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Photo of the Month - exploring the Story behind the Image...
Digambar Badri Giri Maharaj wearing Rudraksha Beads
Year: 2013, Month: February
India > Uttar Pradesh > Allahabad
The human face never ceases to be a subject of fascination, and a face with some unusual aspects is necessarily much more so. This 'Photo of the Month' contains much that is different from the norm of experience in most people's lives, and so is instantly of interest to the viewer. In addition, the eyes of the subject have a haunting quality that suggest much depth and character in this person' makeup. He has a certain air of 'majesty' and confidence - it is obvious that he is not dressed like this for frivolous reasons.
So who is this man? Why is he dressed like this, and what do the different elements of his appearance mean?
He is a 'Naga Sadhu' - a Hindu holy man from the 'Digambar Ani' Akhara. Akharas or 'Akhadas' are an association of different sects of Sadhus, Vairaghis yogis or Hindu Renunciates. There are 14 different Akharas, and they had all gathered together with many other different Hindu groups for the once-in-149-years 'Great' or 'Maha' Kumbh Mela, an event that took place in the spring of 2013, just outside the Indian city of Allahabad at a point known as the 'Sangam' or 'confluence' of three holy rivers: the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the mythical underground river Saraswati, which is said to surface here. Its an astonishing event that breaks all the records: over 100 million people attended during the 55 day festival, with an estimated 50 million people there on one single day: the Mauni Amavasya Snana which took place on the 10th of February. This makes the Kumbh Mela not only the largest religious gathering in the world, but also makes the site the most populous place on earth, with numbers far exceeding the biggest of world cities. I was there for the second most important day: the Basant Panchami Snana which took place on the 15th February, when an estimated 30 million people attended and tried to take their sacred bath in the river to wash away a lifetime's sins. It was quite busy enough for me !
Originally established in the 4th century, there were just 7 Akharas in the early days: Agni, Anand, Atal, Avahan, Mahanirvani, and Niranjani. These days the numbers have increased, and there were 14 different Akharas attending at the Maha Kumbh Mela of 2013. The 14 Akharas are divided into the Sanyasi, Vaishnav, and Udasin sects. The Sanyasi akharas are the Ahawan, Atal, Anand, Juna, Mahanirvani, Niranjani, Panchagni, and Panchdasnam. They normally wear saffron-colored clothing, which sybolises the sun and fire that nourishes the world. The Vaishnav akharas are the Digambar Ani, Nirmohi Ani, and Nirvani Ani. They normally wear white clothing - the color of peace and tranquility, and the harmony of nature. The Udasin akharas are the Bada Udaseen, Naya Udaseen, and Nirmal Panchayati. They normally wear black clothing, which symbolises the night sky, which according to religious belief provides a roof to the universe. Juna is the biggest of the Akharas (based on the number of Sadhus), followed by Niranjani and Mahanirvani, and it is the Juna Akhara that pull the crowds at the Kumbh Mela, all wanting to see these naked holy men, often wielding swords, spears and tridents, as they rush to bathe at the confluence of the holy rivers on the most auspicious bathing days, called 'Snana'. Traditionally during the Kumbh Mela, it is the Naga Sadhus who lead and initiate the bathing rituals, before the general population gets their turn. The bathing begins early in the morning, before dawn, and carries on all through the day at the many bathing points or 'Ghats' along the banks of the 2 (or 3) rivers.
When not bathing in the sacred waters, the nagas are generally found at their large Akhara camps, where they will be visited by devotees from all over India and around the world, coming to be blessed by these holy men, to watch them meditate, and to see them perform their strange religious, yogic, and spiritual activities. Each Naga Sadhu belongs to one particular Akhara, but chooses for himself how he will appear to the world. Some may spend their days naked, smeared with vibhuti (sacred ash), or dressed in items with great religious significance. The Naga Sadhu in this image wears a large number of Rudraksha beads - a sacred symbol throughout India. These beads are actually seeds that come from the Rudraksha tree (Elaeocarpus ganitrus ), a large broad-leaved evergreen tree whose name is a Sanskrit compound consisting of the name Rudra (Shiva) and aksha (eyes) - the Eyes of Shiva. It is believed that the wearing of eleven thousand Rudrakhsa beads will help the devotee attain the form of Lord Shankara (Lord Shiva).
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