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A new coffee  table book uncovers lesser-known facts about the Kumbh Mela

She clearly remembers the shamshan ghat (cremation ground) wait. It was a scorching hot May afternoon.She had been waiting for more than 45 minutes. Many sannyasis crossing the ghat had inquired why she, “a woman” was sitting under a banyan tree, at a shamshan ghat?
Fifty-four-year old Radhika Shastry replied unwaveringly, “Mujhe baba se milna hai (I want to meet baba).” Finally, one of baba’s apprentices accompanied her to baba’s abode.She entered the 15x7feet tin-sheet shed with reverence. Numerous saffron potlis (bundles) were piled on one side of the shed, the other end had space enough for handful of people to sit on the floor. “There he was, sitting amidst the potlis, Aghori baba Bhum Bhum Nathji. He was in sort of a penance, performing a ritual — some kind of puja. I sat in a corner, behind other sadhus, visitors like me, waiting for him to finish,” recollects Radhika Shastry, the author and photographer of the newly released coffee table book, Kumbh The Greatest Show On Earth.
The higher purpose
Published by Bengaluru-based Maiya Publishing, the book is a memoir of Shastry’s personal experiences at the two Kumbh Melas — the 2013 Maha Kumbh in Allahabad and the Simhastha Kumbh at Ujjain in May 2016. It was her curiosity to know more about the Nagas and Aghoris, fuelled by her determination that led Shastry to attend the two Kumbh congregations. Though her first attempt at the Maha Kumbh wasn’t successful, the traveller managed to accomplish her mission the second time at Ujjain, early this year. “I have been a world traveller, but the Kumbh has always evoked a certain sense of curiosity in me. Additionally, the apprehensions expressed by family and friends about the ‘surprise destination’ Kumbh further stoked my desire,” reveals Shastry who was particularly interested to know more about the Nagas and Aghoris.
Justifiably, her book is filled with candid imagery of sadhus, and pilgrims,including hijdas. Accompanying Shastry’s images is her graphic account of the festival. Of all her experiences, it was the meeting with the Aghori Nathji baba that Shastry recounts with ardent admiration. “Certainly that meeting was the most memorable. When I told babaji that I wanted to meet him out of sheer curiosity, he started talking freely… and he answered all my questions,” says Shastry, who has penned this experience in detail.
Confrontations
However, it wasn’t easy to click all the images that run into a few hundreds. Shastry recollects how she had to seek permission, particularly from sadhus before clicking a picture. “The Nagas are temperamental and a few of them were outright rude,” she reveals.
Apart from the focus on sannyasis, Shastry has also illustrated lesser known facts about the Kumbh Mela — child visitors and the Bhoole Bisre Akhaada (enclosure for lost people). With colourful pictures and a detailed account of one of the largest mass gatherings in the world, the book is a collectible. But for Shastry, who has travelled to over 50 countries and is busy setting up her cafe (Cafe Diem) in Coonoor, it is more than a collectible, “It’s an experience of a lifetime,” she offers.
Rs 1,500. Available  on amazon.in — Ayesha Tabassum

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