Post Office Baba – Banaras 1960s.

Post Office Baba lying nude on his mat on the steps of the main Banaras Post Office, 1963.

When we lived in Banaras in the 1960s, there were numerous unusual people & places, with Post Office Baba, above, one of the more visible. When a friend  recently emailed this image, several of us kicked around the meaning that it has for us today, 45 years later.

Klaus Schlichtmann (Japan):
Some of you may know this one (see photo! The pic is from a book I found).

Arthur Mandebam (New York City):
Great photo of the ‘post office baba’, I can’t remember his name. Didn’t he consume all offerings that were placed before him, including packs of cigarettes? He ate everything including the banana peels. That photo should be on the home page!

Nico Morrison (London):
Post Office Baba. Why on the home page?  Anyway ….. I’ll certainly put this up if either or both of you will write some text to accompany the photo.  I also need provenance,  which book and date if possible.  Digambara baba – I’m sure I saw him as the photo has resonance but I have no memory.

Was he at the Main Post Office, Banaras? Where is that?  If any of you can write a short story/article around Post Office Baba I will most happily post it.

Klaus Schlichtmann (Japan):
I scanned the photo from Eric Newby, Slowly Down The Ganges, London: Picador (Pan Books in association with Collins), 1983 (originally published in 1966 by Hodder and Stoughton).

I immediately recognized our Post Office Baba, having seen him many times during the two years of my stay in Benares. I should say something more, but am tied up in preparations for my peace studies course…

Nico Morrison (London):
I feel I can’t do anything with this without a good story to hang it on. If you could enlarge on your recollections of Post Office Baba and possibly tie those recollections into something the Baba represented for you, that would make it a good post.  Otherwise we are using him as a freak show it would appear. Do NOT want to even APPEAR to be doing that.

SO: What do we learn from him? What do we learn about India from him? What was important about him that you went to the trouble of making a scan and sending it to us?

You get the drift …. Your scan is good enough to use if there is a piece of writing around it that illuminates your Indian experience for others through having darshan of him. Did you ever speak to him? Was he mauni? What do we know more?

Klaus Schlichtmann (Japan):
I would surely like to write up something, but just don’t know when. Your questions are good, and I could try and find some answers. I think he was a mauni, at least during the day, and he used to scribble things on little pieces of paper. Also he had an assortage of small bottles around him and could have given people medicines.  Probably. (May be issuing Tabij amulets as well?) Doesn’t Andrew have a recollection and couldn’t he write something?

Arthur Mandebam (New York City):
Snippets are good. Once it’s out there people can add their recollections.

Nico Morrison (London):
Of course you are quite right. I’ll work up a post on post office baba (pun intended). But …. I still want something that takes away the freak show element.

What is the core value of this man lying naked in front of the main Banaras PO? Where not only men but also women stroll past in large numbers? I mean – in my head I know he represents something of value but I’m having trouble verbalising it. Maybe it IS just the shock value. Digambara ……. we should ALL be naked …….. what is digambara? ‘clothed in light’ or something? ‘wrapped in air’? Monier Monier-Williams is up in my attic somewhere.

Take an example, if I was to lie down naked in front of the Banaras PO they’d arrest me; why not him?

If I can get a snippet together that has some kind of serious provenance embedded in it then it makes the post a lot less vulnerable.

Klaus Schlichtmann (Japan):
I believe I (perhaps) never saw Post Office Baba’s private parts, he somehow managed to keep them out of sight, by lying on his belly much of the time (as in the photograph) or somehow rolling about in such manner that they would not achieve any degree of prominence.

Since he was well-fed, he was a good luck symbol of prosperity, in some way like the sumo wrestlers who are only wearing a “langoti” (apparently the Japanese word for it, “fundoshi”, derived from the Indian word).

I am wondering if I ever saw him stand up and walk about… Apart from being a living manifestation of prosperity and renunciation (interesting combination!), his presence may have had the effect of making people conscious of their humanness and morality.

In this way he exercised a certain control, by assuming and in fact exercising a social function that would have contributed to the natural, peaceful order of things, where everything has its place and value. It’s almost like you don’t need a policeman or guard any more to watch the post office with someone like that around, naked, and potentially vulnerable…

Yes, the shock of being human, reminding us of the existentialist experience of having been thrown into the world, naked…

Steve Landsberg (Venezuela):
When I first moved to Assi Ghat in December of 1967, there was one naked baba living under the only tree there.  He smoked chillums all day long and people would visit him and he seemed to be giving advice and teaching them something.  Although I did not know him well, he was always friendly.  Assi Gat in those days was not what it has become today.  There were some boat wallas and a few other people hanging about but it was a quiet scene except on big festival days.  I do recall the time when James Ivory was shooting the Guru, I recruited a so many people living in Varanasi at the time  to sit on a houseboat going down the river in front of the palace of the  Maharaja of Benaras.  I think Arthur may have been in that. They paid us 100 Rs each for the day which at that time was considered a good salary.

Heidi Spielhagen (Berlin):

To me, although I am a woman and no voyeur, a religious order’s, or an individual mystic’s, choice to live without wearing clothes is the most fundamental religious freedom.

The day  this freedom is taken away even in India is the victory day for those religions that are estranged from the  source of  direct experience of being rather than prayer or hair splitting or a good scam for fleecing the sheep.
Nudity , obviously, is not a requirement for a mystic, but it is an unquestionably valid choice;  most of them use it with discretion, which is their choice also.

And, just for the sake of info, my guru, a white man, lived as naked sadhu by Manikarnika Ghat (Banaras), in the 40s and maybe early fifties. He continued as a naked sanyasi until his death;  he wore clothes only when it was cold or when he was out of doors.
I always regretted that, as a woman, this was an option I did not have.
I sort of think that a stretch of nudity, like poverty, is a really good tapasya,  and certainly most enlightening about yourself as well as society at large.

Marilyn Stablein (USA):

In a culture that admires (idolizes, worships) plumpness Post Office Baba exudes a certain naive baby Krishna-like charm and innocence.  In a country where poverty and malnutrition are inescapable realities for many someone who has achieved a rich, full belly, is to be indulged if not adored.

He reminds me of the mustard oil slathered rotund Brahmin bathers at the Varanasi ghats who languish in the sun under parasols.  Ganesh’s plump belly also comes to mind as do the Chinese fat Buddha belly figures.

Terris Temple (Chiang Mai, Thailand):

Cool pic, Post Office Baba I remember well, he did walk around the PO area, I remember several times going by, once on a rickshaw, another time saw two Western elderly women walking to the PO and Baba with his back to them picked up something from the street, they did get an unusual view.

When ever I was going in that direction he always gave me eye contact. He was a favourite Baba of mine. Many times devotees brought him large offerings of sweets which he hoovered remarkably, never knew his name, but have very fond memories of him.

Klaus Schlichtmann (Japan):

I would like, if I had the time, to expand upon what is the natural order of things, and the ‘police (or policing) function’ that monks and ascetics (world renouncers) fulfill, as well as the example set by someone being happy with nothing. In addition such a order allows anyone fed up with worldly affairs or being unsuccessful in his worldly pursuits to turn to God and renounce the world, instead of having to continue to compete or — what would be worse — engage in criminal activities to survive. Monasteries instead of prisons! Etc. etc… There is always a way out!

Glossary:

mauni – ‘silent’ – not speaking; sometimes under gurus’ orders.

darshan –  literally ‘to see’, to have a privileged view of. Used to indicate the beneficial result of being in the presence of a spiritually advanced person.

digambara – literally ‘sky-clothed’ so therefore naked.

Monier Monier-Williams – eponymous  Sanskrit to English dictionary.

tapasya – penance, austerities.

Biblio:

Slowly Down The GangesThe splendid book of his1963 journey,  Slowly Down the Ganges by Eric Newby.

“On his forty-fourth birthday Eric Newby, a self-confessed river lover, sets out on a 1200-mile journey down the Ganges River from Hardwar to the Bay of Bengal, accompanied by his wife Wanda.

Things do not start smoothly as they run aground 63 times in the first six days, but gradually India’s holiest river, The Pure, The Eternal, The Creator of Happiness, lives up to its many names and captures them in its spell. Traveling in a variety of boats, most of them unsuitable, as well as by bus and bullock cart, the Newbys become intimately acquainted with the river’s shifting moods and colorful history.

“Slowly Down the Ganges” brims over with engaging characters and entertaining anecdotes, recounted in Newby’s inimitable style. Best of all, he brilliantly captures the sights and sounds, the frustrations and rewards, the sheer enchantment of travel in India.” (Google Books Overview).

Links:

Nudity in Religion

Initiation of Naga Babas – Naked Yogis (with Baba Rampuri)

Contributors:

Thanks to all below who let me pester them repeatedly;

Steve Landsberg: Ragascape

Terris Temple: TibetColor

Arthur Mandebam, Heidi Spielhagen, Klaus Schlichtmann,  Marilyn Stablein.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share

6 Responses to “Post Office Baba – Banaras 1960s.”


  • Brice Bowman (NYC)

    All of these recollections have reminded me of an encounter with a naked person on the street in Old Delhi, near the Red Fort. Perhaps he too was a baba? I had stopped at a water vendor, when a man literally crawled out of the street onto the sidewalk at my feet. My reaction was to feel kindness toward the man and so I paid the water vendor for a glass of water, which I passed over to him. Then I proceeded to walk away. I did not realize at the time this man may have been a renunciate, I probably thought of it only as a charitable act. After all, this was Delhi and one didn’t see this sort of thing as one might expect in Benares?

  • This recollection of Brice reminds me that while with Arthur and Jasper
    at the Modi Estate in 1967 I stepped outside the gates to smoke a bidi and came face to face with a naked baba striding along the highway in the direction of Delhi He begged a bidi from me, accepted my invitation to chai at a chai stall,drank a scalding pot of chai straight down in one gulp like it was cold water and hit the road again, thumbing down trucks as he hitched his way south.
    I must say his elan was was super cool.
    OK, so he had not renounced tobacco,but for sure he had nowhere to carry any.

  • I would like to shed some light upon the matter of the Post Office Baba who was named Ramananda. I know his name not from any communication with him but because I knew his father’s cousin-brother who was my landlord, Sri Krishna Bhatt, a Saraswati Brahmin whose family tree was alleged to go back two thousand years.

    His grandfather had made a mint during the last fifty years of the British Raj in the jewellery trade and in a large peacock infested mango orchard he had built a pleasure-house which became known as the Peacock Garden House.

    It was (and still is) located in the village of Mawaiya, on the Gaziabad road, a mile from Ashapur on the Sarnath side of Banares. I rented the house for two successive years, the second year with the late Terry Clifford.

    The Hogfarm stopped off a couple of nights there in 1970 to give Wavy Gravy some respite from his back pain on their epic bus ride to Kathmandu – the late Fred Lane was a driver, and the late Keith Redman stayed there for a season or two in the early seventies.

    Anyway, I had wondered about the Post Office Baba, whether he was a yogi or a social casualty and when he happened to come up in conversation with Krishna Bhatt one day I learnt that he had been a moronic child and an idiot without the intelligence to follow any trade or even make himself useful around the house and that his parents utterly frustrated with his indolence in his teens started to take him to the Chowk Post Office balcony and leave him there during the daytime, bringing him home in the evenings to sleep.

    After some time people started to make offerings to him as Indians do. Particularly he was fed by the sweetmeat and roti sellers in the area to the east of Chowk. Sometimes he was given putrid food and he ate it without appearing to notice and he got a little reputation for that. One of his uncles was a disciple of the aghori baba, Ramananda, who had the ashram on the eastern bank of Ganga Mai near the railway bridge, and the uncle mentioned this seeming siddhi of the Post office Baba to Ramananda.

    Then once Ramananda was in the city he stopped by at the Post Office and initiated the Baba as an aghori sadhu and gave him his own initiatory name. Apparently this made no difference to the Baba but it did mean that he became a well known character in Kashi, guaranteed to consume whatever was offered to him.

    His nakedness did not date from his initiation. It started much earlier when he would urinate and defecate where he lay and rather than allow him to lie in soiled clothes for the entire day his lunghi was taken away from him. This is what I heard.

  • His name was Dumpster Baba Ji! I once gave him a letter to mail inside the PO for me but he ate it instead! Bb

  • This recollection of Brice reminds me that while with Arthur and Jasper
    at the Modi Estate in 1967 I stepped outside the gates to smoke a bidi and came face to face with a naked baba striding along the highway in the direction of Delhi He begged a bidi from me, accepted my invitation to chai at a chai stall,drank a scalding pot of chai straight down in one gulp like it was cold water and hit the road again, thumbing down trucks as he hitched his way south.
    I must say his elan was was super cool.
    OK, so he had not renounced tobacco,but for sure he had nowhere to carry any.

  • I think this “man” may be the Siddha mentioned in Robert Svoboda’s Aghora series … Vimalananda talks about a Siddha who lived on the steps of the Benares PO for years … Vimalananda met him and apparently he could produce lotus flowers from his navel … if he rolled around in urine and faeces this would be similar to the Siddha Telang Swami who performed ritual worship of his Deity with his own urine and faeces … these guys are something else altogether … his consumption of all things is also an outward sign of his power and again not at all due to an intellectual disability, but due to his utter triumph over the fire element. I wonder where he is now?

Leave a Reply