by John P. Dorschner
Ken Armstrong always considered himself one of the country’s top anthropologists because he applied very strict criteria to his analysis, testing and retesting his data.
Ken was determined to use his rigid methodology to tackle a problem that had mystified and challenged his fellow anthropologists for a long time.
Among the high reaches of the Himalayas reside holy figures. Hindus believe they have been rewarded with “magical powers (siddhi),” through performing Tapasya (austerities).
The powers ascribed to these Himalayan “babas” include the ability to read minds, tell the future, know the past of any individual, turn water into milk, produce solid objects out of thin air, survive the winter in the high Himalayas without protective clothing or shelter, and live with little or no food.
Armstrong knew his predecessors and contemporaries had done a masterful job of documenting siddhis. They had administered questionnaires, interviewed eyewitnesses, taken photographs, made video and audio tapes, and used participatory observation to document their own accounts of these unusual abilities.
However, he was not going to repeat the work of his colleagues. Instead, he would focus on just one siddhi and use new, untried methods to either document this power or disprove it.
Armstrong was convinced his investigation would be a “make or break” piece of work that could propel him into the higher stratosphere of anthropologists. He would document the “ageless” babas living in caves in the Himalayas. Hindus state that these babas have escaped the aging process and appear to be 20 or 30, but are actually up to 600 years old.
Armstrong proposed to locate as many “ageless” babas as he could. He would then use conventional research techniques to document their stories, including interviews with the baba’s followers, examination of written sources about the babas, and personal interviews with each baba. He knew such methods would not document the babas’ claims.
Armstrong would then screen his candidates to eliminate obvious frauds, and focus on those with some viability. He would collect tissue and blood samples and subject them to the most rigorous laboratory and DNA testing possible. Armstrong was sure his application of high technology could conclusively prove or disprove the existence of ageless babas.
Armstrong, who had worked in South Asia for decades, was renowned for his intellectual ability. His mastery of Hindi and Hindi dialects enabled him to work without translators and assistants, establish instant rapport with his subjects and capture their most subtle shades of meaning. Armstrong’s interviews with purported ageless babas would document their life histories and claims to mystical powers.
Armstrong’s proposal raised eyebrows in the anthropological establishment. Some derided the project as pseudo science. Others saw his work as cutting edge.
In the end, Armstrong’s credibility allowed him to procure generous funding. He used the money to establish himself in the pilgrimage town of Gangotri, located at an elevation of just over 10,000 feet.
Armstrong and a small group of local porters hiked up the mountain trails leading up from Gangotri. He spent days interviewing babas and local Indians trying to locate someone fitting the description of an “ageless baba.” He remained in Gangotri for almost two months and summer was waning. With the onset of winter, the region would shut down. Only a few babas would remain outside the confines of Gangotri and most locals would head down to the plains to seek winter employment and escape being trapped in the mountains.
Armstrong was beginning to despair that his trip would come up with nothing. He wondered whether he would have to resume the search the following summer and what he would tell his financial patrons. One rainy monsoon afternoon, Armstrong sat at his small desk in his rented accommodations in Gangotri. His servant tapped on the door. Distracted by his musings regarding the failing project, Armstrong absentmindedly told the servant to come in.
“Sahib,” he said, “There is a pahari (local resident) outside. He says he needs to talks to you.”
The servant led in a short mountain resident of one of the nondescript villages surrounding Gangotri.
“I hear that you will pay good money if I lead you to a powerful baba,” he told Armstrong. “I know of one such man. He lives in a cave far above my village. His name is Pundiri baba.”
“And how old is this baba?” queried Armstrong.
“In our village, we see him very seldom, but everyone says that he has lived above us for centuries,” replied the villager.
Armstrong was skeptical, but felt it was his last chance for this year. The villager, Armstrong and four porters hiked for five days on the narrowing trail to his village, called “Chatrapur.” It was small and rudimentary, consisting of four streets lined with rock huts.
After a day of rest, Rohit led Armstrong to the cave of Pundiri Baba. It was a tough climb up a steep slope behind the village. The path was barely visible and very rocky. The air was thin and the trees stunted and short. Armstrong wondered how anyone could live in such a harsh environment.
The cave mouth was wide and marked by smudges left by smoke. Inside it was dark and the air thick and humid. Himalayan quilts were scattered about the cave floor, along with battered brass pots. A fire smoldered amidst rocks in the middle of the cave floor. In the poor light, it was difficult for Armstrong to determine whether anyone was inside.
Armstrong pulled out his flashlight and shouted out — “babaji, where are you?” The light fell on Pundiri Baba wrapped in a blanket. Rohit prostrated himself before the baba. Armstrong noted that Pundiri baba looked no different from any of the other babas around Gangotri. He was short, with smooth unwrinkled skin, a jet black beard and mustache and long dreadlocks. Most importantly for Armstrong, Pundiri baba appeared to be no older than 35.
Armstrong explained that he had come from the US to conduct research on ageless babas. Pundiri baba, who seemed to have no clue what the US was, merely nodded his head and smiled faintly.
Looking babaji right in the eye, Armstrong asked, “The villagers say you have lived in this cave for a very long time. How long has it been since you have made your home here?”
Pundiri baba stared into the glowing ashes of the fire. Then slowly he stated, “I remember very clearly the time when I walked up to Chatrapur. It was a long journey. I came the entire way on foot. The area was very wild. The villages were small and I carried as much food as I could. When I met a villager (which was not very often), they gave me something.”
“They have completed a highway to Gangotri now,” affirmed Armstrong, “and you can take a car or a bus all the way now without walking.”
The baba looked quizzically at Armstrong, asking “what is this car? What is this bus? I am familiar with tongas (horse carts) and mountain ponies, but have never heard of these things.”
“So how long do you think you have been here in this cave above Chatrapur?” Armstrong asked.
The baba shook his head. “I really can’t say. Who is emperor now in Delhi?”
Incredulous, Armstrong really did not know how to reply. “What do you mean emperor?”
“When I left for Chatrapur, Babur had just won a great victory over the forces of the slave emperors and set himself up on the throne in Delhi. Everyone said he was meant for great things. I did not follow such things, as I was immersed in the divine. I hankered only after liberation and so set out for Gangotri. I have not thought of such things in so long. The villagers come here. They bring me food. We never talk of such things. They are only interested in spiritual matters.”
Armstrong’s mind was working. The emperor Babur founded the Mughul dynasty in 1526. Pundiri baba claimed that he arrived in Chatrapur 379 years ago. Now, at last, he had found a baba who claimed to be “ageless.”
“So how old were you when you first arrived here,” Armstrong enquired.
“As you know, only the high born, the maharajahs and sheikhs know such things for sure. I come from a far more humble background. But I have a faint memory of speaking to my mother once on this subject. We are from a Brahmin family and my parents were learned. My mother was educated and wise. I recall, she told me that our family used the samvadsar calendar. As you know, this is one of the most popular calendars in existence. She told me I was born in 1558.”
Armstrong’s head was whirling. He was trying to do the mathematics. He recalled that the Hindu samvadsar calendar was 57 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. He subtracted — 1558 – 57 = 1501. Babur ascended the throne in 1526. 1526 – 1501 = 25. This man claims he was born in 1501 and arrived in the Himalayas around 1526. 2009 – 1501 = 508. He claims to be over half a millennium old. He, of course, has no evidence of any kind to back up his claim. India is filled with so many fraudulent babas. This man is likely another one.
Armstrong explained to the baba that much had happened since he came to the cave. There had been great advances in science.
“While you are not clear about how old you are, I can prove your age beyond a shadow of a doubt,” Armstrong told the baba. He explained the wonders of DNA and bone marrow testing in simple layman’s terms. The baba seemed totally mystified and more than a little bored.
Armstrong then asked if he could take tissue samples for analysis. The baba was clearly tired of the interview and more than a little incredulous. However, almost miraculously, he consented, saying — “this has become a little exhausting for me. I don’t want to be a poor host, but there has been entirely too much talking today. Please do these things if they make you feel happy.”
Armstrong took a cotton swab from his pouch, took a tissue sample from the inside of the baba’s mouth and returned to Chatrapur. Armstrong did not see much point in talking to the baba any further. Such conversation would prove nothing. The baba could be nothing more than a practiced charlatan.
The porters, Rohit and Armstrong packed the gear in the morning and headed down the trail. The days were already growing cooler and the nights exceedingly cold. When they arrived in Gangotri, the pilgrim town wore a desultory air. The streets were empty. There was no sign of pilgrims and very few babas were about. The town was getting ready for the long isolated winter. Armstrong knew he would have to quickly get back to Delhi.
Two Months Later
Armstrong was in his hotel in Delhi, and had spent the past seven weeks writing up his trip to Chatrapur, describing his searches in the Himalayas for ageless babas, and his encounter with Pundiri baba. He had sent his samples to a top laboratory at Johns Hopkins University as soon as he had arrived. He was a patient man and waited for the results without anxiety. In any case, there was practically no chance that the baba’s claims were genuine. This would likely be only a test case and the search would have to resume.
The desk gave Armstrong a packet that had just arrived from Baltimore. He took it into the lobby and ordered a cup of coffee. Opening the courier envelope, he saw that it contained a sheaf of papers from the lab with the results from the samples. Over his coffee, Armstrong slowly read through the report. Johns Hopkins stated that while it is not possible for scientific testing to verify the age of a person with total accuracy, the results are 99 percent accurate within a margin of error of five years. Armstrong laughed to himself. In this case, “margin of error” in this instance is reduced to almost total irrelevance.
Cutting through the scientific language, Armstrong read that the lab had determined that the samples were from an individual between the ages of 20 to 30. Armstrong was not disappointed. He knew that good research required patience. Although his work had found nothing unusual, it had demonstrated a method to disprove frauds like Pundiri baba. He would resume next year.
Clive Colleson was having a tough time in India. When he first set out, he thought that he would have a brilliant career as a photographer. Indeed, his studio was not doing all that badly. He sat by the lake in Nainital, the British hill station in the low Himalayas and many British couples and families came to him for portraits to document their holiday. He was making a living, but not getting rich as he anticipated.
He then hit upon an idea. The high Himalayas were very hard to get to. He would pack his equipment on donkeys and, with his Indian assistant, snap portraits of the babas that wandered the hills. He would put together a portfolio that British families could keep in their homes to share with guests or send to relatives in the UK. If the portfolio sold well, he would recoup his investment and make enough additional money to live comfortably.
Clive spent a lot of money on the project. He took a lot of pictures, but when he printed them and placed them into his portfolio, he could not interest a publisher in the project and it had to be abandoned. Having wasted so much capital, he abandoned his business and returned to Liverpool.
The project was not nearly as interesting as he anticipated. Most of the babas were dirty and irascible, with many ugly rather than photogenic. However, he did remember one unusual experience in the village of Chatrapur. The villagers insisted that he snap a portrait of their baba. He hauled his equipment up the side of the mountain and set it up in front of the baba (whose name was Pundiri baba). Before making the portrait, the two had conversed. The baba appeared to have no knowledge of photography, or of any of the wonders of the 19th Century.
He then made the incredible claim that he was centuries old. “How can you be so old,” asked Clive, when you appear to me to be a young man in his mid twenties at best.” The baba then insisted to Clive that shortly after his arrival in Chatrapur, he had gone deep into the mountains behind the village, where no one traveled and had there met a very great baba. Pundiri claimed that the baba had taught him special tapasya (austerity) that would grant him a very special siddhi. “And what magic power would that be?” enquired Clive.
“As soon as the siddhi is realized, the body stops aging. It remains perpetually at the age it was when the moment of realization occurred.”
“Well that explains some things,” replied Clive, “but it means that in coming centuries, no one will believe your story, for how do you prove you are ageless?”
Clive had no strong feelings about Hindu mumbo-jumbo and did not really care much whether the baba’s claims were genuine or not. However, while packing up to leave Nainital, he had a strong compulsion to return to Chatrapur and present the friendly baba with his portrait. It would be his final act before heading for Bombay and the long trip back to England.
When Clive presented the baba with his photograph, he seemed singularly unimpressed. After Clive left, someone from the village found the photograph, framed in glass, on one of the Baba’s quilts. He used the wire on the back of the picture to hang it in the back of the cave.
Winter had arrived in the Himalayas and the region had shut down. Only a few hardy souls remained. Armstrong had returned to his teaching job in the US months before. Having been burned by the fraud of Baba Pundiri, Armstrong was determined to find other babas to test.Pundiri baba quietly finished a plate of rice and dal (lentils) prepared for him by a friendly villager and gazed steadily out of the mouth of the cave. Snow was falling gently on the steep mountainside coating the trees in white. He felt content. Behind him, Clive’s photograph still hung from the wall. The baba, looking exactly the same as he did now, was captured in the photo, gazing steadily and without expression at the camera. The legend was still visible stamped at the bottom right hand of the photograph, “Colleson Studios Nainital” and the year — “1875”. The same cave mouth was in the background.
Although the baba had stopped aging the day he attained his siddhi, the same could not be said of the photograph. Time had affected the paper, even if it was framed behind glass. While no scientific method would ever confirm the baba’s age, the same could not be said of the photograph. A simple test would have confirmed its authenticity. A photo of Baba Pundiri taken in 2007 placed side by side with Clive’s 1875 picture, would have demonstrated that the man in the picture was one and the same and that he had not aged a day since the photograph was snapped 132 years ago.
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona. He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects.
From 1983 until 2011, he was a career Foreign Service Officer.A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs. He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington.
From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India. In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq. From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.