The holy sandhu who loves Shakespeare

An auspicious night with a giggly 70-year-old leads to finding understanding on Shiva's night, when thousands of pilgrims converge to worship the Hindu god's holy phallus.

At the age of 70, Arun dropped out. He sold his house, gave away his money and his possessions, traded in his long trousers for a loin cloth, and set out on a new career as a sadhu or holy man, travelling between the temples of South India in the search of enlightenment and alms.

Despite his new ascetic life, Arun was an erudite and worldly fellow with an Anglophile bent. After Shiva, he worshipped Shakespeare. His archaic English was full of antiquated colonial colloquialisms. Coming from a bearded sadhu, the phrase "jolly good" had a surreal flavour. So too did his sense of chronology, as if he had already entered some timeless plane, too busy chatting to the gods to notice the passage of decades and centuries. He spoke with great concern about the 1666 Great Fire of London as if we were still picking through the embers. He hoped I had not been too disappointed when Churchill lost the 1945 election.

I met Arun in the Temple of Arunachaleswarar at Tiruvannamalai, where he was perched on a wall among a flock of saffron-robed sadhus. Some were smeared with ash as a sign of their abandonment of the material world. Others had confined themselves to elaborate tilaka marks on their foreheads. Arun had a bald polished head, a white beard, a small bag that contained all his remaining possessions and the kind of giggly sense of humour that seems obligatory for Indians of a philosophical bent. He told me about the god Shiva.

"Have you seen his phallus?" Arun asked.

This was Shiva's night and his lingam was hard to avoid. Beneath a full moon, all South India seemed to be converging on Tiruvannamalai to worship Shiva's phallus. In countless shrines through the temple it appeared in the form of a short stone pillar.

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