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Under the sacred protection of Babas (Saddhus)

TRAVEL ESSAY: I spent the corona quarantine in an ashram in legendary Rishikesh, India, spiritually led by Juna Akhara naga babas – naked men smeared in ash.

The corona madness started in March while I was living with aghori babas (who use human ash instead of holy fire ash to cover their bodies) in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, one of the most important holy cities in Hinduism. I had been traveling in India for two months when I had a motorcycle accident on my way to the train station in Mughalsarai. It was midnight, and the accident happened on the highway, but miraculously I escaped unscathed. The Aghoris interpreted the event as a sign from the god Shiva and offered me protection and guidance.

At an underground altar of worship of the goddess Kali, two naked, ashes-smeared aghoris guarded the eternal fire. They smeared a tilak mark on my forehead for protection: three horizontal strips of thick ash. I suddenly realize that it is Manikarnika ashes from the crematorium nearby, dry and warm human ashes from corpses that were cremated a short time ago. The Aghorians offer me drinks from a brass bowl by the fire, that is ganga jal (water), and it does not occur to me to say no. I get ash in both my nose and mouth when I drink. After a few days of this metaphysical treatment, the Aghorians agree that the time is right for me to move further north towards Uttarakhand.


A Shiva supporter asks for shelter

I arrive in Rishikesh in the district of Dehradun and visit Tapovan, where the Babas live in small tents on the banks of the Ganges. Arriving at the slightly hidden gate of the ashram Viswa Chetan, it is quiet. There does not appear to be anyone present, I only hear dogs barking peacefully. Generally, an ashram [temple, a workshop for spiritual growth, ed. note] Receive visitors who are on a spiritual journey without charging for the stay. The guest, on the other hand, will participate in the daily life of the ashram and perform seva – ashram-related work.

They do not really receive visitors now during the corona pandemic.

A thin Baba in orange cloth and dreadlocks waves me up to the roof of the temple. He introduces himself as Sandeep Puri naga baba of Juna Ankhara affiliation. Juna Akhara was started by the philosopher and guru Adi Shankaracharya ca. year 700 and today consists of half a million religious saddhu which gathers during the Kumbh Mela celebrations at the Ganges.

He says he is looking after the ashram for his Guru Ji, who has been away indefinitely. They do not really receive visitors now during the corona pandemic. 37-year-old Sandeep Puri spent large parts of 2018 standing non stop, literally, while blood, plaster and gases came leaking out of the body. He also slept standing up, leaning against a shelf. Now he is the Sannyasin priest for an Indo-Russian ashram where the guru is absent and the helpers are a motley mix of half-mad, money-hungry and lazy dope hats. The ashram – which is supposed to make money while being a metaphysical academy – receives daily visits from both the police and the local doctor due to the pandemic, but Sandeep Puri will still receive me when I tell him that I am a Shiva supporter who needs shelter and can pay a little for my stay. The ashram has six simple completed rooms, four of which are vacant. We negotiate the price and agree that I pay 500 rupees a week.

After the first week, he asks me for 3500 rupees, more than I have ever paid for a stay in an ashram. But I had already become a part of life there, and to have to leave there in the middle of the corona hysteria was unthinkable for all parties.

I wake up early in the morning, at XNUMXAM and sunbathe alone by the Ganges River, practicing sadhana.

Regular rituals and seva

The routine in an ashram is more or less the same every day: I wake up at XNUMXAM, sunbathe alone by the Ganges and practice sadhana – a daily spiritual immersion. Shower, aarti [religious ritual, ed. note] and a quick cleaning of the ashram follows. The morning air is fresh and birds and animals, the sounds of other people and the river create natural background music. At XNUMXAM, Sandeep Puri gives me the signal to start the morning ritual: cannabis smoking and drinking chai (tea) together.

To learn all the rituals and rules for sattvic-lifestyle is what life in an ashram is all about

Morning chai is made in small quantities with a lot of ginger and more milk than regular chai, an awakening drink. To learn all the rituals and rules for sattvic-lifestyle is what life in an ashram is all about and is at the same time an unspoken initiation into the naga community. While the tea is being made, Babas and local Indians flock to the garden – the sound of ginger being crushed in the metal mortar works like an alarm clock. The day can start.

After the morning ritual there are various activities: swimming in the river, seva – cleaning the ashram and the area where the animals stand, washing and feeding the animals, a trip to the city to shop for food and meet people, or visit the temple for a quick pooja (sacrifice, ed. note) in silence. Lunch is in the ashram at 35PM but I drop it and eat fruit and chapati instead. Surya (the sun) is hot, it is around XNUMX degrees, and activities during the day are almost impossible. At XNUMXPM we gather for a new chai-and-smoking ritual, with fresh hot milk from the cows.

A new calf was born while I was there, and the herd now consists of seven cows that I have helped to wash, feed and care for these months – one of the regular tasks at the ashram. We saved the life of a sick cow with marks in its legs, so nauseating that no one could bear to touch them.

Here, the police are allowed to attack you with bamboo sticks.

"Bamboo massage" from the police

The day's events and activities are discussed when we are together. A Russian living with us went outside the area while there was a curfew. The police gave him a "bamboo massage" – he returned to the ashram with large swellings. Bamboo massage is an expression for when police attack people with bamboo sticks – something the Babas also do when they think people are naughty.

Here, the police are allowed to attack you with bamboo sticks. A majority of the population, including my Babas and friends, think this is more or less okay. There are daily police visits and medical checks, and fights with bamboo sticks between restless souls.

In the middle of the corona panic in the city as people ran around the streets, I lost my bank card. While waiting for help, I had to make ends meet for a month at 100 euros. Everyone said I should go home, as the other foreigners did. My European friends thought the same thing: I should get back to Europe's "safe haven" while the virus ravaged.

It did not occur to me to go home earlier than planned. The crazy naga Babas in the tents near the ashram, which I visited illegally during the curfew, agreed with me.
Banu Ji, a local policeman, stopped by and briefed us on the development of the pandemy in his stuttering English. When he stammered, everyone froze – Banu Ji is respected, and his blemishes are therefore shameful.

Sleep with monkeys and birds

Dinner is eaten together at nine o'clock in the evening, after the evening aarti. The last rituals of the day take place around eleven o'clock before going to sleep.
As time went on and I became more and more engaged with the Babas outside the ashram, I moved out of my room and into an unfinished room upstairs. There I slept with the dog Kalu, langoor monkeys, birds, butterflies and the constant hum of grasshoppers and the sounds of the Ganga Ji river.

At the end of May it became more intense. Parts of India, such as Uttarakhand, lifted the corona quarantine. Babas, gypsies and shastries (traveling yogis, astrologers, etc.) set out on a trek again and sought out our ashram. I felt it was time to move on.

After I organized the cleaning of the ashram's upper floor and removed both monkey manure, clutter and building debris, Sandeep Puri said I would always be welcome back and gave myself a naga name: Dycha Puri. There were four of us traveling from Rishikesh to Uttarkashi 190 kilometers away, with an insecure travel permit we had found online.

24 hours later, after countless police checks, medical checks and other breaks, we checked in at Pilot Baba Kaya Kalp Peeth ashram in Bhadwari, a few kms north of Uttarkashi. The place is a famous Juna Ankhara ashram near the Bhagirathi river (the local name for the Ganges) named after a famous rishi (sage) who meditated for thousands of years in the snow-capped Himalayan mountains.
There I could continue my religious duty – Sanatana dharma.

All photos: Diana Pascu


Aghori babas – ascetic saddhus (sages) who perform death-related rituals and smear cremation ashes on the body. They often make jewelry and objects from human bones. It takes 12 years to become a naga saddhu or aghori. They may have loincloths. Ashram – a place of retreat, where one lives simply and conducts religious studies. Preferably designed as a temple.<br> Kali – Hindu goddess, is considered Shiva's feminist aspect.<br> Naga baba – subgroup of saddhus, religious or holy persons, a kind of monks, are also called naked yogis. Often covered with ash. Saddhu – wise, religious, ascetic man, divided into baba subgroups.<br> Sattvic – means "pure, essence" and includes living rules for diet, where the food must be clean and balanced.

Diana Pascu

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