haridwar where he thought he would go begging and ask for donations to renovate the temple. 'But I probably smoked too much of chillum like today and totally forgot about it' he says, laughing unto hinself and then briefly pauses. 

'It was then that suddenly a white woman from some country came around and silently put some money in mys kamandal. (The begging bowl). I thought it would be a few ten or hundred rupee notes, but no... they turned out to be dollars. A lot of dollars. More than enough for the pursuit that I had set forth for. Now if this wasn’t Shiv Bholenath’s miracle, what was it?, he asks as if to prove his point.

He says their occupation is not to go begging, neither are they the cult that is seeking attention. We are like anyone of you , he emphasizes once again. 


I am a brahmchari, he tells me. 



No sure if I have understood the sanskrit word for celibate, he explains in English, ' I am nebher habing sex'. (sic)

Naga Sadhus are celibate and take the vow of celibacy to preserve their veerya – the life giving energy in the form of semen to seek a higher form of consciousness. 

It is therefore that he claims that he can do yogic postures and stand in a single posture for days together. Most popular among his public display of his seemingly bizarre powers is when he pulled a jeep filled with people with his Penis in front of the Indian Parliament. 


It is now my time to speak. The chillum pipe has been doing multiple rounds. 

'Baba, from what I understand, to excel in Yoga you need to be free of intoxicants. Even tea and coffee can cause havoc. How is it that you pull it all off, I ask, while he takes a break. 

He ties up his loin cloth, steps aside near the wall and spits what I assume was tobacco or weed and comes back to his position. He now takes a deep puff of the chillum from the earthern pipe that has also been passed around to his understudy and the onlookers alike. The place is dense with the smoke and the smell is intense. Later I would  associate this to be the smell of marijuana. 

Me against myself is creeping up again ...

The head is now crying out just-get- the-hell- out-of- here- before-you get-into-any-sort of-trouble.
But then I am at a public place, reasonably in my senses. The smoke of marijuana is dense. I am passively smoking it . Its effect has not got on to me, well ... it has not yet got on to me, but-it-may-get-on-to-you-and-you-will-never-know says the head. 

Naga Baba keeps the conversation on, while he orders for tea. Considering all that has been going on in my head, I, perhaps in a slightly over defensive tone say I do not drink tea and open my bottle of mineral water and start sipping. 

Naga Baba is a very reasonable host. Sensing that I am still a little distrustful of their clan and fearing that the drink might be spiked, he says calmly, perhaps a little mockingly, ' We are having tea; do not worry if you do not want to have with us, that is fine as well' 

I know he has read my thoughts once again.

The smell of Marijuana around the place is getting dense and the chillum is passed around once again. I take my cue and decide to leave. A young man dressed in black T-shirt and jeans who prepared their Chillum some time ago, now pulls up on his Android phone the youtube video of the trailer of the documentary the ‘Naked in ashes’.

I watch a few minutes of the trailer of the documentary that shot Naga Sadhu Shivraj Giri to his 15 minutes of worldwide fame. The connectivity on his mobile phone is intermittent. I promise to look it up on you tube and also watch the entire Documentary when I get home and take leave.

The Naga baba raises his hand to bless me and I instantly know I have made a friend. 
An 'X'traordinarily unusual friend ...




Although it may give you an entirely different perspective of the Naga Sadhus from what I have experienced and written over here please go ahead and watch this 113 minute documentary 'Naked in Ashes' through this youtube link.





Well … did they not say it takes all kinds to make the world?

To be continued :
Y- Yogis and Sadhus from the Himalayas 


This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.