Monkey god's incarnation earns his keep at massive Indian pilgrimage
For Ram Das Gusain, who has a wife and two children to support, festivals are peak times for business. He believes he is an incarnation of the Hindu monkey god Hanuman -- and dresses and behaves accordingly. Holy men seeking alms are frequenting the western Indian city of Nashik, which is packed with millions of Hindus coming for a sacred bath in an event being held here for the first time in more than 100 years. Many pilgrims offer charity to the holy men, some naked, some with matted hair and flowing beards, and others clad in yellow robes and carrying tridents.
For Gusain, the connection to the monkey god stretches into every aspect of life. His diet consists mostly of bananas. "I have more than 50 to 60 bananas every day. I have imbibed every trait of god Hanuman," he said with a smile as pilgrims dropped coins into his steel bowl. Gusain paints his body orange and has a curling tail made of spiralling cloth tied to his waist.
The death of 45 devotees here Tuesday in a stampede at the Kumbh Mela, or Nectar Pot festival, during a sacred bathing ritual at a river has not shaken the 55-year-old holy man. "It is a question of time. When each person's time is up then he dies," Gusain said. "I am a believer who is still alive and have to take care of my family and my stomach."
"I start my day by offering prayers to Hanuman," Gusain said. "Then I apply orange colour mixed with oil all over my body and put on the crown. I have taken this form because I believe in god." Gusain greets every pilgrim by saying "Jai Ram," or "Long live the god Ram," and earns about 600 rupees (13 dollars) a day. "I am married and have two kids. This money will help sustain my family," he said.
As he works, his family spends time around the temples. At night they all sleep on the street. Gusain remains barefoot and walks about 15 kilometers (nine miles) daily. "It is a long walk and I start everyday by about 10.00 am and end the day at about 3.00 pm," Gusain said. "Wherever a major festival happens in India I see to it that I spread the message of Hanuman and earn a living."
"I will be here (at the Kumbh Mela) for a week," he said. "I visit all the famous temples in India during the festivals."
The six-week Kumbh Mela is held every three years, rotating among four areas in India. The bathing area at the Godavari river lies near the spot where the Hindu warrior god Ram, accompanied by his wife Sita and brother Laxman, is reputed to have spent his years in the jungles after being forced into exile by his father.
Devandas Maharaj came to Nashik from the Hindu kingdom of Nepal and said he has toured all of India's major temples. He travels with a 20-member entourage of holy men. Financing his trip, he said, "is not much of a problem."
"I have never fallen short of money in any of the trips," Maharaj said. "When short of money we travel by bus or walk," he said. "When we are hungry we request a devotee to give some money."
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