Monday, June 7, 2010

In the Baram's hands

The Uttar Pradesh shrine of what is said to be a trapped ghost draws the ‘possessed,’ hoping to rid themselves of whatever haunts them.

A strange calm hangs over the village, one that hardly appears to be in the midst of a famous mela. The heat is peaking, the fields around lie desolate and I have the odd feeling of being lost while trying to put some of my own ghosts to rest. Located 20 km from the district headquarters of Mirzapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh, this is Belahara. A dusty, rocky village, it comes alive once every year during the festival of Navratri, when the ‘possessed’ from around the country converge at the temple of Mohan baram baba.

On the surface, the fair resembles the regular confluence of the rural colour palette, where jalebis are fried next to stalls selling underwear. But the truer reality is hidden. Walking down a street lined with flower shops and incense, I reach the low walls of the temple compound. There, a bizarre scene unfolds, as the temple area is full of the cries of people in the midst of ridding themselves of whatever demon had possessed them. There is no drumbeat, no smoke engulfing the compound, but the possessed are nonetheless deep in trances, leaving their loved ones staring at them in disbelief. A pool of muddy water is the final stage of cleansing. A few women float in the water; a man sings two lines of a Bhojpuri song over and over before finally doing a somersault, sending up a huge splash. The echoes of chanting – baram baba, baram baba, baram baba – get louder.

The cult of the baram is popular along India’s cow belt of Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, especially in the villages. How does one become a baram, though? I go back to Prakash, under whose stall I had left my shoes. “In the past,” he says, “when a Brahmin was unable to attain moksha, he would get stuck on Earth and haunt the village until he got a following to pray to him. He would become a baram,” he says. Unconvincing though the explanation is, the popular belief in the area is that there are 108 baram floating around.

The tale of Mohan Dubey, at whose shrine the mela takes place, has a little more girth, as the temple’s head priest, Ram Manohar Dubey, narrates. Born in Belahara some 350 years ago, Mohan declared that he wanted to be a baram baba. But epidemic struck the village, taking him and several others with it. Thereafter, he appeared multiple times in his relatives’ dreams, telling them that he had become a baram and they should construct a temple for him. The few who woke up remembering the dream, however, immediately tried to forget it, lest it bring bad fortune.

Yet Mohan was not to be denied. In a fit of rage, he left for the village of Chainpur, in modern-day Bihar, and arrived at the house of Harsu baram, the king of the barams. Thereafter, unnatural deaths began to occur in Belahara, and its citizens panicked. Finally, Mohan appeared again in the dream of his nephew, Ram Avtar Dubey, and told him that he was disappointed and had left for the king’s court. “The village’s existence,” says the priest, “depended on Mohan baram being brought back home.”

So, using a pot of water, Ram Avtar went to Harsu and brought the baram of his uncle back to the village, where he then erected a temple as demanded. Calm soon returned to the village, and Mohan baram has been worshipped every day since. Soon, word of the new temple spread among the local communities, and tormented souls from far and wide began to arrive in Belahara to seek Mohan’s assistance.

Feeling a little heady, I decide to leave the temple. I reach for a ten-rupee note to give to Prakash for having kept my shoes safe, but he refuses to accept it – lest baram baba notice. 

---Photographs and text published in The Himal SouthAsian, May 2010

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mon, Nagaland, Part 1: Smoke signals in Konyak country

A second trip to Mon took me to Lungwa village, an hour's ride away from the district center, Mon town. The village is legendary even amongst Konyak people. The Angh's (chief) house is split between India and Burma, ergo, his food is made in Burma while his bed is laid in India. He has numerous wives and enjoys command over many villages. In one of the smaller kitchens on the Burmese side of the house, there was a different recipe brewing. An elaborate process of heating, vapourising, stuffing and smoking resulted in all of us opiated and satiated.

  A Konyak man and child. Trust him not to get his grandfather's tattoos in these times.
A Konyak man at the Angh's kitchen. He had some beautiful feet.
A kid sitting in front of trophies of animal heads hanging in a hall in the Angh's house.
Smoking in the Angh's kitchen with the Angh in the background. A beautiful shaft of light over him.
At the Indian edge of the Angh's house.

A beautiful Konyak girl who didnt appreciate the camera on her face. Her anger is evident.

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Mon, Nagaland by Akshay Singh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 India License.
Based on a work at

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Muscle in the town of soul: Mr. India 2010

The night before a friend was wondering about the unusually high number of buffed people he was noticing on the streets lately. The news paper report that morning got me jumping. Mr. India 2010 was being held in Benaras. Not a big fan of the muscle league, but the fact that it was being held here in Benaras, that certain bit of paradox was fascinating.
Even more irony heaped here with this show of brawn being held on the grounds of the Sanskrit University. It worked perfectly well for the organisers though. With marauding drunk university hooligans on the sides, politicians/mafia sitting in the front seats, scouting for bodyguards and henchmen, and a bunch of locals more used to seeing religion and music on stage rather than calves and deltoids.
The physically challenged came first to mad roars from the crowd. The peeks behind the stage were far more interesting where the builders were flexing every muscle for the camera. I had one 39-year old gasping for breath as he flexed and I couldnt get my focus right. The demographics of the builders were fascinating. The ones from Kerala were winning a lot, the Delhi boys were there and made a little mark with the medals, Punjabis were there too and got the crowds going with their Punjabi songs for their pose rounds. There were overly built Maharashtrians who have always had this body building habit which I think emanates from their complex of their build. The Manipuris who could be the most gifted athletic community in the country, were my favourites, they left the locals baffled by their ways. Except a few snide and racist remarks of the Chinese not having a chance against the Indians, most cheered them on. They went on to win the most by the end.
The next morning the buff was off the streets of Varanasi.

Shot on Nikon D60, Nikkor 18 - 55, 55 - 200mm.

Mr India 2010, Benaras, India from Akshay Singh on Vimeo.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Breathe: Maha Kumbh Mela 2010

I always appreciate eunuchs for their frankness and their ability to say things in a social sphere that all other beings are only caging within their minds. One came up to me when I was camera toting at the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar. It was mid day and most of the Shahi Snan (Royal Bath) of the nude, ash-covered Naga Sadhus was over and the crowds were moving around to find a spot for a dip in the frigid waters of the Ganga. "How many penises have you got till now in your camera?" she said as I stared into my camera display checking out the pictures I had taken. I smiled back to her at the innocent question that made a lot of sense as there were more than 6000 freelance photographers on that day, 3000 with a valid pass around their necks and hundreds of other people with cameras tucked away in their phones or other things that were being pointed at the crotches of the Naga babas.
Here, I have tried to refrain from just those shots (could not completely evade them, though) that appear out of every Kumbh and instead tried for a more assimilated picture of that day and the outpouring of common people in this small town. Though heavily controlled by a 100,000 policemen, the festival was thoroughly enjoyable and wildly satisfying.

Shot on Nikon D60, Nikkor 18-55 mm and 55-200 mm lens.

Maha Kumbh Mela 2010 from Akshay Singh on Vimeo.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Lands Beyond Hindustan: Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya

Lands Beyond Hindustan: Chandel, Manipur from Akshay Singh on Vimeo.

"The perceived notions of mainland Indians towards the North East in their paranoia and false fear couldnt be further away from the truth. There lay the most beautiful people, lands and cuisine."
After my journey across the three states of Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya, I often started retelling of my experiences there by these two lines: One disspelling the fear surrounding these states and the second propelling its true character.
Well, now I like to take a different line which I am pretty happy about. These lands are surrounded by such mysticism that disallows the regular Indian traveller from ravaging them and make it equivalent to most places in Himachal and Uttarakhand.
I am glad that you need an Inner land permit in your own country, for if we would walk in there we would leave everything in a bad taste. Glad that most of our sensitivities differ, glad we gasp at the meats they eat, glad we freak at the amounts of alcohol they drink, glad that we find them overtly outgoing, glad that we find them tribal in their ways, glad that we find them unpatriotic, glad that we gloat at their sexual independence, glad about their forays into chemicals and hallucinogens, for if we were similar, where would start to learn to appreciate them and their ways and where would the exoticism lie in a planet being driven to uniformity by the powers-that-be. And in our attempts to rectify, educate and assimilate them, we would ruin the one pure, humble people that are left in this falsifying and deceiving rainbow nation of ours that we love to call "Hindustan".
This is the first in a series of pictures that I will publish here in retelling the most beautiful people I have experienced in my journeys across India. The pictures are from this far-out village on the Burmese border in Chandel district, Manipur. Populated by the displaced Kuki Nagas, the village lies beyond numerous security check-posts, inhospitable terrain and the threat of insurgency hanging in the air. Once there, you could see a people living on the fringes and not being included in mainstream India through their education, infrastructure and the biscuits in its shops. But this is where the argument of India being a nation ended and diversity's beauty and importance came fore...

Shot on Nikon D60, Nikkor 18-55 lens

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Of madness over chai and philosophies over bhang

I wouldn't really care about introducing Kashi to you, for if you are reading this, you know what it is, what flows through it, which God was banished to it, what do most of its' citizens do for a living and what is the difference between Kashi, Varanasi and Benaras. Instead, I would like to write and initiate a discussion on what gives Kashi and its' people, its' distinct flavour of a tolerant, culturally responsive and a largely intelligent and informed society. Even though development, emancipation and all its' synonyms have largely shied away from the town, its' easy to see the flow of intellect and some stark opinions flowing through its' chowks and gullies. Sticking around at one of its' many obscure chai stalls, I sit down and reluctantly put my ears to work to hear the paltry citizenry making their voice heard with a louzy tone on a pathetic platform. Where is the rebellion, the guns, the blood? Or so I thought, for this paltry bunch like every other normal day would consist of professors, sadhus, recluse vagabonds, tradesmen, musicians, journalists, beggars, ignorant onlookers like me, the mediators-chai-wallas, the list is as varied as Kashi itself. Not leaving the boundaries of society and its' tentacles, this motley crew can be found at nooks and corners sipping chai in kulhads, discussing intensely, life and its' intricacies and looking beyond mundane topics of politics and cricket. With a varied range of intense philosophical dialectics and socio-cultural vagaries, I wonder if we have our own Sartre and Bertrand Russell at work.
One of my favourite past times in the city, its' hard not to sit amongst one and listen to these absorbing debates and discussions. And by the end, one is always left wondering what aids this vox populi in their wisdom fuelled conversations. Their perpetual bhang-induced state or the concoction of culture and religion in the city that helps them to look beyond the two or just a desire to explore new topics. For any, who read this and have remotely experienced what I wrote, I would love to read your thoughts for the same has baffled me immensely.