Mahant Leela Giri ji

In Search of the Sadhavis of Kumbh

This International Women’s Day there has been a lot of talk over gender equality. In our last post for Women’s Day we talked about everyday ordinary women. This post is about a group of women also called Sadhavis (holy women) or Sanyasins (women who have renounced the world) whom we met at the Nashik Kumbh.

Mahant Prem Giri ji
Mahant Prem Giri ji

Before leaving for the Nashik Kumbh I had read in the papers that the Sadhavis were asking for a separate Akhada and a separate location to stay exclusively for women. But their request was denied. We were pretty interested to see how did they then manage to attend the Kumbh and where did they stay exactly!

As we set about in search of the female ascetics at Trimbakeshwar, we came to immediately understand that the locals did not know much about them. Even our experienced guide could not tell where the Sadhavis were staying. But we were determined to find some of them and talk to them if possible. Our guide explained to us that the Sadhus weren’t much into talking and we might have to shell out some money to photograph them. We had somewhat of a different experience. Probably having a female photographer helped!

Mahant Maya Giri ji
Mahant Maya Giri ji

The first two Sadhavis we spotted (Mahanta Maya Giri ji and Mahant Prem Giri ji) were seated along with two Naga Sadhus inside a hand-built tent. The Sadhus were pretty interested in being photographed and wanted to chat with us but the Sadhavis weren’t much of talkers. They just observed us as the Sadhus carried on with some poses for the cameras. Slowly as we started to chat a bit more, all of them got pretty comfortable with us. They invited us for some tea and even offered us to share their tent if we needed to stay back at Trimbakeshwar for the night.

This interaction made us a bit more confident for our next encounters. The next two Sadhavis we came across, Mahant Shanti ji and Mahant Leela Giri ji, were again sitting in a tent with another Juna Akhada Sadhu (not a Naga). This time we were much more comfortable from the beginning and so were they. The ladies called me into their tent and we share some stories about Madhya Pradesh, as they were both from the state. They told us how they will be spending the whole of 2016 visiting the different Kumbhs and staying at each location for about two to three months. They also gave us tips on where we could get a better photo of the Naga babas, for eg the bhandaras in the morning were a good place to spot the different babas like Jata wale baba (Baba with dreadlocks), Goggle wale baba (Baba who always wears a sunglass), etc.

Mahant Leela Giri ji
Mahant Leela Giri ji

Interesting facts

One interesting thing was none of them wanted to share their names when we started to chat but as they became more comfortable and we gained their trust, at the end of the conversation, they divulged their ascetic given names.

The most interesting thing we noted in our interactions was the part about gender equality. If you note their names, they are called Mahants, which although we would consider a male title, is neutrally used for both women and male ascetics. The “Giri” in the name is one of the four Juna Akhada titles: Giri, Puri, Bharati and Saraswati. The Sadhavis are not treated differently when given their ascetic names.

Also, when we asked the Sadhavis about their living situation they were pretty happy sharing tents with their “brothers” from the Juna Akhada (the oldest akhada). When we asked them about the demands of Sadhavis for a separate Akhada and living area, they did say they had heard of it but even if that happened they would still stay with their “brothers”.

Mahant Shanti ji
In conversation with Mahant Shanti ji

It was a pity we could not meet with other Sanyasins who did not belong to the Juna Akhada to get the complete picture. There definitely is a lot more to it with the struggles of the Pari Akhada for a separate akhada at the Ujjain Kumbh. Also there is so much we cannot learn in such a small amount of time. Still, the interactions did open our eyes to a small part of the Sadhavis‘ worlds and it was an interesting experience.



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