A Visit to the Alakha Nath
Temple in Bareilly
by Peter Meyer
The Alakha Nath Temple is the headquarters of the Anand Akhara order of Naga sannyasins. Members of this order of Shiva devotees are also known as Naga Babas. The temple is at Bareilly, a large town in Uttar Pradesh, India. To get there from the station you flag down a taxi (of sorts), a cross between a jeep and an auto-rickshaw. It's only five rupees to the Alakha Nath temple because this vehicle picks up other passengers along the way.
It's early summer, 2003, rather warm but not hot. After half-an-hour you arrive. You pass through the outer gate to the temple grounds, leading to an avenue of stalls, after which you come to the inner temple gate.
Outer temple gate
Inner temple gate
(Click on the images to see enlargements.)
The temple complex beyond the inner gate consists of several buildings with a kind of courtyard in the center. There are various shrines, big and small, some within buildings, some outside. Numerous devotees are going from one shrine to the next to make offerings and prayers. Animals of various kinds are around the place. Cows and goats are tethered, and behind one of the buildings is a camel.
There's a sadhu sitting at a shrine, ready to receive offerings from devotees. There's another sadhu sitting on a mat on a verandah of one of the buildings. He looks like someone important. Approaching him, with hands clasped together, he greets you and smears ash on your forehead from a pile of ashes in front of him (the ashes are in front of a tall Shiva trident stuck in the ground). This person turns out to be Shri Mahant Baba Dhram Geree. He speaks no English, but a couple of people try to translate for you. You've heard that the head of the temple is called Balak Baba, and you tell him you're looking for him. Not sure he understands, though. He is friendly, and soon a small chillum (for smoking hashish) is being passed around.
Sadhu at shrine
Baba Dhram Geree
One of the men, Prem Saxena, is a lay devotee, and understands some English, though not well. You try to tell him that you were a disciple of Ganesh Baba, who is buried here somewhere, and you've come to make some offering at his grave. He does not understand, but thinks you want to perform puja like the other visitors to the temple, so he takes you around to the various shrines. He mutters prayers, touching the many images of deities and then touching his forehead to transfer a blessing. He takes you into a kind of small crypt, which seems to be an especially holy place, and there is a Shiva lingam set in a hole in the floor, on which devotees place flowers.
Door to lingam shrine
Eventually he takes you to a room, open on three sides, where there is a sadhu, apparently an important one. He has orange-colored powder smeared over most of the top half of his face. Prem Saxena tells you this is Balak Baba. Aha, the very man you've come to see! He is speaking with several young Indian men. But unfortunately he speaks no English, and you can't explain to him why you're here. Balak Baba motions to you to come closer. He smears some colored powder on your forehead. He shows you a page written in Hindi, with pictures of a couple of babas. You understand that he wishes you to make a donation to this cause, whatever it is. After consultation with Prem Saxena you offer 1000 rupees (about US$22), which seems to please him.
Next Prem Saxena takes you to another place where there are several images of deities, the most important one apparently being an image of Shanidev, all in black, with white eyes prominent. Prem Saxena explains that if one sees Shanidev during meditation it's good if one only sees his feet and legs, or the lower part of his body; if one sees his eyes then that's not good. Several sadhus and laymen are sitting around on a verandah, and a group of women are singing bhajans (Hindu devotional songs).
Prem Saxena introduces you to the main baba here. This turns out to be Saloney Baba. He is also friendly, and has a warm gaze. He takes some ash from the ashpit in front of him (with another Shiva trident) and smears some on your forehead. A chillum is passed around and eventually tea is brought.
Saloney Baba and another
Finally you are able to explain to Saloney Baba, througn Prem Saxena, that you were a disciple of Ganesh Baba, and that you're here to see Ganesh Baba's burial place. Saloney Baba is quite pleased to hear this, since Saloney Baba knew Ganesh Baba well. In fact, Saloney Baba tells you, when Ganesh Baba died at Nainital he died in his arms.
Saloney Baba takes you to the entrance to the temple complex and across the path to a building consisting of a single room with a tall tapering tower above it. This is Ganesh Baba's tomb. Inside is a shrine with an image of the elephant-headed Ganesh, and on the wall is a picture of Ganesh Baba. The room is closed by an iron grille at the front, but is opened each morning and evening for puja. Saloney Baba says that at night many devotees come here, singing bhajans and making offerings.
Ganesh Baba's grave
Ganesh shrine at grave
You walk back with Saloney Baba. You indicate that it's time you were going, but he makes you stay awhile to smoke another chillum. Finally, with many smiles and gestures of respect, you leave and get a rickshaw back into town.
Images © 2003 Peter Meyer
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