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Akhada: From the depths of a winter’s night
by Gayatri Sinha
Sharma’s photographs stress the unchanging character of the Nagas and their apparent indifference to the passage of time.

Traditionally, an akhada is a place for practice, for living and exercising, a term current in the Indian lexicon for wrestlers, religious orders, and itinerant groups of wandering mystics. In the context of the Juna akhada and its inmates, the Naga babas, however, the akhada becomes a compelling photographic subject.

Both forbidding and steeped in remote, cultic practices, it mark the vivification of the past, in our immediate present. In the work of Parul Sharma, two subsects of the Juna akhada – of the ancient order of the nude Naga babas or sadhus as they are known, and the neophyte order of the Kinnar akhada, or the transgendered sect of Shiva devotees, are dramatically captured.

Using an android phone camera, sharma traced the Nagas through a cyclical ritual. Shot over a night and day in December 2019, at the Ardh kumbh mela at Allahabad on the banks of the Ganga, and thereafter on the river’s edge at Varanasi, the  prints on view reveal   the spectacular demonstration that faith exercises in the Indian subcontinent. Appearing in intense close up, the Naga babas reveal little of their historic antecedents.

Widely believed to be residents of the Himalayas who congregate for the confluence of rivers during the Kumbh mela, the order of the Juha akhada claims a complex history. Often described as ‘astradhari’, they are arms bearing ascetics— in distinction to the ‘shastradhari’ ascetics or those who propagated the ‘shastras’ or the holy texts -- the sect is believed to have been founded by the 8th century philosopher –poet, Adi Shankaracharya. Specifically the subjects of these photos belong to the unbroken line of warrior sadhus,  of an order formalised in  the early 14th century, and constitutes  one of the most powerful congregations of Indian ascetics.

Sharma’s photographs stress the unchanging character of the Nagas and their apparent indifference to the passage of time. Through India’s early colonial history, sadhus and sannyasis were a subject of intense and frequently conflicted administrative control.

Their authority drew not a little power from their reclusive ways of living, their esoteric rituals and their status as custodians of faith.

As ascetics who have no worldly possessions in the manner of the ascetic God, Shiva these  wandering figures living in ashrams, caves and chhavnis or encampments at remote sites, and appear in congregation  only at holy sites such as the Kumbh mela.

A Hindu bathing festival held by rotation in four cities – Allahabad, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nasik, the Kumbh is heralded by the auspicous alignment of the constellations.

Bathing in the holy river, such as Ganga is believed to absolve pilgrims from the burden of their earthly sins. At any rate, purification of the body through ascetic practices is well entrenched in subcontinental faiths; indeed  ancient  Puranic narratives are full of instances of  the accrual of power and the fulfilment of vows earned through penances.

Vested with a canonical lineage, the Juna akhada traditionally wielded much power, as warrior- trader sannyasis.  Nevertheless, the 13 main akahdas were divided  and at the Kumbh sites, during  the 18th and 19th centuries,  the various akhadas frequently had bloodly clashes over bathing rights at the Ganga.  

The protracted and bloody conflicts between the different groups on who should lead  the grand procession  to the first ritual immersion led to official intervention,  and the British accorded the Juna akhada sadhus first rights, to enter the river. British intervention which vested the Juna akkhada with primacy further enhanced their status, which is upheld even today by the prominence and size of their akhada, on the river banks.

Swords and trishul aloft, their naked and ash smeared bodies breaking into a run as they surge towards the Ganga, the Nagas  make an extraordinary photographic subject.

Conventionally forbidden to the public gaze and the camera lens until recently, the Nagas are possibly the most spectacular figures among the sannyasi cults. 19th century photographers led by British ethnographers and India enthusiasts first photographed the 13 different sects such as the Dasanamis, Nirmohis, Ramnadis under the generic name of ‘sadhu’. With many of the stereotypical tropes of the Shiva devotee – the long matted hair, the holy rudraksh beads and the loin cloth, the sadhu was arrested by the slow wet colodion photographic process into a passive pose. Recent photographs of the Nagas however, by Raghu Rai, Prashant Panjiar and others releases them from the fixity of the studio camera’s gaze and captures their natural,  wild exuberance.

The masculinity of the virile sadhu, the untamed anthropocene is on display with the ingression of hundreds of nude sadhus as they run brandish arms, and dive into the Ganga.

For the Ardh Kumbh mela which takes place every six years, the shahi snan or royal baths that coincide with the auspicious movement of the planets, and the concluding bath on the occasion of Maha Shivratri see the Nagas appear in grand procession. Beating drums, atop a horse, festooned with rose petals and pulsating with energy, Sharma’s images capture sadhu celebrants’ mood of exulation as their
procession winds its way to the river banks.  

The portraits taken close up are an intimate view of men of indefinite age, their faces ash smeared or marked with auspicious symbols, their necks and heads festooned and covered with ritual beads. In close up, the nagas appear both vulnerable  and enigmatic. Sharma also allows a view within the akhada, of the scenes of preparation after a ceremonial bath. A rear view shot  of the sadhus in the immediate aftermath of the bath, bodies pressed close against the cold reveals ash  smeared nude male bodies tightly packed in congregation.
As devotees of Shiva the Nagas exult in this festival which marks the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, as a day of fasting and all night worship, intended to guide the awakening of the latent consciousness.  

Sharma eschews the exoticised Naga photos of yogic contortion to render these reclusive figures accessible. In the privacy of their tents, smoking the chillum, eyes reddened with several nights of sleeplessness, they display a little of  the eccentricity associated with sadhus,
such as the Naga whose elaborate headgear contains a white mouse and a parrot, much like a moving landscape.

With nightfall, Parul Sharma’s photographic exercise begins within her entry to the akhada  which stand as a  temporary  tented structure on the  sandy river banks of the Ganga. The night before the shahi snaan offers the opportunity to capture a nocturnal, deeply expectant mood.

As the passage way winds inwards through the elaborate, tented structure, the smaller cubicles of each of the Nagas come into view. Unadorned but for a bedding and a coal fire for warmth, the Nagas present different aspects –of asceticism, eccentricity and sheer theatricality. In what appears a highly performative mode, the cubicle is rendered like a mise en scene, complete with photographs, posters,  kindled log fires and sacred ash, which the sadhu dispenses to the devout. Parul Sharma’s photographs, taken over a period of one night during the Ardha Kumbh mela of 2019, evoke a deeply contemplative mood.

The portraits taken close up are an intimate view of men of indefinite age, their faces ash smeared or marked with auspicious symbols, their necks and heads festooned and covered with ritual beads. In close up, the nagas appear both vulnerable  and enigmatic.

Sharma eschews the exoticised Naga photos of yogic contortion to render these reclusive figures accessible. In the privacy of their tents, smoking the chillum, eyes reddened with several nights of sleeplessness, they display a little of  the eccentricity associated with sadhus, such as the Naga whose elaborate headgear contains a white mouse and a parrot, much like a moving landscape. Sharma also allows a view within the akhada, of the scenes of preparation after  a ceremonial bath.

A rear view shot  of the sadhus in the immediate aftermath of the bath, bodies pressed close against the cold reveals ash  smeared nude male bodies tightly packed in congregation. As devotees of Shiva the Nagas exult in this festival which marks the marriage of Shiva and Parvati, as a day of fasting and all night worship, intended to guide the awakening of the latent consciousness. 

Myths that antedate these ritual baths are intricately tied to the concept of devotion to holy rivers. In the Skanda Purana, the longest Purana which specifies modes of worship at religious sites, the significance of the waters of the Kumbh is described.

During the churning of the oceans, the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) competed for the divine nectar which would emerge from the churning of the oceans. Rising to the surface of the oceans were great riches, including  the Goddess Laxmi, the heavenly elephant  Airavat, deadly poison which Shiva ingested,  and finally the nectar of immortality.
As they fought for the pot of nectar, Garuda, the divine eagle - like, bird mount of Vishnu snatched away the pot and flew away with it.

As he flew, four drops of nectar fell, one at each Allahabad, Nasik, Haridwar  and Ujjain and these  became the sites of the holy Kumbh. The mystical power that accrued to these rivers makes the Kumbh mela the largest congregation on earth, of saints and pilgrims, traders and donors , the ultimate purificatory site for Hindus.    

As a sect of Shiva devotees, the Nagas give primacy to a detachment from material existence and dedicate themselves to the pursuit of a metaphysical evolution. Sharma documents them as  bearers of ancient pre-historic traditions, much like their Vedic predecessors, with
the naked ash smeared body and the jata or matted hair.
The sadhu may carry a staff and a vessel of water, be celibate, and live in remote nature.

The body of the Naga sadhu registers no place, no time.
As a man of faith, the Naga nevertheless resists any kinds of iconicity or deification – and even in this photo series, they remain unidentified. Following the Nagas as they make their way from Allahad to Varanasi, Sharma travels with one of them on a boat to Manikarnika, the burning ghat. The flames in the backdrop and the sadhu’s wild matted hair and ash smeared face, like the residue from the burning ghat seem to bring into view the cycle of birth and death within a single frame.  

From the virility of the Naga’s body that is at once flagrant and eroticised in her photographs, Parul Sharma documents the trans-community, that had installed an akhada for the first time at the Kumba mela. Following the revocation of Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, that decriminalized the LGBTQ community, this was the first state acknowledgement of the transgendered within a pan Indian religious event. In sharp contrast to the Nagas,  in Sharma’s photos document  the Kinnar or the transgendered appear with extraordinary flamboyance.

As itinerant groups,  in cities and towns, transgenders usually seek money at births and weddings, appearing at the red lights of traffic signals to beg or solicit. Parul Sharma’s photographs  however reflect the new found status that the Kumbh mela conferred.For the first time the kinnars were allowed to participate in the shahi snaan. Unlike the other akhadas wherein devotes would gather to hear sermons, in the kinnar akhara the trans members danced to loud music, sang, hugged and blessed the  long queues of devotees.

As an extension of the Juna akhada, wearing the tripundara
or three horizontal lines of Shaiva devotion on their foreheads, they appear as a series of portraits – compelling, direct, and engaging. In comparison to the highly codified performativity of the Nagas this is a newly minted akhada, self-consciously arriving at its own image  and identity. In her portrait of figures of the akhada, Sharma highlights the new visibility that kinnars may claim, led by the flamboyant and highly articulate
Dr Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi, shot from within their akhada, confidently returning the gaze of the lens, these figures mark a shift in the public perception and the embedded mythic inheritance and of the transgendered figure.

Thus while the Nagas represent continuity, the trans figures at the Kumbh mela actually mark a recalibration,
and a change of status.

In Sharma’s work, Tres where three faces appear in a ‘trimurti’ like formulation, the recall of Shiva as trimurti at  Elephanta is apparent. The portraits shot within the kinnar akhara where thousands line up for  blessings  are empathetic, and bring out the access  that the kinnars accorded to devotees and pilgrims. Seen together within the context of the Kumbh mela of 2019, Parul Sharma’s photographs thus  look both forward and backward in time.

The exhuberance of the Nagas in procession their stillness and contemplation in the deep  night at the akhara speak of the sanctity of an unbroken tradition. Again,  in the kinnar akhara’s inclusion into the religious fold  that renders faith and ritual as the quickstone of social acceptability ,change is desirable and imminent.Thus while the Nagas represent continuity, the trans figures at the Kumbh mela actually mark a recalibration, and a change of status.

Seen together within the context of the Kumbh mela of 2019, Parul Sharma’s photographs thus  look both forward and backward in time. The exhuberance of the Nagas in procession their stillness and contemplation in the deep  night at the akhara speak of the sanctity of an unbroken tradition.

Again, in the kinnar akhara’s inclusion into the religious fold  that renders faith and ritual as the quickstone of social acceptability ,change is desirable and imminent.

August, 2019
New Delhi

Sadhu • one who does sadhana, or acts of prayers and penance
Rudraksha • dried berry like bead, associated with Shiva and magical properties
Akhada • a site for  wrestling, training in arms
Gayatri Sinha is an art critic & curator based in New Delhi, India.

Her primary areas of research are around the structures of
gender and iconography, media, economics and social history.

She has initiated Critical Collective, a forum for thinking on conceptual frames within art history and practice in contemporary India.

Formerly, she had been an art critic with The Indian Express (1981–1991), The Telegraph (1991–1994) and The Hindu (1995–2006).

You can learn more about her work here.