Identity

Adrift on a River of Penises at India's Maha Kumbh Festival

A female photographer captures the vulnerability of the de-sexualised male body.
All photographs by S Chak

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

In 2013 I became a witness to a spectacular mix of faith, religion and spirituality—the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad. Described as one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, the Maha Kumbh is held every 144 years (the Kumbh itself is held every 12 years).

Among the many sadhus and pilgrims who attend Kumbh melas, the most famous are the Naga sadhus. These ascetics supposedly stay in Himalayan caves and only come out to interact during Kumbh Melas.

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Their initiation involves renouncing all earthly possessions, including clothes, which basically means that they wander utterly naked throughout the year.

Warning: This article contains photos of nude Indian holy men.

Naga sadhus have a reputation of being aggressive and unpredictable, and perhaps rightly so with most people shoving cameras in their faces or trying to document their lives for foreign audiences.

I spent a whole night walking around the dark alleys of the mela inside camps alone. But my experience left me wondering about the raw vulnerability and the power of the naked male body.

Now, a man’s naked body might not be as pleasing to the eye, but these ascetics were a sight to behold. A piercing set of bloodshot eyes staring at you through a cloud of ganja smoke, crowned with matted hair on an ash smeared bare body in all its glory can be unique as well as terrifying at the same time. I had already spent the day photographing many of these men, watching their minimal interaction with throngs of devotees, lighting chillum after chillum, and posing for the camera, nonchalant about their nudity.

Some of them even did tricks with their penises—pulling them, twisting them, hanging weights on them. All these, I was later told were ways to desexualise the organ and indicate that they had risen above all carnal feelings. And these desexualised symbols of virility were everywhere, completely non-threatening. The initial shock of being around so many naked men wore off quickly. I had gotten used to the presence of penises of all shapes and sizes, happily dangling around me.

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As the sun set and the dust from thousands of weary feet settled, I found myself inside one of the largest camps. It wasn’t all that different from the day. Groups of sadhus sat around a fire sharing a chillum, barely exchanging words. As the crowd thinned, I was one of the very few common folk who stayed back. And it was only then I began to realise how nudity was a tool of power for some of these sadhus, while for others it was an act of submission.

The more seasoned ones strutted about, projecting confidence with their shoulders pulled broad, chest held high, hands on their waists and zero qualms about a seemingly not so nice to look at piece of flesh limply emulating a pendulum.

The younger sadhus on the other hand, found comfort in numbers and mingled in small groups, a bunch of droopy shoulders, eyes staring at the ground, covering against each other to somehow show as little as possible of themselves and perhaps their vulnerability. Maybe they were battling the idea that their manhood and manliness were being judged. Maybe it was a kind of intimidation, a feeling of being powerless, brought upon by being completely naked. Maybe they had body image issues. I don’t know.

As a woman, especially an Indian woman, it was a strange new experience to see men so insecure and submissive. Just with the simple act of removing one’s clothes, the burden of being naked. And also how powerful the human body can be in its raw nature, but only if you own it. One of my favorite images from that night is of two sadhus holding hands, watching the proceedings. One of them had long, black hair and I photographed them from the back. Although they were wearing loin cloths, to me, that photograph is a very tender moment shared between two human beings, during their most life defining moment.