THE STREET SADHUS OF RISHIKESH
Photography by Eszter Papp
Words by Fraser Morton
As dawn rolls over the shoulders of the Himalayas each morning hundreds of devout Hindu holy men bask in sunshine and bathe in azure waters of the Ganges River. The Sadhus of Rishikesh are a striking sight.
They emerge from street corners, shacks on the banks of the mighty Ganges River or from nearby Ashrams. Some smear on face paint of vermilion and sandalwood ash, some adorn saffron robes and intricate gold chains and rings, while others wear only a loincloth or nothing at all.
These devout holy men live on the fringes of Indian society. The Sadhus have purged themselves of the 21-first century, all worldly possessions as well as their families, choosing instead to wander India on a spiritual quest of devotion.
They live on the generosity of strangers and are revered by many Hindus for their sacrifice to their faith.
Despite owning nothing other than walking sticks and donations pots, the Sadhus take pride in their appearance - a form of artistic expression in honour of the gods.
While there are many - around 60 - Sadhu tribes around India, most notably in Varanasi, there is also a large population of these nomadic holy men drawn to Rishikesh, one of India’s most sacred sites, where sages and saints have embarked on pilgrimages to meditate and attain higher spiritual insight for centuries.
While the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi is considered the holiest of places for a soul to be liberated and enter the afterlife, Rishikesh is also a source of many holy rituals on the banks of the great river.
The Ganges River is living and divine in Hindu Indian society, in part due to its source being meltwater from Himalayan snowfall from the heavens above.
The Sadhus also act as spiritual mentors, telling fortunes, interpreting dreams and playing music for passersby.
Many Sadhu also puff on marijuana and hashish each day, which they imbibe in a variety of pipes or rolled joints.
The road to becoming a Sadhu is as diverse as the sects of Sadhu themselves. While some are orphans, others have university degrees and were previously rich men who denounced their former lives. Some have no one and others have families who have no idea of their whereabouts. The Sadhu don’t want to be found.
Some undergo an initiation to become a Sadhu, with more extreme sect rituals include covering themselves in human ashes, devouring human flesh and worshiping the skulls of the deceased.
Not all Sadhus do this, however, and if you happen to travel to Rishikesh you will no doubt encounter these holy men living a life-less-ordinary: Singing, studying their faith and extending a hand and smile to strangers.