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Published Monday, March 9, 2015

The Conch Jewelry of the Kanphata Yogis

image: Gorakshanath, founder of the Natha or Kanpthata yogis (Wikimedia)

“By the slitting of the ears, the Aughar becomes a Yogi and may add to his name the word Natha, Lord. Often he takes a new name to which he adds the word, Natha. He may receive as a name that of a plant or animal; e.g. Nimnatha, Kanahnatha, Nagnatha.”George Weston Briggs, 1938

 

The word Kanphata literally means “ear split”, and is a colloquial nickname given to the Gorakshanatha, or simply Natha Yogis. They get their nickname from the practice of slitting the conch and inserting large, heavy rings into the slit to further stretch the ear.

The process of piercing,

Called diksha, or “ear-splitting” involves a long ceremony, culminating with cuts, using a razor, that open the boy’s conch. This is then spread with jewelry traditionally made with baked or glazed terra cotta. After the piercing heals, over a period of many months, the jewelry can be replaced with other materials, such as wood, stone, glass or ivory.

The boys go through the ritual sometime between the ages of five and fifteen. Special saffron robes will be bought, and the entire local Kanphata community will gather to witness and celebrate. Once the piercing is done, the boy begins begging alms from those present as a symbol of the beginnings of his life as a beggar. He will be devoted to the intense physical practices of the sect (difficult physical positions and breathing exercises) as well as to the worship of Shiva, and dutiful devotion to Guru Gorakshanath, who founded the sect in the 12th century. Girls in Kanphata families do not get their conches pierced.

The sect’s origins...

image: A member of the Kanphata Yogis, and his conch piercing. (Image credit Indianetzone.com)

Come from a combination of Yogic practices, alchemy, erotic rituals and magic that they incorporated from a mix of Hatha yoga and Buddhist esoteric systems. In these practices, more focus was placed on the development of supernatural powers rather than religious devotion.

The sect is not as large as it was during the 12-15th centuries, when they flourished. Then, they were widely respected as magicians, alchemists and miracle workers. The jewelry worn in the conch in those days weighed nearly a quarter of a pound, or around 115 grams in order to stretch the conch piercing wider over time.

On the origins of this practice,

I found some references to the Kanphata yogis in the 1860s, which suggested that the conch splitting is based on the Buddhist influence that the sect is known for. In Buddhist circles, stretched lobes were long associated with the Bodhisattvas, and the practice of stretching earlobes spread throughout Asia. In the case of the followers of Gorakshanath in the 12th century, it’s possible that as time passed the location of the piercing migrated from the lobe to the conch area.

Today, members of the Kanphata community are active in many parts of India, where they are split into two groups. The smaller of the two groups still subsist on begging and practice celibacy. The other has become a community, with marriages and children. The practice of begging among the Kanphata is quickly dying out, due to economic issues. It’s much more common today to see the Kanphata working in bread shops, tailoring shops, or selling vegetables. Many families also run farms. They marry only within their own community, and the marriages are typically arranged.