Haridwar: Camping at the Juna Akhara in Haridwar, 17-year-old Sagar Puri is trying hard to find favour with his teachers. Training to be a Naga sadhu, his days are spent running errands for them, bathing in the icy waters of the Ganga and performing hours-long rituals. Puri is one of over 5,000 men awaiting their initiation into the esoteric, powerful cult of the Naga sadhus on the auspicious occasion of the Maha Kumbh—held every 12 years—on February 12.
Puri, who ran away from his home in Chandigarh to join the akhara three years ago, plays the part of a man who is about to renounce everything. With his saffron robe, saffron turban and saffron paste smeared on his forehead, he looks the part too.
After breakfast at the akhara, he sits huddled with the sadhus outside the Bhairon temple, smoking chillums into the foggy morning and reading newspapers. Puri won`t tell you his real name—he is forbidden to talk about life before sadhudom and Sagar is a name the akhara gave him. All he says is he left because he felt lost and didn`t identify with what everyone else was aspiring for. When he found a guru with dreadlocks and ash smeared on his body who talked about nirvana, Puri decided to shave his head and discard his trousers and shirt for a saffron robe.
He has not renounced everything, though, at least not yet. He carries a cellphone and poses for pictures with his chin up. Most afternoons, he watches the National Geographic Channel and sits with his gurus, smoking "peace pipes", chatting and giving interviews to the media. Sometimes, he goes to the restaurants to eat sweets.
Son of a shopkeeper, Puri admits that he talks to his parents on the phone. "They came to reclaim me, but later signed a letter saying they had given me to the Juna Akhara. I am their only son but I was always different," he says. "You see, we are lost in this world. We seek our refuge. This is mine. I am happy here. I see my parents in my guru."
Life in Juna Akhara—the biggest in town—is communal. He shares a room with others and everything is shared. There`s no fixed time for bed. "You sleep when nobody needs you and you get up when they call you; nothing is time-bound," he says, watching a news telecast on the Maha Kumbh—the only time when young aspirants like him can rise up the ranks to become Naga sadhus.
Puri dutifully listens to what the sadhus—whose matted dreadlocks fall below their knees—have to say. "The life of a Naga is a life of possibilities," a sadhu says. Puri, too, dreams about all the possibilities—of people coming to him, revering him for his sacrifice, of shutterbugs clicking away as he walks the streets covered in ash, naked, in his Naga baba avatar.
Over lunch at Jwalapur, a nearby kasba where Naga sadhus from across the country are camping before they march to Hardwar in a grand procession on January 30, Puri, wielding a stick, calls out to a couple of foreigners and asks them to click pictures of him.
Almost seamlessly, he goes on to talk about attachment, the soul, and the cycles of birth and death. If you don`t seek liberation, he says, you could end up as a street dog in your next life, or worse, an insect born only to be squashed underfoot.
The young sadhu has endeared himself as much to tourists as to his gurus, and his zeal to prove himself a true ascetic seems to be paying off. It`s only a matter of two weeks before Puri is a full-fledged Naga sadhu. "He will become a Naga sadhu at the vijay havan," Girija Datt Giri, a Shri Mahant at the Juna Akhara, says.
The 13 akharas in Hardwar are busy preparing for February 12, when thousands of Naga sadhus will march to Har-ki-Pauri for a holy dip in the Ganga. During the initiation ceremony, Puri will perform the pind daan—funeral rites for his parents and himself, a symbolic act that will imply he has left the world he was born into, and crossed over to another, a point of no return. For 24 hours before the ceremony, he will not be allowed to eat or drink water. In front of the ritual fire, he will be asked if he wants to go home. After passing all the trials of asceticism, Puri will pledge to become a Naga sadhu for life.