Holy Men

There are millions of holy men, sadhus, in India. Every three years gurus, wandering monks and mystics gather along the shores of the Ganges River to celebrate the Kumbh Mela festival.

Majority of holy men lead a simple life. They are hermits who meditate in remote caves or roam around the country visiting holy places. Kumbh Mela provides a rare opportunity to meet them.

I visited the festival with my journalist wife in 2010. Our assignment was a series of portraits for Image magazine. We hired a local documentarist as our guide-translator, and spend a few days looking for sadhus.

We encountered some unforgettable characters. One had held his arm up for 36 years ("it's a flag raised to honour Shiva"), another lived in a cave and was so drunk that he started to swing an axe at us. Third man demonstrated happily how he could wrap his genitals around a wooden stick. 

A Western sadhu from Switzerland wanted to pose naked. It was a cold morning, but he endured bravely while I was fixing a problem with my flashes. Interviewing him was challenging, because a year earlier he had made a vow not to speak. Nevertheless, he was happy to answer our questions by writing.

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