February 14, 2009

Saffron Memories


There must be a reason why sadhus prefer to squat if they don’t have to be on their feet. It may be that they’re rarely in a hurry to get anywhere and it does not make sense to stand waiting for a train. The other reason could be that few or no eyebrows are raised on seeing them squat in public places, something that must have to do with their dress, the saffron robes that set them apart from everyone else.

Whatever the reason may be I was surprised to see a group of seven sadhus squatting on the railway platform one morning. When I ran up the short flight of stairs and stopped short on seeing them I noticed that one of the sadhus was holding a photo album in his hand. He wore a jhola the size that would comfortably hold the photo album. In between they exchanged small talk.


The sadhu with the photo album must’ve said something, for the rest of the group soon drew closer and formed a tight circle around him. It only meant they hadn’t traveled together for long else no photo album will stay tucked away inside the jhola for too long on an Indian journey.

As he flipped the leaves, pictures, two to each side of the leaf, came into view. There were pictures of other sadhus (some apparently from the Kumbh Mela), of Hindu deities, of sadhus posing for pictures outside temples, and surprisingly two rupee and five rupee notes tucked away into an empty plastic picture slot or two.

He paused at each picture and said something I could not hear from where I stood. He must have spoken from memory for the pictures appeared to have been taken at different places at different times, probably at destinations he had been to. Seeing me show interest in the pictures he looked up at me and smiled before turning to the album.


As he spoke, his voice occasionally drowned by the announcer announcing train arrivals and departures, the rest listened quietly, looking at each picture as the leaves turned.

The only time they smiled was when they saw a make-believe five hundred rupee note with Goddess Lakshmi gracing one side inserted in a picture slot. Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped as the Goddess of Wealth, and no devout Hindu will shy away from worshipping her, more so on Lakshmi Puja during Diwali.

Then there were pictures of Hindu Gods, deities in temples. Not once did any of them shift their eyes from the album in the time he showed them the pictures, listening in silence. Of the pictures of sadhus he showed them some must have featured him posing with those he made friends with. Given that the photos appeared to be in no recognizable sequence meant whoever took the pictures possibly returned to give him a copy, perhaps a traveler.

I could only imagine what the album must mean to him. Memories of pilgrimages, of fellow sadhus befriended, of temples visited, and rivers worshipped must necessarily define the identity of the pilgrim feet, otherwise what else is tangible.

Once he was done with showing them the pictures he prepared to tuck the album away into his jhola. All around them passengers on their way to the office stepped around the sadhus to get to the train, hurried as much by the need to get through the day as by the compulsion of the need.

An itinerant has his footsteps for a family, and miles for a clock. And he banks memories to sustain him on journeys like others bank money. He accrues interest on his memories when he shares them with others, and he spends the accrued interest on his belief, strengthening his faith in his faith.

About then the horn sounded and I sprinted in the direction of the incoming train, slowing by a bit to ease the pain of a fall from a train months ago.

18 comments:

bobbie said...

I share the love of looking through a photo album - my own or anyone else's. I love photos. When I was a child I would examine our many family photos over and over - pictures of ancestors. People I never knew, but about whom I would make up stories and imagine adventures. And of course I loved the more current photos, helping me to remember happy times.

pink dogwood said...

I like your observations.

btw, the sadhus squat because they can - it would be very difficult for me to do for a long time and be comfortable.

Renee said...

Anil -- a complete pleasure as usual. Is a sadhu a holy man?

This was wonderful.

Love Renee

Cynthia said...

Anil, I think that it is possible to keep the spine in a beneficial position while squating...especially if you are thin. I know my son usually sits in a squat while he works on the computer and he's there for hours! I enjoyed the photos and commentary today... joy to your heart from Oasis. <3

Anil P said...

Bobbie: I agree. From what I see in India among those I know, few people print pictures now. Pictures are typically stored in pendrives, CDs, or on the PC.

I'm usually intrigued by pictures of places taken years ago, documentation that is difficult to come by.

Pink Dogwood: Thank you. Like you rightly said, their dress makes squatting comfortable.

One other reason could be that few or no eyebrows are raised on seeing sadhus squat in public places, something that must have to do with their dress, the saffron robes that set them apart from everyone else, saffron robes that kind of make squatting in public spaces 'acceptable' because of the "that's how they are" kind of reasoning.

Occasionally, and increasingly so I’m inclined to believe that more than language it is with dress that we associate certain ‘behavioural patterns’ unique to either ethnicity or a community that we’ve come to ‘know’ or 'define' over time.

Acceptance of diversity is largely driven as much by the distinctness of identity, visual or otherwise as by an understanding of mores peculiar to their community.

Renee: Thank you. They're people engaged in holy pursuits and living life according to certain basic tenets that govern a holy way of life, ascetics who practice yoga among other things.

The dress they wear is one indicator, sanyas (renouncing family life, material objectives, and even a profession) is the other. Though I must add that the colour of their dress is associated with their renunciation of worldly pleasures. They're expected to practice yoga as in a yogic way of life as well. They're dedicated to achieving moksha.

Sadhu has its origins in Sanskrit.

Cynthia I agree with your observation. Squatting is possibly the most beneficial position the body can be in other than the sleeping posture. It'sinteresting that your son uses the squatting position when working at the computer.

Thank you.

lakeviewer said...

Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. Now, I can peek into your part of the world, a place I've always wanted to visit.

Sarah Laurence said...

You always seem to have the best adventures waiting for the train, but I’m sorry to hear that once entailed a fall. I’ve never been able to squat with comfort. I wonder if I grew up squatting if it would be easier. The saffron color is so well captured in your photos. Since switching to digital photography, I haven’t put together a photo album in years. I wonder if blogs have become the new photo albums.

Anjuli said...

what beautiful photography- and lovely commentary to go along with it.

Amber Star said...

Anil, thank you again for an interesting slice of Indian life. I didn't know what a sadhu is, so looked on Wikipedia and know much more than before. Also your response about what sadhu is was informative.

It is a sad thing you fell from a train and hope you return to full health very soon. I'm much slower these days, but age figures into that. Maybe enrolling in a yoga class would help that.

Thank you for stopping by and our little cat is feeling better today and was able to walk about some.

~vagabond~ said...

Your posts are always such an interesting observation of the human life around you...and they're so much fun to read.
Enjoyed the photos of the sadhus crouched around a photo album.
:)

Lakshmi said...

A wonderful post as always..i can almost visualise the sadhus sitting around and getting nostalgic..the railway stations are great places to get vignettes of people..

Kaylen said...

Those are great pics!
I lived in Korea for a bit and a majority of the people in my town could be seen frequently just squatting down wherever they were-as if they had an invisible chair.

I learned that it was more comfortable than standing for hours and sometimes find myself wanting to do so here in the states-though anyone who has seen me squatting has insisted I stop, as it looks inappropriate for public. :(

Anil P said...

Lakeviewer: Thank you. I hope you'll find it interesting.

Sarah Laurence: Indian Railway Stations are a world by themselves. It helps that they are not enclosed or covered. Recovered well enough now. Thank you.

Like you said, if you had grown up squatting from time to time it might have been easier to squat.

For my generation back here in India we would squat if we had to talk with our elders who would be sitting cross-legged on the floor, either carding cotton, or winnowing, or stitching, or cooking, or simply sitting with their backs resting against the wall.

Each home had grinding stones where women ground grains sitting by the stone grinder fixed to the floor. We would either bend if we had to talk with them or squat if we had to pass them anything to grind or if we had pour grains down the funnel.

In most ancestral homes, washing dishes in communal spaces meant one had to squat because sitting on the floor would mean getting wet in the water.

Then there are the Indian-style loos that required squatting. I'm not sure if growing up squatting was responsible for most of the knees remaining in good shape for, I do not recall any of my elders having any serious issues with mobility around the knees, or stomach ailments (excluding bacterial infections), or passing stools.

You could try Flickr. In someways blogs are picture albums as well as scrapbooks. I prefer prints though.

Anjuli: Thank you :-)


Amber Star: Thank you. Am better now than I was after the fall. Hardened bones I suppose :)

Sadhus are mostly to be found around places of worship or traveling towards one. Some people look down on them because they're not engaged in "productive" profession, and at times shoo them away as well.

Most sadhus will live with what comes their way, rarely asking for anything. Even among them temperaments can differ from region to region, a possible indication of the role of caste the sadhu may come from as also the communities they come from.

I've recovered well enough, hardened bones I suppose :)

I feel Yoga classes will help. Maybe you could try them.

I hope the cat recovers fully. I'm sure it will. A bit of Sun and some play will be good tonic for the cat.

Vagabond: I've rarely seen them crouching around a photo album. It may be that they cannot afford cameras to own a photo album each, and will gravitate to one who has if it involves their interests.

So to see them listening to the sadhu recounting his travels while he showed them pictures was interesting, because how else would they get to know of places, or see them if they do not have access to the Internet which I'm sure most don't. The Indian media barely covers India travel.

Lakshmi: Thank you. Railway stations are fun places for sure.

Kaylen: Thank you.

Squatting is comfortable no doubt. I've referred to some examples of squatting in my response to Sarah Laurence earlier in the comments.

It's surprising that you've been asked not to squat in the States. It must be because it is not considered appropriate in your culture, at least so in public view. Mass practices come to define what is and what isn't acceptable in a culture.

If more people began squatting, and insisted on doing for reasons of resting I'm sure it would become acceptable over time.

Ms.N said...

"An itinerant has his footsteps for a family, and miles for a clock. ... strengthening his faith in his faith."

I love the way you have caught the essence of the whole tale there. So many people around, so many stories going by. if only we amde the time to stop and catche 'em all.

bindu said...

Very interesting read. It would have been fascinating to hear his words and see his pictures.

Merisi said...

Thank you for another inside tale of everyday life in your beautiful country! I thought of sadhus as living in remote places, far removed from the crowds, so it was very interesting to see that they move amongst even the most hurried people.
Your pictures are stories themselves, wonderful to look at and study.

Anil P said...

Ms. N: Thank you. If only we could stop and catch 'em all, we would :)

Bindu: Thank you. Yes, it would be interesting to actually catch stories behind each picture that he must have been telling them as he flipped the pages.

Merisi: Thank you. They do live in remote places. Some sadhus will live in temple premises at temples they're viiting. As they travel they can be found in local transportation. Usually they're not as commonly seen outside of religious centres unless they're traveling like was the case here.

Their style of dressing can differ from place to place, excepting the colour saffron, a common theme.

karen said...

Hi Anil, i'm catching up on blogs and so a bit late here! wonderful description, as ever, of the sadhus in saffron, and i've learnt so much from your post AND all the comments - and I enjoyed your insightful words about the life of an itinerant... thanks! :-)