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‘Come!’ said the sadhu with a big, gap-toothed smile, ‘sit, sit.’

A very stoned swami sat quietly by the temple door. His orange turban shone in the sun like a great glowing mango, a tropical beacon against the weathered grey of the temple wall. All day, every day, every week, every year; serene and self-contained, Sadhu Mango sat cross-legged on his spot. He lived on a small mat on the raised stone floor of an ancient temple, a saintly stick-insect deep in repose; angles and jutting knees balanced languidly there on the point of his cadaverous bum, calmly juggling chillum, chai and conversation.

He wiggled his head. The turban swayed violently in the air.  He patted the stone floor in front of him, a look of benign amusement on his crinkled face.

‘Sit here. Sit down.’

I liked him straight away.

Around him a dozen thick stone columns, up above a high stone roof crammed with nesting birds that swooped and twittered in counterpoint to his giggling, occasionally pausing to poop on the sadhu, just to make sure he knew who was boss. Behind him the warm glow of the inner sanctum; a flutter of butter lamps, a flash of pink, gold and red in the dark.

I slipped my shoes off, stumbled up the ten steps to the temple floor and joined him.

‘Mm-m-m-m,’ Mango smiled.

‘Mm-m-m-m,’ I smiled back.

He didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand him – but that was fine, we chatted away regardless. My body language was eloquent enough, the twinkle in his eye so expressive we had no trouble at all. He looked over his shoulder at the chillum.

‘Mm-m-m-m-m…?’ he said.

I wiggled my head and raised one eyebrow. We both smiled together. He called for chai, reached under his mat and produced a bag of ganja.

‘No-o-o-o-o tension,’ he said.

My religious instruction had begun.

A sadhu is an ascetic holy man dedicated to the search for God; they renounce the world; abandon possessions, family, home and relationships, turn their back on sex, wear few clothes, if any at all, eat little and then only what is given in charity. This is the way of the sadhu; no fixed abode, floating from season to season, living by themselves on the fringes, spending their days in devotions.

Each seems to exist in his own sadhu space. Some are friendly, some remote, some are more photo opportunity than sadhu but for all their grasping, all their posing, all that blather and cod-mysticism the sadhu remains a powerful and all-embracing constant in India, a living touch-stone of divinity. There are thousands of them in the sub-continent, wandering the roads, sitting in the caves, on the ghats, lolling in temples, fleecing the tourists in Goa – revered by Hindus as representatives of the gods, often worshipped as if they were gods themselves.

Sadhu Mango sat there, wiggling that vast turban, valiantly stuffing his chillum with all the ganja in Maheshwar. Sadhus in various shades of red wandered in and out, perfectly happy for me to share their space, smoke their dope, provided I behaved with respect. This I did. I was restrained in my photographic activities, preferring to give the camera out to them. The sadhus didn’t mind that at all, quite the reverse. They all had a great cackle about their photos. I relaxed, whittered away as if they were all rather eccentric hippies who’d taken the dress code way too far.

Really, I should have been more respectful.

Periodically one sadhu or another would join us, sit, puff and blow huge clouds of smoke, gossip and laugh. Various of their acolytes wandered about, making chai, stuffing chillums, paying respect and devotion. All would launch unexpectedly into extensive speeches about mystical things. You never knew when one would erupt.

But not Saint Silence. He just sat on his mat in the corner and refused to talk. He hadn’t talked for seventeen years. He’d been growing his hair much longer than that. It hung to his knees, mangled, twisted into tangled rat’s tails that he kept in a bag around his neck. No pictures. It was his ‘thing’.

Each sadhu seems to have a different and unique set of prayers, religious tics and show-stoppers collected over time, their individual ‘thing’. Sadhu-lite was a goat-whisperer, St. Mango had his turban and his spot. Saint Silence was the king of them all but to no particular end – he just sat and grew his hair, kept his wisdom to himself.

If only Swami MotorMouth had followed his example. He wore a tight orange turban close about his head, a heavy string of red glass beads, a large black beard, three paint stripes on each arm and a long pink sarong. He had enormous, warm brown eyes and a commanding manner, spoke eloquently and long when inspired. He talked. This was his thing. He would talk the hind leg off a monkey, if he could catch the monkey first.

He was very keen for me to take his picture, posing artfully against a window with great celebrity. He struck his sadhu pose; chin slightly elevated; eyes far away; it was his ‘I think this should be on the cover of National Geographic’ look.

Grumpy Ji, sitting taciturn in the corner, was quite the reverse. He was a severe man, rather fat and unattractive. He knew it.

‘Don’t put my photo on the internet,’ was all he said.

‘No-o-o-o problem,’ I smiled and showed him the miracle of delete. That stopped him dead in his tracks. When I got the camera back home that night I noticed he’d relaced the deletions with a new photo spread, starring himself.

One fellow sat on his bed all day and wrote the name of Lord Shiva in red pen on large sheets of paper. Shiva’s name went round the edge of the paper in a big square in beautiful script, over and over, round and round, steadily heading to the middle where the name of Shiva meets the name of Shiva meets the name of Shiva in the infinite black hole of ‘Om-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mmmm’.

This was Sadhu Anal Retentive, the smiling sadhu. This is what he did – every day, every month, every year; he wrote the name of Shiva on a piece of paper – then he put that piece of paper aside and started on another one.

There’s a little part of Dog that thinks that this is all a tremendous waste of time. I’ve never worked out why any God needs such epic nonsensical devotion at the expense of a productive life in his service – but Dogster is an infidel, a Western fool. He can’t possibly understand. To his credit, he’s given up trying.

They were divas; drag queens, stars of the sadhu show, lost in a world of their own invention. Like all divas, they were self-obsessed, like all divas, trapped in a hyper-image of themselves with rules only they could understand, like all divas they expected excessive grovel and total silence whenever they talked. I’d worked with people just them for years. I knew the drill. I just had to listen, nod wisely, keep quiet and agree with everything they said.

It would be fair to say that not all of them have attained their personal Nirvana just yet – which is probably why they need to keep puffing at that endless chillum. I think once you’ve attained Nirvana you probably don’t need a chillum for breakfast – but I’m no sadhu. Don’t listen to me.

Vw-o-o-o-o-mph! Sparks and flame crackled from the pipe then thick clouds of smoke billowed around his head. Sss-s-sw-ttt! Mango sucked in noisily then two great columns of smoke poured out his nostrils. He was like a chimney stack, belching fire. He passed it on. It’ll be my turn soon.

For the chillum-challenged, I’d better explain. Take a small carrot. Cut the top and bottom off. Hollow it out. You got a chillum. Now make that same shape in clay. Fire it. Now, you really got a chillum. Stuff it with marijuana, tobacco, bird’s droppings, bits of dead beetle and lime.

Take one hand, open the fingers. Stick the little end of the chillum between two fingers then close the hand into a fist. Hold fist to face. Get someone else to light it. Suck hard at fist. If you’ve got it right, you’ll have sufficient suction to get smoke from the chillum without your lips touching it. Then you puff and blow like a steam train.

It’s a long, long, long time since I smoked one of those. I’m talking Kathmandu 1971. I never really fancied the chillum as a means to an end; too acrobatic, too clumsy, too prone to disaster – but I discovered, like riding a bicycle, it’s a skill you never really lose. It took a few tries and some gentle instruction but soon I was puffing away like a pro. I quite surprised myself.

Every time the chillum came to me I was the subject of intense observation. Every puff of that pipe was an initiation, with every puff I was welcomed in. Sadhu-Land is a secret place, a land of many wonders; first stop on the way there is the chillum. Two things go together, this I firmly knew; chillums and sadhus. You can’t have one without the other.


I was swiftly realising that this was no casual toke with an odd looking pal – this was a far more serious business than that. More men arrived, genuflected in front of my special sadhu, touched their forehead to his feet. They sat respectfully in a circle and listened whenever he chose to speak. I was struck by the intensity with which they hung on his word. Even the other sadhus listened. Between chillums Mango began to talk, long, uninterrupted monologues that had his audience nodding attentively. Evidently a story was being told, a parable, a message sent through the sadhu. I had no idea what was going on but nodded wisely.

Mid-stream he stopped and looked straight at me. I returned his gaze.

‘I think you are a very wise man,’ I said simply to my sadhu.

He nodded as if to say, ‘Mm-m-m-m, yes, of course I am,’ then returned to his story.

Swami Mango was on a roll, the words flowing out of him in a long, unbroken stream of consciousness. The weekend sadhus were cross-legged at his feet, sucking up every nuance with a look of total immersion on their faces. These were the faces of friendly fanatics, juiced up for Lord Shiva, in that Hillsong kinda way. He glowed there in the evening sun as the words fell from out his mouth, shoulders pulled back, that puny chest stretched and strained for breath – then his mobile phone beeped.

Evidently a sadhu with no physical possessions, a man who has abandoned the world, is allowed one minor indulgence. He reached into his robes and dragged the flashing mobile into the gloom. He swiftly punched a few buttons then returned the phone to its rightful place and reached across to a rolled up length of material.

He said nothing, slowly unrolled the white conch shell from the faded covering and took a breath. Slowly, very slowly, he lifted the conch shell to his lips and blew.

It was loud, right next to me in an enclosed space, reverberated around the temple walls, around me and through me like the cry of a wounded bull.

But then it kept going. The sound kept coming and coming and coming – and coming and coming – as his breath extended way beyond the norm. The blast went on without diminution, without a waver, without a wobble for what seemed like minutes. It was remarkable feat of breath control. Then, as if to prove a point in front of my astonished eyes, he did it twice again. My mouth fell open like a carnival clown. This was, indeed, jaw-dropping.

The conch shell was laid reverently down, silently washed by the Grub and returned to the sadhu’s feet. He looked at me with blood-shot eyes, then handed the conch across the bed. My jaw was still dropped.

‘Here. Hold.’ His eyes twinkled. I had the feeling that he’d done a little audition – for me.

So I held the magic conch shell. It was heavy, I was weak.

‘That was very impressive – indeed,’ I said, gently returning the conch shell. I wasn’t being polite. I’d just witnessed something amazing. Phew. This guy was for real.

His eyes shone.

Now he’d passed my audition – and, in a way, I’d passed his.


That great orange turban glowed like a ripe citrus in the flickering light.

Sadhu Silence sat on the floor, gazing out into space. He was working very hard sitting there growing his hair. It needed all his concentration. Every day he grew more prayer for Shiva. Dogster sat and watched it grow. He could see it, slowly creeping out of his head.

Sadhu Anal Retentive looked up from his paper. He chuckled. Just like the words on his paper, Mr. Dog was going round and round in ever-decreasing circles, heading for that moment in the centre of the page where Mr. Dog meets Mr. Dogster meets the Dog meets Om-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m.

Now, Dog, go now, while you still can…

There was no elaborate farewell; we were all way beyond that. They were slowly nodding off. I made it to my feet, stood swaying in the gloom, hovered in the doorway, clumsily trying to put my shoes on without falling – then, with a lurch and a shudder I was gone.

There were goats everywhere. Goats lay along the steps to the temple, artfully arranged, waiting for something to happen, goats idly wandered through the shrines, along the steps, doing whatever it is that goats do. Some just stood, frozen to the spot, gazing vacantly at the Narmada.

‘Ma-a-a-a-ah!’ said a goat.

‘Ma-a-a-ah!’ I replied.

The goat looked at me stupidly. He wasn’t expecting a conversation.

The sun was down, the sky dark blue, the stars just coming out. The temple stood in silhouette, a Mr. Shiva Whippy of stone and sculpture soaring up against an indigo sky. An old man walked slowly round the building, lighting more lamps, ringing a bell, shuffling through the darkness.

Inside the last chillum lay cooling. A single candle flickered gently in the breeze. No sound now, just the deep breathing of my six sadhus – floating gently in space, sleeping the dreamless sleep of the righteous.

An orange turban lay unwound, curling on the floor.


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