Mahashivratri (which falls on 4 March this year) is one festival that brings with it an ecstatic fervour not found in other festivals. Devotion to Shiva is a perennial observance. Shivbhagti precedes other observances as is evident from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas too. The third God of the Hindu Trinity is not only a destroyer but also a protector who, easily swayed by devotion to him, showers gifts on his devotees with abundance, or so it is believed.

The Chauhan rulers of Delhi and Rajputana venerated him as he was the one who bestowed power which they venerated more than anything else because of their Kshatriya ancestry which marked them out as the warrior caste and the protectors of their ancient land, where pigeons were not killed, as they were sacred to Shiva, and who learnt the story of creation from him while he told it to goddess Parvati. “Bhole Nath”, as he is fondly called, gives an idea of the innocent benevolence of Shiva. No wonder even on vans, trucks and other vehicles you will find the slogan, “Bhole ki fauj karenge mauj” boldy displayed.

When Shivratri comes and people worship the bel leaves, they are harking back to the time when a hunter taking shelter on a bel tree kept plucking its leaves the whole night and throwing them down without being aware that in doing so he was unconsciously paying homage to Shiva on whose image below the fell.

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“Bolo bhai bam/Ke bolo bhayi bam/Ke bam Bhole” is the chant of the devotees who travel on Mahashivaratri to distant Shivalayas to offer water to Shambho Nath, whose seat is in the snowy Himalayas.

Armed with lathis and wearing vests and kacchas (underwear) they go about even in the dark to fulfil their mission without any fear, amid the cry of “Jai,Jai Shiv Shankar/Kanta lage na kankar”, Delhi has several shivalayas, like the ones in the royal palaces of Rajasthan where the rajas and maharajas offered worship for power, strength and fortitude. A foreign tourist, David Sharpe visiting Pink City Jaipur was fascinated by the small Shiv temples on the roadside, under trees with flickering diyas, and beneath the old city wall, where a lone sadhu sat in meditation for the whole night, quite unmindful of the wordly happenings, lost in thoughts of Shiva.

David Sharpe had come from Australia and what he saw amazed him. His interest was not in the new colonies but in the old ones – the mohallas of the Walled City where a white ladoo or a kulhar of dahi or milk was left by someone as a humble offering to Shivji. A Christian, he at first used to make the Sign of the Cross thinking that what he was seeing was a manifestation of devil worship but slowly light dawned on him and he came to realise that it was God who was being honoured thus.

The photographs David took back home were not only a record of his rambles but a discovery he wanted to share with his folks about strange worship and practices of which his countrymen were naturally ignorant. Here is one of the pieces on Delhi he left behind in 1973 and which is worth sharing with readers: “A sadhu sits with trishul in hand at the gate of the Udaseen Ashram near Kamla Market in Delhi. His matted locks match his mien.  Behind him on the cool ashram floor several inmates are either asleep or lying with an air of resignation that is peculiar to ascetics who drink Bhang of Lord Shiva, whose “Bhagts” they are.

Hardly any sunlight seems to penetrate the place. Perhaps long ago when Delhi was still partly inhabited with a Pather Ghatiin the centre, this ashram was just a mound below a tree where wandering sadhus set up abode for a while and went their way.

“Now the place has an identity. Some of the sadhus are resident here and willy-nilly affected by the modernity of the Capital. There are among them those who go about with brief-cases and bifocals.

Some dress and behave like the sadhus in the TV serials. Perhaps it helps to strike postures which are in keeping with the epics. A certain turn of speech, a gentle gaze, a fierce look, quick turning of the head, a gesture or a frown– all have a psychological effect on devotees.

“Among the ashramites are the sadhus who sing bhajans morning and evening. They move in a group, six saffron robed men who wake up the residents with the popular “Uth jag musafir bhor bhai (awake, oh traveller, for morning has come). In the evening the song is of a different kind with its emphasis on the introspection that comes when the day ends. But to see these men at the ashram is a different experience.

Here they move about as individuals both old and young, the fierce looking and the gentle ones. The ones who sit at the gate look like the sentries of Shiva. These sanyasis do have an air of mystery. What secrets of life and death do they harbour?” How did they come to accept asceticism as a way of life – ome personal grief or sorrow at large, or the realisation that the world is just a bridge?”

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David Sharpe may not have known it, but the Bhawal Sanyasi moved about like this for 12 years after being rescued from the funeral pyre by a group of sadhus. And it look a lot of legal ingenuity to prove before the Privy Council that the Sanyasi was in fact the second Kumar of Bhawal State (now in Bangladesh) who had been allegedly poisoned by his jealous queen.

Well, that was years ago. But does human nature change? Some of the sadhus one sees in Delhi may well be the victims of such strange circumstances. But the ashrams hardly ask questions. They give refuge to all who seek it. Now come to another ashram. The place is cooped up on high ground that overlooks the railway line and the smoky nomadic dwellings. From here groups of sadhus emerge to roam the localities of Shadipur, Pandav Nagar and Patel Nagar. There is one particular group that goes about with an elephant.

The oldest of them sits on the animal while the rest walk in front.

It reminds one of the blind men who went out to discover what an elephant looked like. The difference is that these ones own a jumbo of their own and have their eyes all right. The elephant, a sturdy male, has acquired some of the traits of the sadhus in that it has learnt to beg and feed itself on the leaves from the roadsides trees. It is bathed in a pond whenever possible and enjoys its bath to be sure especially in the hot weather.

There is another group of sadhus who visit the far-flung colonies morning and evening to sing bhajans. Before the sun is up they start singing their matins. The philosophy is neither Hindu nor Muslim nor Christian but cosmopolitan which recognises that each being is a traveller bound for his heavenly home. The sadhu sings well. One of them plays the “dholak” another the cymbals or damru and rest clap. The sadhu who leads them is young man with a high-pitched voice. The ones who follow with a rich baritone are middle-aged and the eldest, who is well past 80, brings up the refrain. They are back in the evening with “Jaya Jagdish hare” (a song of praise to the lord of the universe).

As the lights come on the voices sound more and more poignant against the background of the twilight sky. The visit ends after a fortnight and it’s then that the sadhu announce that the group is leaving the colony. People do appreciate the visit and donate accordingly.

One wonders why they took to the ashram? Some personal tragedy, a dead wife, way ward children, a wicked stepmother or separation from parents in childhood? These could perhaps be the reasons but many of them must have just devoted their lives to mendicancy. The ashram caters to all of them and fosters a special way of life which one cannot fathom even if one has a peep at the inmates relaxing inside. So watch the Shiv ashram shikhar (tower) from a distance and think of the traveller on his life-long journey.

David Sharpe probably still rattles the Damru of Shiva in faraway Melbourne at Mahashivratri if he is aware of the date in the almanac and intones, “Arthi karo Shanker ki” as he heard it in a mandir one evening long ago while munching “Rebaris”, given a prasad.