Every year thousands of devotees gather at Assam's iconic Kamakhya temple during the Ambubachi Mela to seek the blessings of Naga sadhus — naked Shaivite ascetics believed to be part of a cult started by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century. A shroud of mysticism surrounds these sanyasis whose legendary habits of cannabis consumption are a cause for headache for the state's anti-narcotics authorities each year.
The Naga sadhus, ancient warrior sanyasis who are usually stark naked, with their bodies smeared with ash, are an integral part of the Ambubachi Mela, an annual five-day fair to mark the closure of the Kamakhya temple, seat of Goddess Kamakhya, an incarnation of Kali. The goddess is said to menstruate on those days.
However, this year, there's a major change in schedule. The temple authorities have said that they would not allow the sadhus to take out a procession allegedly because their nakedness made pilgrims uncomfortable.
The Telegraph quoted head priest of the Kamakhya temple, Pabindra Prasad Sarma Doloi, as saying, "This type of spiritualism will not be allowed at the main venue of the fair from this year. Many people visit the temple premises during the fair with their families and they feel uncomfortable at the sight of these sadhus at the main venue."
The sadhus, who are devotees of Lord Shiva, practice ultimate detachment from civilised society, possession of worldly objects and are said to be celibate. They weather harsh mountainous weathers and live off alms. Another reason why they are being prevented from being part of the mela this year is because of 'drug abuse'.
Naga sadhus usually smoke ganja and consume bhang that comes from the hemp plant, true to Shaivite traditions. They are also seen in the Kumbh Mela that takes place every 12 years and are even accorded the respect of having the first dip in the Ganges during the 'Shahi snan'.
But to the sensibilities of lakhs of devotees who visit the mela, this is nothing but a form of drug abuse.
However, while authorities plan to stop the sadhus from carrying out their usual practices, the sadhus seem to be in no mood to listen. A Naga sadhu, Mahanta Shri Govinda Giri, told The Telegraph that "no one can stop us from doing what we do."
The problem of visitors with the Naga sadhus is also not new. The Indian Express had reported in 2015 that people were not happy with the fact that ganja was being smoked freely at the mela.
Lily Rajbangshi, then chairperson of the Assam State Anti-Drugs and Prohibition Council, had told the newspaper that a ban could not be placed because it could hurt religious sentiments.
"It is true that ganja smoking is dangerous and has been banned under the Assam Ganja and Bhang Prohibition Act. But given the fact that it involves such an ancient and famous temple, it might hurt a lot of sentiments. I think the government should find a way to make Kamakhya temple ganja-free," she had said.
Perhaps the recent move has to do something with the fact that the BJP government has planned packaged tours of the mela, and want to attract high-end visitors. And while Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal said that the state will accord highest respect to visitors, it remains to be seen whether that respect will be extended to those who have been part of the temple since ancient times.
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