Swami Somnath Puri is explaining the secrets of longevity to a motley group sitting around his campfire in Haridwar: French tourists, Israeli backpackers, saffron-clad American yogis, elderly Indian women and the odd slum youth with dirt-streaked hair.
Longevity is all about breath control, says the swami in Hindi. The moment you are born, Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, writes down exactly how many breaths or svaasa you will take in your lifetime.
Holy crowd: Sadhus, clothed and bare bodied, congregate at the Kumbh Mela. Photographs by Rajesh Kumar Singh / AP
When the count runs out, you die. The trick is to elongate every breath you take so that each inhalation lasts about 2 minutes, and similarly with the exhalation.
The swami rises and immediately the group does that looking-without-looking eye roll that men do when confronted with cleavage. Save for the yellow chrysanthemum garland around his neck, Swami Somnath Puri is buck naked, his bobbing organ eliciting furtive but compulsive stares from his rapt audience. He is a Digambar, a Mahanirvani, sans clothes, a stare-magnet.
The swami disappears into his tent and reappears with a terracotta cone—about half the size of a normal ice-cream cone. He stuffs it with dried green grass—handmade hashish called charas—stokes the fire, lights the cone and begins sucking from the bottom. This is why we Naga Babas live long, he says from within a cloud of smoke. Our bare bodies aren’t protected from the elements, we don’t sleep, we don’t eat…
Yeah, all you do is smoke hashish, mutters someone irreverently from the back of the group. A few people chuckle.
The swami chuckles good-humouredly too as he looks up through bloodshot eyes at the group. Come on. Sit down. Have some chai, he invites.
The group squeezes itself around the campfire. The charas pipe gets passed around. The French woman with matted hair inhales deeply and appreciatively before passing it on to her companion. The Indian grandmother who was standing with her palms clasped together in a respectful namaste, looks mildly outraged, then disgusted. She walks away, as does the disapproving American yogi. Swami Somnath Puri reaches into the fire and smears some more ash on his already grey body. He puffs a few more times and settles down to pontificate on truth, war and breath control.
Swami Somnath Puri is a Naga—a warrior-saint belonging to the Juna Akhara (clan). He has camped out in Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela, which this year is from 14 January to 28 April. For these three months, Naga saints or Babas, as they are called, come out of their Himalayan caves and tropical jungles to converge in one place. They cease their itinerant wanderings and stay put at sprawling makeshift campsites, talking to visitors, engaging in feats of strength (like pulling a chariot with a penis), and smoking pipes.
“Hinduism is a very diverse religion with many paths to God—puja, meditation, yoga, pranayama, pilgrimages, fasts, chanting and satsang,” says Swami Avdheshanand. “The Kumbh is where all this diversity comes together.”
Swami Avdheshanand is the Mahamandaleshwar or the head of the Juna Akhara, the largest of the Naga clans that arrive at the Kumbh. His serene face adorns numerous billboards in Haridwar. He has a TV show, speaking engagements, a magazine and a devout army of volunteers, one of whom (an architect) has designed his sprawling leafy Harihar Ashram in the old Kankhal neighbourhood of Haridwar.
Inside, there is an auditorium, temple, meditation and prayer halls, a cafeteria, cottages where visiting followers can stay, a shop selling gemstones and books, and a large courtyard where the swamiji receives visitors every morning at 9.30.
The gun-toting policemen spring to action and mutter into their walkie-talkies as soon as the tall, saffron-clad figure emerges from his living quarters. In person, Swami Avdheshanand is smiling and animated, marrying discipline with charm. He is a handsome, youthful man—more Barack Obama than Baba Ramdev who holds court upriver in Rishikesh. Surrounded by a posse of assistants, public relations officers (PROs), schedulers and junior ashramites, the swami cuts an imposing figure as he strides to the sacred peepul tree on the premises. Amid loud chanting, he waters it, pours milk on its roots, throws flowers, hugs the tree and rests his forehead prayerfully on its trunk before smearing the truck with sandal paste and vermilion powder. The same routine follows for the sacred rudraksh tree (Elaeocarpus ganitrus), the oldest such tree in Uttarakhand, according to volunteers. “When you pray with milk, flowers, water and leaves, your body becomes sensitive to nature and its vibrations,” Swami Avdheshanand says. “How can you harm the earth after praying to it?”
A long line of devotees and followers snakes around the central courtyard. Swamiji delves into the crowd like a politician. He holds hands, kisses babies, poses for the camera with families, teases jean-clad young men who seek his blessing and smiles reassuringly at countless supplicant faces that look to him for jobs, babies, promotions, cures, and money. Twenty saffron-clad monks appear. “You people are my wealth, my lifeline, my strength,” the swami exclaims as they fall at his feet. Someone hands him a pair of sunglasses. He puts them on and hams for the camera. Another group of saints arrive, bearing gifts. Flowery language flows. “It is thanks to my past life’s merits that I have been able to see a mahant (religious leader) like you,” exclaims the leader of the delegation. “Arre,” swamiji waves away the praise. “I am just a simple man. You are the great mahant.”
He invites the entire group to breakfast. The last in line is a well-dressed, prosperous-looking woman. “Swamiji, I want to see Shiva,” she says.
Swamiji stares at her as he digests the intensity of her desire. Finally, he says: “God is everywhere. God will be with you.”
The answer seems to satisfy the woman who smiles gratefully.
This then is the business of being a swamiji—the leader of a religious order who wields his influence over millions of followers. At a time when another swami down south—Nithyananda Paramahamsa—has been tainted by a sex scandal, Avdheshanand’s effortless grace is impressive.
Across town, a long line of naked Naga Babas make their way to the broad-bosomed Ganga to seek salvation in her depths. Bhikshus arrive bearing begging bowls. Saffron-clad American swamis dole out cash. Tourists click cameras. Gypsy women squat on the street outside Birla House selling chains and rudraksh beads. Visitors breakfast on kachoris, samosas, jalebis or lassi. Holy Haridwar is strutting its stuff and the Kumbh is in full swing. Till 28 April when the campsites get folded up and the Naga Babas disappear into their forests or caves.
Shoba Narayan was at the Kumbh. She smoked...but she didn’t inhale. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org