Ludkan Baba, India's "Rolling Saint" and Guinness world record holder for longest distance travelled only by rolling

He tumbles down a dusty, rubbish-strewn road through the 110-degree heat of India at a breakneck pace, lying on his side and rolling along like a log. Gaining speed when he comes to a hill and slowing down when he encounters the occasional traffic jam of cars, rickshaws, stray cows, and bullock carts, he tightly grips a strip of wound-up cloth to generate torque as he bounces over potholes, splashes through mud puddles, and falls ever deeper into a spiritual trance.

Such is the daily routine of Hindu holy man Ludkan Baba, who is gradually rolling his way across India toward Pakistan on a mission of World Peace. Ludkan Baba, whose moniker means "Rolling Saint," is a sadhu, or Hindu ascetic, a person who undergoes extreme forms of penance and physical hardship to achieve moksha - the liberation of the soul from the endless cycle of reincarnation.

The Rolling Saint was born Mohan Singh in the north Indian town of Dungarpur in about 1949. One day, when he was a dirt-poor ruffian twelve years of age, young Mohan rubbed then hands of a dying boy and the boy thereafter miraculously recovered. Deeply moved by his miracle, Mohan went to a temple, renounced the world and became a sadhu. Then in 1973, after a decade of ascetic training, he entered a cave and lived there for 12 years, subsisting only on grass and water, until at last a divine voice spoke to him and told him to start rolling for World Peace.

Since that day in 1985, the Baba has rolled thousands of kilometers all across India. His first journey was a "mere" 25 miles, but he soon grew more ambitious, and his third journey in 1994 from the town of Ratlam to the shrine of Vaishno Devi in Jammu covered 2,485 miles and earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest distance travelled only by rolling, as well as a starring role in a British film documentary about his life. At the time of this writing, the Holy Roller is on his sixth yatra, or holy journey - a mission to roll from his home town in the state of Madhya Pradesh to the city of Lahore in Pakistan, where he plans to meet with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf and convince him to make a lasting peace with India. He says his next mission will be to Iraq. At present, the Baba has no passport or entry visa to cross the Pakistani border, but considering that he is only halfway through his year-long, roughly 800 mile journey, that is apparently a problem for another day.

The Baba's appearance is less than impressive. Standing less than 150cm tall, he wears only a mud-stained T-shirt, wristbands, and a dhoti, a traditional loin wrapping cloth, to go with his wild, matted hair and long gray-flecked beard. Nevertheless, his spiritual exploits have earned him not only his new name - Ludkan Babba, the "Rolling Saint" - but also a host of disciples, followers, and other assorted hangers-on, as well as admirers across India and the world.

Each day is much the same for the 55-year old Baba. He rolls for at least 8 hours daily, from 7 am to noon, and then from 4 pm to 7 pm, taking a break at midday to avoid the worst of the Indian heat, which routinely reaches 120 degrees in summer. As a sadhu, the Baba is sworn not to eat any food during the day, partaking only of water and cigarettes, although during the night he eats fruits, rotis, and whatever else someone might give him.

He rolls down the middle of the road, over cow dung, rotting garbage, cigarette butts, and whatever else may get in his way. Two disciples walk ahead of him, kicking away the most dangerous bits, such as nails, shards of glass, or pointy rocks. Occasionally, they lay an old yellow tarp across some of the worst puddles or potholes, although they usually let the Baba handle the smaller ones on his own. Yet despite all the dangers of debris and traffic, in nearly two decades of rolling the Baba has never had a single accident or sustained an injury more serious than the occasional blister or friction burn on his arms or legs, a fact which he attributes to divine blessing.

The Baba has been clocked as high as 15 mph when he really gets going on a downhill, but usually travels at a slower pace of about 5 mph (which is still pretty fast!) when travelling through a town. The Baba never stops rolling however, no matter what the conditions of the road or the weather. "I move during cyclones, during blazing summers and cold winters," he says. "I think of God, I think of Mother Earth, and then I roll and roll and roll. I don't feel dizzy."

When he is not rolling, the Baba is besieged by worshipers, well-wishers, and especially sick people seeking faith healing. Everyone from blind children to barren women, cripples and lepers, people with minor colds to people on the verge of death, seek out the Baba for his renowned faith healing prowess. Typically, the Baba utters a few words of blessing while the supplicants touch his feet as a sign of respect and then slaps them lightly with his rolling cloth, "sweeps away" their illness with his peacock-feather broom, or softly pokes the affected area of the body with a blunt holy sword. Following the treatment, the Babu hands the patients a packet of holy ashes, wrapped up in a page torn from a book by one of his disciples, instructing them to bathe in it in lieu of soap, after which the now-healed person drops a few coins in the alms box from which the Baba sustains his meager existence.

Ludkan Baba concedes that the mystical healing power is not his but God's. He is just a vessel: "Whatever blessings I have earned through my meditations, I distribute amongst the masses," he says. "And it is because of these blessings of the Almighty that they get relief from their various ailments. It is on the strength of my sufferings that they are cured. The blessings that I earn are passed on to them."

Quotations taken from "Saint, Peace Seeker, Hero by Turns." The Los Angeles Times. June 1, 2004.

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