The world is full of contrasts. Never is this brought home more strongly than when the contrasts cut across established ideas. For example, I have a certain image of sadhus.
A sadhu is someone who has dedicated his life to achieving liberation. Within the Hindu religious system, this means escaping the otherwise endless cycle of life and death.
Liberation is achieved through meditation and contemplation of what lies behind the impetus of creation.
It also involves going on pilgrimages and carrying out certain devotional actions such as bathing in the River Ganges at propitious times. One such time is during the Kumbh Mela (‘complete’ or ‘great’ meeting) that is taking place in Haridwar now.
Millions of devotees are housed in temporary camps outside Haridwar at the moment, and will make their way to the banks of the Ganges in the center of Haridwar on the next bathing date, which is on March 15.
Sadhus often wear orange and peach-colored clothing, which symbolises their renunciation of the commitments of ‘normal’ life.
There are other recognisable signs, such as long hair in dreadlocks, often wound round on top of the head.
In the back streets of Haridwar there are streets filled with ashrams. They are a kind of boarding house for travelling sadhus who follow this mystic path. Sometimes the guests sit watching the comings and goings on the street.
A glimpse inside the open doorways of the ashrams reveals a courtyard and often a small temple set in the back of the courtyard. Sometimes the view through a doorway reveals something even more enticing, as here:
Sadhus are often on pilgrimage – travelling long distances across India. Of course they take buses and trains, but very often sadhus walk long distances – even many weeks journey sometimes.
Looking at them as they walk, they look as though they have walked a long way in their travels and will walk a long way more.
Their belongings are stripped down to bare essentials, though carrying a metal rod or spear as a devotional object – as many do – seems to go against the idea of travelling light.
I have seen sadhus on horses and sadhus on old scooters. With a little mental stretching of the elastic of my imagination it is easy enough to fit them into my (slightly broadening) concept of what a sadhu is.
Never before, though, have I seen a sadhu on a very modern motorcycle.
He passed me coming in the opposite direction on a small street in Haridwar. I was so surprised by the sight of him that I turned and followed him a few yards where he stopped at a copy shop.
I waited and waited and eventually he emerged. As he set off and I took several photographs, I gave him a small wave of ‘thank you’ for the opportunity to get the shots. He gave me the tiniest of agreeable nods before setting off down the road.