This February is the month of Lord Shiva, when Mahashivaratri (The Night of Lord Shiva) comes again. The Indian sub-continent will celebrate this festival with great and, at times, wild fervor in honor of its favorite God on the 12th of this month. And Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple will fill and burst to the seams with hundreds of thousands of the devout who will come to give praise and thanks to the ultimate shaman, the master of Tantra, the Lord of Dances (Nataraj), the Creator and Destroyer, the perfect husband or just Guru Ji. Whatever name it is that people follow him by, he is loved, trusted and admired by countless number of Hindus. No more so than by the many Babas, Sadhus or Shiva Bhaktas found wandering throughout the hills, deserts, plains and cities of Nepal and India, chanting his name with love and devotion… Om Nama Shivaya!
Mala Baba, a Ram Bhakti Baba clad in red shawl sits near a trisula in his resting spot.
Who Are the Babas?
Sadhus, or Babas, as they are commonly known, come in literally thousands of shapes, sizes and styles. Some as plump as the finest fattened Christmas goose, whilst others are as wiry as the leanest purebred greyhound and then is everything in between. Some Babas will steal the eyes out of the back of your head while you are looking straight at them, smiling, laughing and joking. Whilst others will happily share their last chillum of buthi (meaning herbs and in slang ganja) and cup of chiya with you around a warm fire on a cold morning on the side of some desolate hill, in your common quest to find Bhagawan (God), or just to get a little more stoned before it’s time for breakfast.
Many things can be said about these holy men, but never before have I found a group of ‘holy men’ that so honestly represent their society; both its positive and negative characteristics, and more than that – would never, not for a second, dream of considering to apologize for the way they are – for “Baba is an unlimited man”!
In the beginning, with my innocence (or ignorance?) of things and trusting only my ‘backpackers bible’ – Lonely Planet – to be the true word of God, I used to think that all Babas were the same and that they all did the same things and followed a blue guy who rode around on a cow. Oh Lord, how wrong was I.
Since those early (and innocent days), I have learned that there is more to both it and them than being just a Baba ji. There are Shiva Babas and Ram-Sita Babas, Kali Babas, Aghory Babas, Bhola Babas, Naga Babas, Italian Babas, German Babas, American Babas, Hairy Babas, Smelly Babas, or, in short, every sort of a Baba. The list is truly endless. Long gone are the days when I believed that the only time a Baba was not a Baba was when he was a Swami. And them I only knew due to their personal cleanliness, refraining from the classical ritual and past-time of chillum smoking. Also, that they no longer drank milk with their chiya and spoke a near lost language called Sanskrit. The Baba world is a complex society of many different types. Not just with those that follow a certain God, Lord Shiva for example. Even within this group of Babas is another hierarchy.
After watching the words ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ that were once so rich in many now developed countries disappear with things like progress and technology and work, I found comfort in this group of people that epitomize those two ‘important’ words. Soon, in the not so distant future when that same progress catches up here, will these people start to become a faint memory or just a rumor of some wild, bearded and dreadlocked holy men living in caves in the hills crying “Om Nama Shivaya!” at the moon?
What Makes a Baba?
I have asked this question many times of my Baba companions. Babas are also known by another term; Bhakta or follower, making them recite Shiva Bhaktis, or Kali Bhaktis and so on. A Baba is not considered a priest (but some Babas are also priests, they are called Mantas, as with Pujaris, temple priests). Simply put, he or she is a devout follower of God, someone who has renounced all worldly links such as work, wealth, family to focus on their loving devotion to God. No more than say a Christian monk does. Many Babas focus on subjects like yoga, where the term yogi and yogini (for holy women) come from.
A Shiva Bhakti Sadhu, clad in red, sits at the Patan Durbar Square area.
One day, a Baba whom I call vanity Baba (due to his tendency to constantly groom his long charcoal colored, yet startlingly shiny hair and beard), said to me that long hair is a sign of a Baba’s unlimited nature. A sign to all that Baba is an unlimited man. In the traditional Hindu culture, long hair and beards, even short ones, are seen as unclean and unacceptable. So a Baba is showing the established system that he is outside of it. Free of it in all ways.
I recently went to the Garrid Mai Mela, about 16 km outside Birgunj on the border with India, where about 500,000 animals were sacrificed last November to Garrid Mai Devi (another incarnation of the dark Goddess, Kali). After the Mela, I was walking along a dusty dirt road to a Ram Temple I knew nearby. I turned to the elderly – and now tired from the day – Rama Baba who was my companion for the Mela. I asked him “how is it being a Rama Baba”? He turned his head and the five kilos of pristine dreadlocks upon it, all done up like a perfect beehive. He kept his pressure on his walking stick, and breathed in, and said “life is good, in India, a Baba’s life is very good, I love my Bhagawan. But some things are difficult, no love, no children and no garlic”, his sentence ending with a melancholy tone.
With that, he put his head back down and we walked on the remaining kilometers to the Ram Temple whose pujari (temple priest) we knew would welcome us. The sun set across the plains and jungles of the Tarai in a burst of cosmic hues of blue and red on what had been a long, tiring and emotionally bloody day. The Pujari greeted us warmly; we had a large portion of masala chai, offered our first puja to Lord Shiva in 24 hours and rested our weary frames in quiet safety before the long push that night back to Kathmandu.
Shiva Shankar Mahadev goes by many names throughout the sub-continent. He is regarded as part of the mighty trilogy of the Hindu religion with Brahma the Creator, Vishnu as Lord of the Gods and himself as the Destroyer. The name Shiva means auspicious one. He also goes by the name Pashupati, the Lord of the Animals. The name Pashupati is believed to be more than 7,000 years old. There is also believed to be links between Pashupati and the Celtic pagan-horned God Cernunnos.
Shiva is seen as both a destroyer and a creator, for he destroys so as to make new. He is also seen as the greatest ascetic, riding upon the great bull, Nandi, or depicted in deep meditation. He is also perceived as the perfect homemaker with his wife Parvati, pictured sitting on his knee.
He is also depicted as the Lord of Dances, Nataraja, dancing upon Maya, the demon of ignorance. In his angry form, he is Rudra the Lord of Storms. His dances are called Tandavas with his angry destructive dance called the Rudra Tandava, when he is going about destroying the universe. His happy dance is called the Ananda Tandava - Blissed Dance. His dances are often offset by the Lasya Tandava, performed by Parvati, a set of slow moves made by his wife meant to add balance to the universe.
His home is upon the sacred Mount Kailash in Tibet, which appears as the world’s largest Shivalingam, surrounded by six mountain ranges, making it seem as if it is sitting upon a lotus. Shiva is mostly worshipped at Shivalingams, phallic-shaped black stone statues found far and wide. Worship of the Lingam is often done by pouring water, honey, ghee, and best of all, milk over it. Bananas and boiled baels are considered his favorite fruits. Those that follow Lord Shiva devoutly are called Shaivas.
Shiva can be identified with his fearsome weapon, the trident (Trishul). He also carries a small drum (Damaru), which is significant in his role as Nataraja, when he destroys or builds the universes. He carries a conch, the source of the word Aum or Om, when blown. Upon his waist is a coiled snake representing Shakti or power (which starts from the base of the spine). His hair is matted into dreadlocks or Shiva Dhakas, held up in the shape of a conch shell. Some say that it’s from his dreadlocks that the great Ganga River flows. Others say it’s from his toes. But the most important symbol of Lord Shiva is his ever-present and important third eye. The eye of enlightenment, with which he burns away desires. In his hair is a crescent moon, which is believed to link him to Rudra and the forgotten drink Soma.
Babas come from a world of backgrounds. Some are on their path from a young age, I have met some as young as seven years already sporting long and impressive dreadlocks, or Shiva Dhakas. Many start in their teens, travelling around the sub-continent looking for, or following their Gods. Others are known sarcastically in the Baba world as duplicate Babas, who only put on robes to con people into supporting them. Then there are other Babas who start much later.
There is a Baba I know who goes by the name of Dheri Bhuti (many herbs), focusing his learning about the many herbs on the continent for their different uses. He looks to be in his late 50’s. He can be seen when in Kathmandu, around Pashupatinath, or other such places – a Mongol looking man, with an eagle sharp glare, wearing a leopard print dhoti (sarong) wrapped around his waist. He was a policeman for over 30 years before he got his real call. Another powerful Pujari I have met at a Shiva Temple in the Tarai was a raging terror in his early days until he had a near death experience that made him see his new path. Today, he looks to be in his 60’s with a large set of grey chunky Shiva Dhakas, a large healthy belly and is the only Shiva Bhakta I know of to date who refrains from chillum smoking. He exudes a strong tantric aura and has a warm loving smile.
So, as far as I can see and have found, there are no strict rules to what a Bhakta is and does. Only that he is simply one who has turned his or her life over to his chosen God(s). There are certain colors that a Baba classically wears – red, yellow, black and white, depending on which God they follow. But, then I know some who look like you and I; some wear elaborate representations of the third eye on their foreheads and others none at all. Why? Because Baba is an unlimited man. The Baba world has no strict rules as such, but more so, it is a set of strong ideas.
With chillum in his hands and forehead smeared with tikas, a Babaji paying homage to the almighty Lord Shiva
How To Tell Them Apart
Classically, Shiva Babas wear orange robes and rudraksha beads. The tika on his forehead is the best way to tell; with Shiva Babas having three lines (generally in a beige color) going across their foreheads, and on the lobes of their ears. Then, of course, there are different versions of this tika for the different sub-groups. Naga Babas (considered the military side of the Baba world) have three lines moving out from the sides of their eyes.
Ram Babas also wear orange robes (although I know many who wear white and red), and their forehead is adorned with three lines going down the center, red in the center and beige on the sides. Kali Babas, the fearsome followers of the Goddess Kali, wear either black or red robes and have a bright red tika in the center of their foreheads.
This is just a rough guide. But there is every color and shape in between.
Life In The Temples
Classically, Baba ji is a wandering man. Found moving between holy places, practicing austere meditations and so on. But then, there is also the side of temple life. Some temples are but a stone in the ground while others are as awe inspiring as Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu or Gorakhnath Temple in India. Temples often become like hostels or Dharmashalas – a place to rest on journeys, or even the focus of a journey – for Babas. For elderly Babas, they are places to wind away their winter years when too old for the road.
Some temples have land used for growing vegetables, and have cows for providing the all important sacred milk. I have found many Babas enjoy participating in farming activities, perhaps, reminiscing of their early days back home on family lands.
Of course, there are the regular pujas carried out at temples. At Shiva Temples, bells are rung for a long period by the devout and Pujaris conduct puja in tune with the rising and setting sun.
Washing or Darshan takes place in the early mornings. The Babas can be heard in the dark cold mornings of winter, working the squeaky hand pumps, chanting Ram mantras out loud, helping to distract themselves from the, at times, grueling practice. Summer is much less painful an experience.
I have found in temple life a harmony with the daily tasks of washing the temple and cleaning, some with farming tasks such as milking the cows. Larger temples have regular weekly Bhajan music ceremonies. And then there are the annual pujas that need to be carried out – Mahashivaratri, for example. Some temples regularly feed the public and give out paisa (money) and sweets to the children and even buthi, with a ganja cigarette or a chillum, to a devotee for his puja.
Many stories exist about what ganja represents and why it is smoked in Shaivism (the particular worship of Lord Shiva). It is seen as his Prasad or gift, as a medicine, as a way to detach oneself, aiding in meditation and yoga and the quest for enlightenment. The reasoning behind its decriminalization in Nepali law for Shivaratri is that ganja is smoked to represent poison – for Lord Shiva swallowed poison which was enveloping the world in the story of how he got his name Nilkantha (Blue Throat). So the day and night of Shivaratri does not lose sight of the negative effects of ganja.
Babas I have found love drama, creating their own entertainment with each other, to breaking the, at times, monotonous routines of temple life. Tempers can be quick to fly, but are even quicker to heal. Two Babas who could have had a loud, public falling out one day will be sharing chiya together again the very next morning.
A Gorakhnath Baba at the Gorakhnath temple in Thapathali.
One night, I was staying at a temple in Kathmandu in a large open courtyard in the dark, as it was load-shedding time, staring up at the clear starlit sky. On three sides I could hear three small portable radios been tuned by three different Babas, static and fuzzy noise filled my ears in surround sound, when in unison all three fell on the same station playing harmonious traditional melodies. At that moment I felt the harmony that exists within this group.
Life On The Road
Baba ji is classically seen as a wandering man. Often seen walking on the highways of Nepal, moving to his next destination. If the money exists he might ride the bus. But classically, Babas stroll along on their journeys. They travel light as they own only a few possessions, which generally consist of a small bag containing a clean dhoti, a change of tops and a blanket. Not much else. Some may have a chillum. Many or most carry a set of steel thongs for working the fires that they will build at night to stay warm, or for warding off wild animals as they sleep, or for making their chiya during the day.
They depend on the offerings and alms of the public, generally receiving a few rupees per willing person, or a little rice to cook, or maybe a glass of chiya. Some people have little time for Baba ji and shun him when he seeks alms; others touch the ground he walks on, while others fear his glare. Many Babas are believed to have attained special powers, some of them dark powers.
Life is not easy on the road, or in the hills. Some Babas will spend long periods meditating in caves or special places of worship, pushing their bodies to their limits. Many are believed to live only on air. But no matter what, Babas are natural survivors who have honed living life to the bare minimum, but yet experiencing the maximum of life’s abilities. As said before and said again, Baba is an unlimited man.
Many Babas never move without their trusted walking stick, which I have even heard referred to as his brother, or truest friend. Some are but simple lengths of strong bamboo aged gracefully by many a journey. Other walking sticks are ornately worked with silver, or carvings and others with metal tridents (the sign of Lord Shiva) on top. They are much appreciated as walking aids on slippery paths, or for carrying a pouch over the shoulder, for defending oneself against wild dogs, jungle beasts and other dangers that go on both four and two legs.
Do Baba’s Have Magical Powers?
Oftentimes when people learn I travel and study with Babas and have chosen to become a Shiva Bhakta, they ask me if it is true that Babas have magical powers? I believe so, although I do not see it publicly. Not all do, and most likely, many don’t. But I have met many who exude strong and powerful auras. During Bhajans, I have felt true warmth and love with Bhagawan. Many Babas believe in and see the loving power of God. They tell me he is everywhere and see him in all things. As do I. I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that if strong magic does exist, then it does so amongst a number of these holy men, as it does with a number of Buddhist Lamas, Sufis, Shamans and so forth.
“I” believe a magical energy exists in the world, and that amongst those who devote their lives to understanding it find it possible to use it. Some people do so for good uses and, sadly, some for bad – Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi to Bin Laden and Mao can be taken as extreme examples.
A babaji with tanned skin and bundled hair posing for a photograph.
One day, a progressive and wide-thinking Baba with whom I spend a lot of time looks to me warmly and says that Jesus was only a man, but a great man, a guru. Mohammed was the same, as was Shiva and Rama – people who were extraordinary and who understood and loved God. His Holiness, the 14th Dali Lama, the leader of the Tibetan Buddhist world and recognized far and wide by many as a supreme being, says he does nothing that we, too, cannot do. He just learned how to do it.
Sati, the first wife of Lord Shiva, was the daughter of Daksha, the son of Lord Brahma (the creator). Sati is believed to have been from modern-day Janakpur in Nepal’s Tarai. However, Daksha was not a fan of Lord Shiva, disliking him as he was an ascetic who lived in cremation areas. One day at a puja, Daksha insulted the absent Lord Shiva and his daughter Sati was so offended at the attack on her husband’s good name that she burned herself upon the sacred fire.
Sati was also the mother of Kumar, or Skanda as he is also known, the God of War. Though technically in scientific terms, she was not his birth mother as she could not bear the seed of the mighty Shiva. His seed was held in fire by Lord Agni and then, when too hot, was dispelled into the water of the Goddess Ganga and cooled. But Sati did raise him as her own.
When Lord Shiva heard of the loss of Sati while meditating, he flew into a rage and changed into the form of Rudra. He then began his fearsome dance, the Rudra Tandava. This was also when he took the form of Nataraja, the Lord of Dances. With this Tandava, he began to destroy the universe until he was petitioned to stop by the gods after having taken vengeance upon Daksha. He was also promised that Sati would be reborn into the world and would again become his wife. Enter the Goddess Parvati.
Through his union with Parvati, it is believed that true balance in the universe is achieved. When she was born, Parvati was called Kali due to her dark skin. And when angered, Parvati turns into the fearsome dark goddess Kali. Parvati also represents true Shakti or power. When she attains this, she becomes the all-powerful Goddess Durga. Parvati is also believed to be a great ascetic or yogi, with some believing her to be even greater than Lord Shiva. Some go so far as to say that it is she who gives him his powers. Together, they are the epitome of a perfect marriage in the Hindu world.
Then there is their second son Ganesha, the elephant-headed child who removes obstacles and represents wisdom, riding upon a rat. Opposed to Kumar, Ganesha was given birth to by Parvati. One day, while Lord Shiva was out hunting, Parvati feared for her safety and so she grew Ganesha to protect her. When Lord Shiva returned to find a stranger in his home, he immediately cut off his head. This greatly upset Parvati. Shiva promised to restore her son by chopping off the head the first animal he met. Doubtful he expected it to be an elephant he nevertheless kept his word and chopped off the elephant’s head, restoring Ganesha to life. By way of apology Lord Shiva, from then on, had it that all pujas to the gods would start only with the recognition of Ganesha first.
Also, the people themselves give the Babas their power. One day, while the sun was high and hot, I visited a temple in Kathmandu to meet some Babas I know for chiya. We were sitting in one of the sheds to the side of the temple. A devotee was making a chillum when a Baba who was next to me saw a policeman enter the compound through a crack in the wall. He was heading straight to the shed where we were sitting. The Baba quickly reached out and took the mix and chillum in the devotee’s hands, who was confused by the sudden action, and put them under his robe. The policeman entered, a man around 30 years of age, with clean features. He looked at me and asked what I was doing here “it is dangerous here”. I said I was a student of Mahadev (Lord Shiva) and was visiting my gurus. He asked me if I was smoking ganja. I said no, it was the truth. Still he ignored the Baba. Next he turned on the empty-handed devotee and harassed him to no avail, while searching him and the shed, still ignoring the Baba. He left frustrated. I asked Baba ji why the policeman had not searched him. He said he was scared of me—I might do something to him or just hit him. After all Baba is an unlimited man.
Pat Kauba is a freelance writer and photographer who has been a Shiva Bhakta for more than five years, since his Guru’s warm smile saved his life in the no mans land of Syria one frightening night many years ago. That will be another story someday. He goes by the name Charliebaba and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.