Fall from Grace

Vishwanath Giri, a sadhu, occupied a small room off the main shrine at the Dattatrey temple in Bhaktapur for several years. Men from the neighbourhood came to sit, talk and smoke tobacco and hemp. Giri sat on a mat, shirtless, a rough cotton shawl around his slumped shoulders. A single log smouldered as the neighbourhood men passed time .with their resident holy man. Outside, children played hopscotch, men trudged by with sacks of grain hanging balanced from poles.

He was born into an Upadhaya family from Siphal in Kathmandu. He was a truck driver until an accident left him lame; he then became a mechanic. Girl talked softly, but without sadness, about how he became a sadhu. "My wife and my only child both died, and I was alone, with nothing," he said, "So I left the everyday world and started wandering." Giri went to Benaras to study with a guru, Mohan Basant Giri, who taught him mantras and yoga. He had been a sanyasin for ten years and was now 61 years old. He was preparing for the most significant date for sadhus in Nepal: Shivaratri. "It is the last of three holy nights," he said. "Kalratri, at Dasain, Maharatri, at Tihar, and now Shivaratri, to honour the birth of Shiva. I will sit all night by this fire, chanting mantras and covering myself in ash. In the morning, go to to Pashupatinath and bathe in the river there, and then sit with the other sadhus.

Giri lived the austere, penitent life of a holy man. His room was perhaps four feet by eight. A large latticed window took up one wall, and together with the tiny door, allowed a draught of air to ventilate the smoky room. There were a few tattered books and on a shelf a few pots, several tomatoes and an aubergine. People from the neighbourhood brought him food.

In keeping with his role as a wanderer, Giri was fatalistic about how long he would stay at Dattatray. "That is not for a sadhu to think about — it makes no difference," he said. "When it is time to go, I will take my stick and my bundle and go where I have to go, sleeping outside, going without food."

Two years later, Girl would no longer be at Dattatrey temple. The head priest found him drunk one morning, asleep on the steps in front of the temple. Ashamed, Giri left Bhaktapur. A year later, the priest ran into the baba at a celebration in Panauti, to the east. He said he asked Giri to forget the incident and return to Dattatrey, but he refused.

His Bhaktapur friends would continue to meet in the little room off the shrine at Dattatrey. But Giri, whose efforts to come closer to the divine were interrupted by a detour into the profane, would be elsewhere. A holy man picks up his small bundle when it is time to go, and leaves nothing behind.

additional reporting by S. Sharma.

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Himal Southasian