James Mallinson on the hardcore super-yogis for whom doing nothing bar smoking weed for very long periods is a sign of extreme holiness.
In February 2017 I finally made it to the old yogi monastery of Than. It’s at the foot of an extinct volcano in an isolated part of Kutch, a region in the far west of India which borders Pakistan and, cut off on all sides by water and salt flats, preserves traditions that have died out elsewhere. At the top of the mountain is a modest temple complex in honour of the yogi Dharamnath, who is said to have stood on his head in meditation for 12 years, accumulating so much ascetic power that when he eventually opened his eyes a blast of fire shot out and burnt up the sea to the north, creating the Great Rann of Kutch, a huge salt flat.
At the temple I met Mahesh Nath, a humble, reserved yogi with a friendly, stoned twinkle in his eye. His devotees told me he lives off nothing but chai and chillums, and that he is himself a master of the headstand. Delighted to discover a living link to the great yogi Dharamnath, I asked him more about his practice. In between puffs on a ganja chillum he told me matter-of-factly that every day of Kutch’s famously torrid four-month hot season, when temperatures regularly exceed 50 degrees, he stands on his head for an hour and a quarter. He didn’t seem the sort that would care that until 2016 he would have held the world record for the longest headstand, so I didn’t tell him.
“Every year during the festival of Navratra he sits down there and doesn’t get up again for nine days. No food, no drink, no toilet”
On returning to the monastery at Than, which, despite decades of neglect and the ravages of the great earthquake of 2001, is still more royal palace than humble hermitage, I was told that the Pir, as the abbot is known, was due to return late that night. I looked forward to meeting him, wondering how he would compare to the Pir described in a Raj-era account and depicted in a portrait painted directly onto one the monastery’s cracked walls. In 1839 Lieutenant Postans wrote, “His dress was somewhat curious, consisting of the ordinary angarkha, or body-cloth, a red shawl thrown over his shoulders, with a turban of blue silk; some of his ornaments were costly; I will only mention two massive gold bracelets, of the barbaric workmanship peculiar to Cutch.”
I asked some of his disciples whether the current Pir was so flamboyant. Oh no, they said, Yogi Somnath is an ascetic yogi and a master of samadhi, the deepest yogic trance. A devotee took my hand, led me to a hall at the rear of the monastery grounds and pointed to the raised platform at its end. “Every year during the festival of Navratra he sits down there and doesn’t get up again for nine days. No food, no drink, no toilet.”
You can read the rest of this piece in Idler 59, March/April 2018. Buy a copy here.