The Naga sadhus are the Kumbh Mela's biggest attraction, and the way they pose for shutterbugs suggests that they know it.
I made a trip to the Kumbh Mela, this year, mainly to see and photograph the Naga sadhus, the reclusive and forbidding ascetics often referred to in the same breath as the pilgrimage itself.
Many of my well-meaning friends and colleagues advised me against the endeavour; advising me to at least tread with caution. It was no secret the sadhus do not like being photographed or disturbed in their place of rest. I took it all in and, at the entrance to the Akharas, threw caution to the winds!
They did look fierce and formidable with their ash-smeared body, long matted hair and intense eyes.
There was this niggling problem of communication — I did not speak their tongue. In my own way, though, standing and bowing from a respectable distance, I managed to convey that I wanted to photograph them. To my joy and relief they agreed, but only after I paid them — I suppose money is essential for everyone, even sadhus.
For the next hour or so I moved from one tent to another and ended up with my wallet stolen, but with a memory card full of photographs.
The next day, Sunday, February 10, was Mauni Amavasai, one of the more important days of the Kumbh, where the Naga sadhus were afforded the privilege of having a dip with the decks cleared of common pilgrims.
For the media, the moment where the wave of sadhus hits the water is most awaited. Hopefuls reach the site well before daybreak to get foot space in an advantageous position, fighting not only the crowd but the ever vigilant security, which made periodic charges with their lathis to keep us at bay. This was a challenge to both them and us.
The Naga sadhus then arrived, in a predetermined order of hierarchy, based on, I assumed, seniority. Clothed in ash, proud of their status and enjoying the attention they received, they danced and chanted their way to the Sangam.
Security could not stop us now, as we ran, dodging a lathi here and a shove there to get as close as possible and snap that perfect photograph. The sadhus themselves seemed inclined to be photographed, shaking their matted hair and even posing for the photographers.
As for the rest of the crowd, it was rural India at its religious best. The physical, financial and mental strain they must have undergone to reach the Sangam from all over, predominately northern India, is something that defies reason or logic and can only be explained or understood by one word “Faith.”
They came in a never-ending line, from dawn to dawn, like ants. Heavy loads on their heads, camping on the roadside, they progressed like only pilgrims can to be at the right place at the right time to wash their souls at the Maha Kumbh Mela and the Sangam.