'Naked in Ashes'

Imagine Burning Man happening in India, and a Los Angeles filmmaker, a practicing Buddhist, documenting the festival, and you'll grasp the flavor of Naked in Ashes. Nearly everyone on-screen, and all the narrators, are South Asian. Exactly one woman is heard from, a German who came to study, wound up marrying her guru, and stayed for 30 years. It's startling to observe renunciation as ecstatic experience. The likable yogis—nomads and hermits who "perform austerities," dwelling near a crematorium—are almost always nude and often covered in ashes: "Ashes are the wife of fire." Holy ecologists, they live simply to avoid offending the earth. Christopher Tufty's camera captures intimate detail and broad panorama, a television in a hut and 100,000 naked guys bathing in the Ganges at Ujjain, a festival that happens every 12 years. Naked reads, in places, like a street fair on the Santa Monica Pier. But it's utterly sincere about the practices it depicts. "God sends us back," one yogi explains, "because someone might benefit from our knowledge or experience. Youth itself is a form of God."

 
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