Urdha-Bahu Sannyasi, Eastern Bengal.
Medium: Photographic print
Print showing a 'sanyasi' or wandering Hindu mendicant taken by an unknown photographer in the early 1860s. Sanyasis or sadhus are holy men who have taken the path of renunciation. In the Hindu tradition, a man's life was divided into four ashramas or stages: brahmacharya (childhood and celibate youth), grihastha (householder) vanaprastha (householder devoted to spiritual pursuits) and sanyasa (ascetic). Sanyasa was in essence the culmination of an ideal life, when a human being practised austerity and tried to discover life's truths and oneness with God. Having turned their back on material comforts, sanyasis sported unshorn hair and beards, meditating and performing rigorous penances and retreating to isolated caves, forests and hills. In modern times, they appear more as wandering mendicants than true holy men, roaming India, begging for food. Sanyasis have a particular allegiance to Shiva (one of the three great gods of the Trinity in Hindusim) who is also known as ‘The Great Ascetic’. He is usually visualised meditating, seated crosslegged on a tigerskin, smeared with ash, wearing a loincloth and with matted hair, garlanded with a rudraksha mala or necklace of seeds, Rudra being one of his many names. Sanyasis smear their bodies with sacred ash or bhasma, they sometimes wear or sit on animal skins, and they use rudraksha seed rosaries. This is one of a series of portrait studies of individuals and groups from Eastern Bengal (modern Bangladesh and Assam). It is possible that they were taken in response to the Government of India's call for photographs representing various ethnic types and castes from across the sub-continent.