It was a lonely, moonless night. The three-member film crew walked into the cremation ground on the banks of the Ganges. In a distance, surrounded by the flickering light from a pyre, they saw the Aghori sadhu, meditating next to the human skull in which he cooked and ate his meals. Laid out ceremoniously before him was a corpse, a lone lamp shining inside its hollowed-out torso. They were witnessing an ancient, secret ritual of necromancy in which the Aghori was invoking his lord Kapileshwar. The coming of the Lord, he’d earlier warned the crew, would be heralded by a complete and utter cessation of all natural sound in the vicinity. As the crew watched, the moon was abruptly obscured by a cloud. The night jar ceased his call, the sounds of the deer in the nearby forest faded away, as did the mocking calls of the jackals circling the ground. “Something about that ominous, silent darkness froze my heart,” recounts Rajesh Bedi, noted photographer and film maker whose fascination with Hindu sadhus and mystics has led him to all sorts of crazy places. He turned around to derive some comfort from his cameraman and sound recordist. They had long fled the scene! All he had for company was the Aghori, his invisible lord... and his trusty camera.
“I wasn’t sure what I had actually seen — but was thrilled to be allowed to witness something so rare, so intimate. I knew that no other outsider had ever been permitted to enter the world of the Aghori, let alone photograph their secrets,” says Bedi. For sadhus inhabit a hidden world, living literally and figuratively, on the fringes of society. “Growing up in Haridwar with parents who enjoyed and sought the many of holy men, I became interested in them from an early age,” says Bedi. He began documenting their lives 36 years ago with father Ramesh Bedi, attending Kumbh Melas and taking rare pictures of the sadhvis and Aghoris. “Over the decades, I’ve managed to establish a degree of trust with a few great sadhus, and my new book is a result of all this research,” says he.
Sadhus — The Seekers of Salvation is the acclaimed photographer’s ode to some of India’s oddest anachronisms, holy men and mystics of different Hindu sects. Some cook and sup out of human skulls. Some take vows of celibacy enforced by chastity belts that could double as instruments of torture. Some have acquired such superhuman control over their bodies that they can roll their penises around a stick and casually tuck them away behind them. But what shines through all these photographs is Bedi’s unflinching respect for them. Instead of questioning some of their stranger practices, he records them with the objective delight of an anthropologist, finding beauty where the untrained eye turns away in horror.
For example, during his travels, he found that sadhus of certain orders aren’t cremated after death. Instead, they are placed in a sitting position and then given a riverine burial in a hidden part of the Ganges. When Bedi went there, he saw a long dead corpse that had come untethered from its moorings, floating upside down in a sitting position in a veritable sea of green water. The sight is disturbing — yet so oddly compelling that it is difficult to look away.
Peppered with lively and well-researched essays by his late father and many images from Bedi’s often unforgiving lens, the book is a riveting peek into the lives of ordinary people who happened to embark upon a quest for salvation. For instance, one chapter in the book follows the life of Ram Nath, an Aghori whom Bedi has known for years. He was the son of a journalist in Bihar and a one-time government schoolteacher. Frustrated with the fact that he hardly ever received his salary on time, he decided to go to Kashmir where he made acquaintance with some excellent Afghani hashish. Bedi engagingly says that this started him on his spiritual journey! The onset of militancy forced Ram Nath down to the plains and he ended up in Haridwar where he embraced the Aghori way of life. As Bedi charts Ram Nath’s transformation from an everyman to an Aghori who chooses to constantly surround himself with death, he manages to demystify him even as he matter-of-factly talks of his occasional acts of cannibalism.
Much of Bedi’s research has been done over the years in the Kumbh Melas in Allahabad, Nashik and Haridwar. “A lot has changed with time…” says Bedi. “Earlier, sadhus were true ascetics with few, almost no personal possessions. Today, most own mobile phones and have televisions even in their tents during the Kumbh!” The Kumbh mela itself has changed dramatically over the years. “It used to be a primarily rural gathering, a fair to which villagers from nearby areas thronged to seek the blessings and advice of holy men. Today it is a spectacle on a massive scale, attended by more foreigners than villagers!” he says. In spite of the changes, the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad, on through January this year, promises to be quite a spectacle, he says. “Unlike a few decades ago when sadhus often were itinerant and one would get to know when a particularly renowned one was visiting one’s village or town, today they tend to live more hidden and secretive lives. That is why today, the Kumbh is the best place to see sadhus of different monastic orders,” says he.
Many people today would say that sadhus and holy men are no longer relevant to modern society. “I disagree. In times of stress and anxiety, who doesn’t need a Guru? I feel that they are the only people who do selfless service to humanity. They run homes for the elderly and the sick, provide succour to those in turmoil... In more ways than one, they make the world a better place!” Their practices may be strange, even repugnant to some, but their spiritual quest for salvation is heartfelt. “The aim of this book is not to shock readers. Instead, I hope that it offers readers a modicum of insight into the hidden lives of sadhus and enable them to understand our long tradition of mysticism better...”
Rajesh Bedi’s photographs of the Kumbh Mela and its participants are on display at Delhi’s Triveni Art Gallery from February 5 to 14
SADHUS The Seekers of Salvation Author: Rajesh Bedi; essays by late Ramesh Bedi Publisher: Bedi Film Visuals Pages: 277 Price: Rs 2,950