Finding Great Sects at Kumbh Mela

Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley

Tue February 12, 2013 | 00:00 AM


The title of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but the reality is this is a sacred celebration. People come to river-bathe at this auspicious time not just so they can wash away their own sins in this lifetime, but also to cleanse the 88 previous generations in their families. This means of ensuring liberation from the eternal cycle of rebirth for oneself and one’s ancestors is why Kumbh Mela has stood the test of time.

DSC02114Two differently-clothed Juna Akharas sharing a meal with a Naga

Another fundamental reason devotees flock to the Mela is to connect with their clan once every three years. A convention of the converted. The most interesting of the pilgrims are the sadhus, Hindu holy men who truly see their sect as an extension or a replacement of their family. You may see their foreheads smeared with sacred ash, their necks encircled with marigold garlands as bright orange as the robes they wear (or don’t wear in the case of the Nagas who don more ash, less cloth). They come together to listen to their babas (gurus). One member of the Juna sect proclaimed to me that they had 50,000 babas in their overall camp at this particular Mela.

DSC02102_0Watch out for Naga processions

Here’s a recap of the main Akharas (or sects). One of the most prominent groups is the Juna Akharas who often cover themselves in ash and show their devotion to their Lord Shiva, the ender of time. As mentioned in my last post, my traveling companion, Acharya Sri (a guru in his own right), is loosely-affiliated with the Bairagi Akhara that honors Shiva but also gives attention to Lord Vishnu. The Niranjani and Tayaga sects are very friendly with the Bairagis.

KM-1733-webPotentially part of the Sakhi Akhara

Two of the more outlandish Akharas are the Sakhis and the Aghoras. The Sakhis are holy transvestites (I saw many more than I expected) who simulate sex with male deities and are generally better-respected in this male-dominated camp culture than I would have expected. And, then, there’s the Aghoras who basically hang out near cremation sites, amid human remains, drinking from skulls, eating fecal matter, and doing everything they can to break societal taboos. We ran into one Aghora who seemed to have lost his mind as he was guffawing uncontrollably. (Maybe he’s in on life’s joke.) And, then there’s other smaller Akharas like the Nirvanis and the Udasi.

KM-1792-webThis Naga was chanting with his fellows

While there’s a little competition between the sects, it’s all pretty friendly. But, the group that stands out is the Nagas who sometimes wear not a stitch of clothing, carry a trident cane, and clad their skin in cow-dung ash and sandalwood powder. Ceremonially, they tend to be the first ones to rush into the river on the most auspicious bathing day and they sometimes create theatrical processions through the huge crowds.

IMG_0710Getting the hang of it yet? You’re right…this is a Naga

The Nagas have become more welcoming with time. Twenty years ago, you might not have been welcomed into one of their camps to witness their unique culture. But, today, with the exception of a westernized Caucasian Naga camp that was particularly gnarly and resistant to outsiders, most Nagas allow you to be in search of “sadhu darshan,” glimpses of holy men. In fact, the older Nagas, as seen in the photo below, dress a little more dignified than their younger aspirants.

KM-2332-web_0Older, more distinguished Nagas keep their clothes on

Beware of some crazy practices amongst the Nagas. What you see in these next two photos can be seen in more graphic video detail in the documentary Shortcut to Nirvana. Speaking of devotional practices! There’s another Naga initiation ceremony called “Tanga-Toda Sanskara,” in which a guru gets a hold of an ascetic’s penis and the teacher then gives it three jerks as a means of telling the initiate/monk their sex organ was now out of order.

IMG_0694Yes, he has wrapped his penis around a stick

IMG_0696_0Yes, there is now a man standing on that stick. Ouch!

KM-712Some Nagas are known to have temper outbursts…maybe it’s due to those things we saw in the last couple photos

In my upcoming post on devotion to gurus at Kumbh Mela, I will talk a little more about the burgeoning signs of women gurus and sadhus. I was particularly encouraged to see this was one of the most prominent posters seen everywhere at the Mela.

KM-2093-webNice to see more female energy to counterbalance all the sects’ testosterone 

An extra special thanks to Nitin Dixit for many of these photos, as during my four days at the Mela, I experienced a lot of “Naga Hide,” in which these not bashful fellows seemed invisible to my camera.

DSC02094Next time I take my family to Disneyland, we’re wearing these hats as there’s no way we’ll lose each other