At the Kumbh Mela, I was caught unaware by a daunting display of dicks only to realise that here, the penis is neither a fetish nor a symbol of sexual prowess. In the world of the spiritually striving, it’s a repository of sacred power and ascetic control.
was at the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain in 2016. The evening aarti was about to begin at Ram Ghat, the busiest one; at the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain. Having just landed that day, our heads were still spinning with the sights, sounds, heat, dust, clang, and clamour that is the Simhastha Kumbh. Here spirituality was on sale, but all we wanted to buy was a strip of aspirin.
As the sun was setting, millions jousted on the banks of River Kshipra to get a glimpse of swirling flames held by the priests. What was the big deal, I wondered. This whole event, while spectacular in scale, was hardly extraordinary. If you’ve grown up in India, chanting priests, swirling flames, and holy rivers are pretty much par for the course. They are strictly ordinary.
As I watched the flames mirrored in the black river, I saw him – a sadhu stretching on the pier. He wasn’t the first naked godman I had seen that day, but he was the first with a pair of sunglasses firmly in place. He was part of a trio of Nagas and he beckoned me with a plume of feathers.
My first tryst with the dick trick was courtesy this young Naga sadhu.
Image Credits: Pratik Gupta/Arré
I ventured gingerly. After a couple of abrupt questions on what I’m doing here and whether I intend to put him on TV, he got down to showing me what he wanted to all along. He picked up a stick lying on the steps and proceeded to unflinchingly wrap his genitalia around it, jumping up and down all the while. For the first few seconds, I was transfixed by sheer disbelief, and then a strange mix of revulsion and fascination. Eventually, I had to look away.
My impunity was not taken lightly. “Ghabrati kyun ho?” he challenged me, still working his member. “Yeh Bholenath ka prasad hai.”
I fled, not bothering to ask him why his eminently malleable member was Shiva’s blessing, not caring if my photographer colleague followed. Little did I know that this would hardly be the only dick trick I’d witness at the most amazing show on Earth.
Back in the ’70s, an aunt had seen the penis perform eye-popping feats at the Kumbh Mela.
Images Credits: Pratik Gupta/Arré
It was only later that night, still reeling from what I’d seen, that I remembered a cackling, ageing aunt once telling me about what she called “the great Indian dick trick”. Back in the ’70s, she found her way to a similar religious gathering in Kathmandu and was caught off-guard by the Nagas outdoing each other in feats of the penis – pulling, stretching, knotting, and weightlifting. She chanced upon a painfully thin ascetic with light grey eyes, puffing on a chillum, as he tied multiple slabs of stone with a thick rope to his penis. The crowd stood silently around him. When he was done, he slipped the topknot over his member and with a deep drag of his chillum, proceeded to lift the entire weight of the stone. She told me it must have weighed an easy 45-50 kilos. If my aunt hadn’t clicked 16 in-sequence photographs of the event, I would have put it down to the overactive imagination of the elderly. But now, after my encounter, it seemed to me that there had to be a deep, latent history between the Naga sadhus and their bendy appendages. I was determined to connect the dots.
On our amble the next morning, the grounds along both sides of the Kshipra were teeming with naked sadhus and we found ourselves at the feet of one jhoolewale baba. He presided over an entire entourage of naked yogis, some wearing cowboy hats, some old and bald, many young with glorious manes.
He sat on a swing, patting the bowed heads of devotees with peacock feathers and accepting coins in return. I do not know if it was the crowds or the presence of the camera that prodded him on, but something compelled him to jump out of his swing and ask for a lathi. He proceeded to wrap his phallus around the stick and I was overcome by a sense of déjà vu. Just as I was about to dismiss the whole clan as a one-trick pony, the unexpected happened. An old sadhu climbed up on the stick, his weight now borne simply by the grip of the Naga sadhu’s penis.
The crowd cheered; I was rendered silent. All the questions I had come prepared with were lost. As we made our way back to our digs in a state of mild shock, a pandit who also doubled up as an autorickshaw driver, happened to pick us up. We made a quick stop for refreshments in the torpid heat of the afternoon and slowly speech returned. I posed my questions to the pandit instead.
“Shivji ke ling ki hi toh pooja hoti hai. Naga sadhu ki shakti ka bhi wahi strot hai,” he explained, in between sips of jaljeera. According to him, there are secret rituals in place for any male who wants to join the order. The sanyasi who wants to join the akhara stands next to a kirti stambh (triumphal column), accompanied by four Shri Mahants and an Acharya Guru who assigns him a mantra. A Mahant then pulls the foreskin of the aspirant’s penis back thrice, forcefully snapping the membrane underneath that restrains it. This is called the tang tode. It’s only after this ritual that a sanyasi qualifies as a Naga, and over time, prolonged exposure desensitises the penis. For the rest of his life, the authenticity of his Nagahood is determined by the status of the ascetic’s sexual organ. A true Naga sadhu is not supposed to feel pain, excitement, or ever achieve an erection.
Our driver also told us about babas who could pick up boulders with their penises, others who could heal illnesses with a touch of their genitals. The baba yelling “yeh Bholenath ka prasad hai” at the ghat started to make sense.
The Naga sadhus gather for the shahi snan at sunrise.
Images Credits: Pratik Gupta/Arré
At the Kumbh Mela, I realised that the dick is a wholly different entity. Here, it is not a fetish, a symbol of oppression or sexual prowess. Here, in the world of the spiritually striving, it is a repository of sacred power and ascetic control. It is an ordinary spiritual tool, shorn off its megalomania.
And as we rode back to the hotel with the rickshaw driver who doubles up as a godman, I realised that when it comes to the Kumbh, in the ordinary is often the divine.