If we’d met them in any other circumstances, it would have been difficult for us to picture Neha and Bineeta as novice ascetics.
Both of them, young and beautiful, were giving up all familial and material attachment to choose a path that is austere and often difficult. We followed them through the diksha ceremony which would initiate them as Jain nuns.
Having spent time around them for a week we noticed that through all the chaos and grandeur of the ceremony they had found a sense of deep internal strength and calm. Like they were ready.
Bineeta walks onto stage behind the other diksharthis on the first morning of the ceremonies. The audience settle in for what is going to be a week of extravagant celebration, pomp and show.
Binita has her hair blow-dried by her sister, Anjali, as she gets ready for the evening ceremonies with some of the other women diksharthis. As she stands over her sister, almost protectively, she tells us that she’s a fashion student and has designed all Binita’s outfits for the diksha.
Neha waits silently for the make up artist to start on her. There’s a lot of fussing and discussion over her getting ready and she seems excited about having a say in choosing the colours that are painted on to her face.
As the girls are getting ready the atmosphere in the room is abuzz, with mothers, sisters and aunts flitting around them, adding extra touches and chattering. The girls seem to enjoy the attention and shimmer, choosing the right shade of eye-shadow and having their hair styled.
Neha twirls in her skirt to see how much it can flare up and we’re struck by how young and full of life she is, and by everything that she’s giving up.
Neha’s hair gets a final flourish. Soon, in the mundan ceremony, she will have her head tonsured. Once she becomes a nun, she can no longer have long hair for the rest of her life.
We tell Binita that she’s looking like a princess. She smiles at us with her eyes still closed and says “Not for long”.
The make-up artist works on the final touches on Bineeta’s face. She gently asked a few times whether she needs to have so much on and was told that the next week of finery would make up for her entire life of austerity.
Bineeta in the ceremonial procession known as the varghoda, surrounded by her family. Below, the crowds scramble and even get violent in an attempt to grab the smallest scrap thrown down by the diksharthis.
Having sat through the varghoda for hours in the morning sun, Bineeta is brought immediately back to the venue with the other diksharthis. Exhausted and weighed down by her heavy clothes, she tries to get up to go to the bathroom. Before she can even get to her feet, she is pulled back by other attendees, who don’t let her leave.
Just before the mundan,Neha’s family say their final goodbye to her in this present form.
Neha takes her first few steps as a nun, or a sadhvi.
As soon as her mundan was done and she shed her heavy finery for white robes, she is absorbed into a sea of white. This is her new family who now assumes responsibility to fuss and fret over her.
Neha pays her respects to elder sadhvis before she stands on stage. She will face the audience for the first time as a young nun. In this new incarnation, she seems totally washed over by a sense of calm and deep contentment.
Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju