So it's early morning, before sunrise, in Varanasi. I'm staying at the Yogi Lodge in Goudalia, the old, smelly, labyrinth of Varanasi old city. My travel companion, Katja, is sleeping sweetly on her thin, stained mattress, bundled up with a trillion dusty blankets.
I'm hunting for a real Aghori baba.
I did my dissertation at my university SOAS about the Pashupatas- the really nasty, crazy renunciates, who follow Shiva. They eat dead flesh, they live at the burial grounds, they smear their bodies with ashes from the funeral pyre. They drink water from a human skull, and they behave in different funny, weird ways, to be like Shiva. They scare people and they give respect.
Apparently, these sadhus only exist today in Nepal, in the Pasupatinath.
But I had read and heard that another, related tribe of sadhus, called "Aghoris", still could be found in Varanasi, close to the burning ghat, where human bodies were burning day and night.
So I was walking early that morning towards the burning ghat. The river Ganga was misty and grey, but many little lights were slowly flickering with the soft wave movements of the dirty river. People were swimming and bathing, performing rituals just below the steps; I was drinking sweet, sweet chai from a tiny plastic cup.
At one moment I decided to go down and sit on one of the platforms facing the river. I decided that things would come to me, if I only relaxed.
I was looking out at the river, gradually increasing in grey misty light, and at one point I looked back towards the buildings behind me- and I could not believe my eyes when I saw this figure walking towards me. It was a dream come true. He was actually walking out to the platform where I was sitting. This weirdly dressed and painted creature- an Aghori baba?
He looked at me, asked if he could sit down (hand-language) and I of course, invited him to sit, and I could not hide my curiosity, I immediately started feeling his hair, clothes, looking at his tools, ornaments. Of course, as is always customary in India, another guy showed up, and offered his services as a translator. It was helpful, because the baba did not speak English, and my Hindi is limited to like 11 words.
The baba said that he was indeed an Aghori sadhu. That he ate dead flesh. That he used the ashes to cover his body. He showed me the skull that he drinks from. He was very eager to share with me, he seemed almost to enjoy all the attention. When I asked if I could take pictures, he started posing, and got more and more into it- he changed the position of his animal-printed shawl, and at one point asked me to film him, as he did his "scary, crazy, Shiva-laugh."
These shoes, he said, were for suffering. They are painful to walk in- they are for practicing his "tapas"- suffering, work on burning off his karma.
I tried to give him money and he did accept, reluctantly- actually, he seemed to just love the attention that he got from me. My fascination was pouring out of my eyes- while, underneath, inside me, I had the feeling that his plastic skull and cheap ornaments were actually just a facade, a theater-costume. Even his animal-print shawl, I remember seeing at the market-stalls by the main ghat.
As we parted, I continued walking along the river, and met several other babas, homeless, weird and wonderful people. At one point, under the bridge of the main ghat, I encountered my Aghori baba again. Here, he is helping another sadhu to cover his skin in "ashes". This other sadhu looked like he was close to death- so weak, so thin, with eyes almost popping out.
Later, when we went to our usual internet-place, where we had made good friends with the family that owned it, I told them I had met an Aghori baba. The laughter that came in response was both infectuous and humiliating.
A "real" Aghori would never walk around in daylight, and much less would he CLAIM to be an Aghori. It's like claiming you are enlightened! And, worst of all, they told me that these shoes that he was wearing; they all wear them at home. For stimulating the blood flow. Bah.
This guy is FAKE, FAKE, FAKE! And you stupid tourist bought his story... Ha ha ha... hrrrmmmm...
Well. Ok. I might have been naive.
Honestly. Which normal dude would walk around dressed like that?
My chase and hunt for the "real" sadhus in Varanasi was never ending. I never did manage to find one that seemed "real". They all wanted either attention, money, whiskey, cigarettes or their picture taken. Mostly all of it.
My point is.
If a man chooses to walk away from a family/material life, for whatever reason, from making money, for whatever reason, and to live off what they are given, then their story must surely be very interesting.
I'm sure many of them are criminals, homosexuals...whatever one can think of that would not fit into the Indian society. They escape the law and the public by "renouncing" "normal" life, and they choose to become "holy men". This, in itself, is fascinating to me. Real, or not real.