The Kumbh Mela, or pitcher festival, is a series of baths by Hindu sadhus and sadhvis, holy men and women, and other pilgrims who believe the ritual cleanses them of their sins and ends the process of repeated reincarnation. For some, stripping down for a holy dip also signifies the stripping away of the material world. At every Kumbh, including this year's, thousands of devotees are initiated into the reclusive sect of the Naga Sadhus — naked, ash-smeared cannabis-smoking Hindu warriors and onetime-armed defenders of the faith who for centuries have lived as ascetics in jungles and caves. On so-called royal bathing days, the Naga Sadhus lead the 13 monastic orders' processions — on garlanded horses, elephants and tractors — through the festival grounds and into the river, armed with tridents and swords. Performed by senior priests, the elaborate process of initiation comprises five rituals, starting with the shaving of heads and beards, ritual offering of saffron robes, wearing prayer beads, applying ash on the body and giving up their last piece of clothing.
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Mysterious naked holy men a huge draw at India's Kumbh Mela - Reuters
The festival is one of the only opportunities to see the reclusive Naga sadhus, some of whom live in caves after taking a vow of celibacy and renouncing worldly possessions. Their charge down to the waters to bathe at the opening of the Kumbh, many armed with tridents and swords, is one of the highlights of the festival. They give their message to the people and they transform people. Most of the Nagas enter the orders in their early teens, leaving their friends and families to immerse themselves in meditation, yoga and religious rituals. It can take years to be conferred with the title of a Naga, they say. During the eight-week Kumbh, generally held every three years in one of four cities in India, the Nagas live in makeshift monasteries called Akhara erected on the eastern banks of the Ganges. They spend their days meditating, smoking cannabis and receiving a stream of visitors who come to pay their respects.
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