by John Brandi

Kings with Straw Mats: A film by Ira Cohen.
Mystic Fire Video, 1998, 70 minutes

In the 1970s, journeying from Deihi to the holy City of Hardwar, where the Ganges breaks from Himalayan foothills, I woke on a rattling steam train-cinders in my hair and my eyes blurreded. Slowly I focused, as if still dreaming, on two nearly naked men in bright saffron breechcloths at a washbasin at one end of the carriage. They were madly scrubbing their teeth with antiseptic neem twigs--their fat buttucks shaking, hair knotted in thick dreads, strands of holy rudraksh beads adorning necks, bright vermilion sect marks drawn on their foreheads.

These professional mystics, I quickly learned, were of the primordial wanderers, collectively known as sadhus-- a word derived from sadhana: "means of achieving a particular goal." Footloose throughout India on perpetual pilgrimage, these ascetics are representatives not only of Vishnu and Shiva, but of old animist spirits who govern wind, fire, water, and earth. Without belongings they step lightly, as if in vision. Even more unexpectedly, they disappear--into meditation, into trance; combining ancient yogic austerities, tantra, metaphysical science and renunciation--in hopes of reprogramming the body, liberating it from earthly ties, opening the mind to bliss.

Ira Cohen, a nut of the metaphysical realm himself ("nut" implying bindu, essential enlightened kernel), went to the Himalayas in 1970 where he lived for several years, writing poetry, experimenting with mind expanders, astral projection and esoteric insight through mysterious alchemic practices. His letterpress poetry series, The Bardo Matrix, lovingly, published such authors as Paul Bowles, Gregory Corso, and Charles Henri Ford on handmade Nepali paper. But the crowning work of Ira Cohen's Asian adventure came in the mid-eighties when he returned to the subcontinent to film India's famous Kumbha Mela, the sacred gathering of millions of sadhus, which takes place every twelve years along the Ganges--Harwar and Allahabad being the favored sites.

Cohen--who shot 50+ hours of 8mm Kumbha Mela footage with his assistant Ira Landgarten-calls the celebration "a circus of high madness, true devotion and showbiz savvy"--an Akashic experience "embodying the unwritten history of humankind" (Akash, Sanskrit: "towards the shining"). Now, after an auspicious passing of twelve years, Mystic Fire releases that precious footage as Kings with Straw Mats: 70 minutes of mind-altering semi-human, dreadlocked mystics in action-overlaid with Cohen's own poetry, superbly edited by Morgan Harris.

These sadhus, or babas (also called nagas: "Naked renouncers"), arrive by the tens of thousands in Hardwar, the Gate of Heaven-on foot, oxcart, camelback and steam train-in the unbelievable trance-dream parade through the unabashed lens of Cohen's third eye. When not asleep under tattered awning or nakedly blowing hallucinatory clouds of smoke through clay chilams or beaming their third eyes into the occult, they perform such austerities as stomping through town on spiked clogs, burying themselves alive for days, folding their limbs backwards in unbelievable contortions, weighting arms with kilos of iron bracelets while reclining on beds of nails-or simply evaporating in white light above the Ganges, as pilgrims sail candled leaf boats into its sacred flow.

Some babas, like Kareshwaris, grow into trees, standing, sleeping and eating-on one leg-for dozens of years. There are ekbahus, one-arm babas, who raise the right arm for a decade or more, never putting it down, the arm withering, the hand clenched, the fingernails growing back into the flesh. There are dandavat babas who prostrate themselves flat as a stick every few paces as they walk thousands of kilometers from the tip of India to the snows of the Himalaya. There are matajis, "revered mothers," who embrace solitary asceticism that harks back to early ascetics who dropped out of an increasingly ritualistic Vedic religion. There are babas, who stretch and roll their penises around sticks, twisting them like airplane propellers, snapping the nerves to render the lingam incapable of erection. Proclaiming chastity, these nagas further prove their sexual transcendence by lifting huge stones tied to their cocks (it is a miracle they are not torn off in the act.)

Defying all preconceptions of human endurance in their quest for higher liberation, these ash-dusted swamis form an unbroken lineage between the millennia-old birth of yoga and its contemporary expression. Often accompanied by itinerant beggars, hunchbacks, snake charmers, and rebel musicians wailing their songs in the tradition of Mirabai, the Kumbha Mela sadhus are not to be taken lightly. Following a path of insight and devotion, they are brides of the earth moving from camp to camp, intoxicated on the divine, evoking the mythic, silencing themselves in poverty and solitude to reach the unlimited world of shamanistic ecstasy.

If you haven't experienced India, Kings with Straw Mats will put you there--and carry you light years further, into the heart of the world's greatest mystic pilgrimage. This film will tap your unknown roots and draw the sap upward to fill the pores with sound and light few have experienced. "I tell you," Ira Cohen recites in one of his many poems in the film, "there are saints / by the dozens they are coming / even now they are coming every moment they are coming / with hair piled high / from mountain and river / the people of dust / all of us are coming / and going we come/ we are a multitude moving towards a head / the entrance to Paradise is a revolving door!"

Review is reprinted from Kyoto Journal

Photographs used with permission from Mystic Fire.

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