Kanwar Yatra: the pilgrims’ progress

It’s kanwariya season again, when many Shiv bhakts walk hundreds of kilometres carrying pots of Ganga river water, stalling highway traffic, and sometimes creating a law and order situation. Ishita Mishra reports on the devotees caught between a spiritual journey and public ire

Updated - July 14, 2023 08:05 am IST

Published - July 14, 2023 02:52 am IST

Kanwariyas carrying water of the Ganga from Haridwar.  

Kanwariyas carrying water of the Ganga from Haridwar.   | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Traffic on the national highway that connects New Delhi to Haridwar is crawling. As frustrated drivers with horns blaring wait, they watch men — and it is mostly men — overtake them on foot in a lane that has been blocked off for vehicles. In a kind of spiritual marathon that runs between 30 km and 500 km, men in saffron carrying pots of plastic, brass, or steel, plod on. The kanwariyas, devotees of the Hindu god Shiv, carry Ganga water to their hometowns, mostly from Haridwar in Uttarakhand or Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

On their arrival home, the kanwariyas, or people who hold the kanwar (pot), will pour the water onto a Shivling. This annual pilgrimage starts on the first day of the Hindu month of Shravan and ends on the 13th day, Shivratri, though in Uttar Pradesh, the yatra continues through the month. Hindus believe that Parshuram, an avatar of Lord Vishnu and a Shiv devotee, made the first pilgrimage.

In 2022, up to 4 crore people collected Ganga river water in Haridwar alone; this year, on July 12, there were about 67 lakh people visiting the town, government sources say, with the yatra set to end on July 15.

Separate paths

The road segregation on the highway is symbolic of many things: of those who take the kanwar yatra and those who do not, of those who believe that their personal spiritual journey must be seen in the larger light of religious tolerance and those who feel it’s an unfair occupation of public space. It ends up being a split between the higher-ups on society’s socio-economic — sometimes caste — ladder and those on its lower rungs.

Each year, the car-bound complain about traffic hold-ups not just on this 200-km route but also within cities not built for pedestrians, certainly not for those walking barefoot, carrying pots of water decorated with cheap, multicoloured tinsel. The kanwariyas walk in groups, often causing traffic disruptions with some carrying pots with up to 50 litres hung from bamboo poles resting on two people’s shoulders, jhoola kanwar.

Commerce sprouts on the edge of roads, to service the kanwariyas with saffron flags and tees imprinted with Shiv’s imagined face, taking the place of earlier years where small stores for daily essentials would spring up. The overnight halting zones eat into road space, and some who decide to take part in relays ride trucks with loud music and 80s multicoloured disco lights.

Over the years, and with the surge of Hindu pride that runs parallel to the growth of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), many young men, drunk on perceived power and often substances, a saffron and India flag in hand, drive by on motorbikes — a far cry from the spiritual walkathon.

It’s not just the passing inconvenience that worries some. On the outskirts of Haridwar, a group of kanwariyas allegedly vandalised a car and tried to set it ablaze on July 11. The incident occurred when the car allegedly touched their kanwar, considered a ‘pollution’ of the ‘pure’ Ganga jal (water). The river though has been flagged for pollution by the National Green Tribunal. The police booked a group for thrashing and damaging the vehicle; two were arrested.

A woman in her 20s travelling by bus to Haridwar with her seven-year-old daughter called the police control room in panic. Her voice was terrified, but it was difficult to hear her because of loud music in the background. “Help me. I cannot get out of the bus. It’s surrounded by drunk, half-naked men who are raising slogans. It’s terrifying. My daughter is crying,” sub-inspector Vipin Pathak remembers her saying.

Walking the talk

Manoj Kumar, 51, a wedding photographer from Gurugram, is set to complete his 25th kanwar yatra this year. Mr. Kumar is accompanied by a group of 10 people, mostly 15-20 years younger than him, all holding water pots filled with about half a litre of Ganga jal on their chests. They believe it is the safest way to protect the water. It’s an arduous journey of at least 10 days, and Mr. Kumar and his little band spends the nights at the many rest points provided.

Despite the traffic and the warm, humid weather, he says the yatra has become easier over the years. “When I was younger, there weren’t so many places to halt or food stops.” He’s aware that some people find the kanwariyas intrusive, but he’s not sure why. “I don’t drink or smoke. I walk very quietly on one side of the road and don’t disturb anyone,” says Mr. Kumar, whose three sons do not undertake the yatra. “It’s a matter of choice,” he says, pragmatically.

In his little group is Naveen Singh, a tent shop owner, who feels public spaces are for all, and as a taxpayer he has the right to be on the road, with or without a pot of holy water. “Why should I care what these elite people think of me? I am on my spiritual journey, and I am only answerable to my lord,” he says.

Kanwariyas eating the free lunch provided by well-wishers and those who use it for political and social mileage.

Kanwariyas eating the free lunch provided by well-wishers and those who use it for political and social mileage. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Going camping

Camp sites are spaces along highways down which the kanwariyas walk, where they can relax during the day, sleep at night, and grab a no-onion, no-garlic meal of khichridalia (broken wheat porridge), or poori-aloo. Everything is free, mostly funded by a religious organisation, a trade union leader, a politician, a wannabe politician, or a businessman. On the outside are often larger-than-life posters and hoardings of politicians welcoming the kanwariyas.

Then there’s loud music, not the gentle bhajans of a couple of decades ago, but a Bollywood-beat vibe with lyrics that glorify Shiv. “This gives us the energy to walk on,” says a pilgrim as ‘O Ganesh ke babu’ blares, more foreground than background music.

Everything overwhelms the senses, including the oversized statues of Shiv and Parvati, his consort, and the patterned shaadi tents. But everything is free, even the stand to place the holy water.

Biases abound. Khushboo and Anuradha are sisters married to brothers Kunal and Tushar. They work in Delhi’s Karol Bagh, doing jhadu-pochha (sweeping-swabbing) in people’s houses. “My son is just 10 months old and I am so proud that he’s a part of the kanwar yatra at this young age,” says Ms. Khushboo, who has tied water pots to the baby’s pram. She has taken the trip after “god answered my prayer of having a son”.

Irony takes up its post at the entrance. Deepali, who works as a receptionist in a Delhi office, has embarked on the trip with her 17-year-old son, Sunny, who has taken sick leave from school. She is undertaking the yatra to pray for her family’s happiness. Her husband has left to be with someone else, and she’s heavily in debt. “This is my first time. Everyone says what you ask for comes true, so I’m here to try my luck,” she says, as someone at the Kankarkhera camp, Meerut, bandages her foot, hurt from an object that pierced her on the road.

Each tent can house about 200 people during the day, and 100 at night. This year, the mattresses that could have been laid out on the roadside cannot be used because unseasonal rain has wet them. Wooden planks have been provided.

At the camp around Kankarkhera, Manju Rajpute, who lives in Delhi’s historic but crowded Badarpur, tries to get her three-year-old daughter to sleep. “I just want good health,” she says.

Behind her, Sunil is not happy that a woman is on this journey. “Auratein kitna bhi naha le, kabhi saaf nahi ho sakti (No matter how many times women bathe, they can never be clean),” he says, referring to the menstrual cycle.

The idea of purity runs deep. “You know why kanwariyas become hostile? Because when someone who is not as pious as us touches the sacred water, it gets dirty,” says Mr. Sunil. Ms. Rajpute turns away. Perhaps to other biases.

Some camps have fans, and a few others coolers, but most are stuffy shelters that smell of the sweat of people who have walked miles and not really had the ‘luxury’ of a clean bath for days.

The women bear the burden of the sanitation problem — there are no bathrooms at camp sites. Plastic bottles are everywhere; saffron T-shirts hang to dry outside the tents.

Manju Gupta, 53, taking the yatra with her son Anmol, a college student, is desperately looking for a toilet at Khatauli in Muzaffarnagar. Amid the crowd of young boys high on marijuana and dancing to singer Viruss’s adrenaline-pumping ‘Bam Bhole’ blaring from loudspeakers, Ms. Gupta is upset. “There are no arrangements for ladies. The government is so conservative,” she says, adding that she won’t vote in the next elections as no party cares for women.

The religion-politics link is taken for granted, much like the saffron and Indian flag fly together.

Kanwariyas making their presence felt on the highway with music and noise.

Kanwariyas making their presence felt on the highway with music and noise. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Kanwars and politics

At the Meerut-Muzaffarnagar highway camp, most banners are of the BJP’s micro leaders hoping to build their stature both in the party and in the potential vote bank. In U.P. and Uttarakhand, both BJP-ruled States, elaborate arrangements have been made for the kanwar yatra.

There is heavy police deployment along the way and flower petals are showered on the devotees from helicopters. The governments have ensured no meat shop is open en route. To show he was fully committed to the cause, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami washed the feet of a few kanwariyas.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has, with a flourish, announced that kanwar camps will be organised all over the national capital.

Union Minister Sanjeev Balyan has embarked on the yatra this year to garner support for the Uniform Civil Code. The Minister of State for Animal Husbandry, Fisheries and Dairying is stopping at almost every camp to meet kanwariyas on his way back to Muzaffarnagar from Haridwar. “This law is for our good. Support us in having a uniform law for all,” Mr. Balyan says to a group of kanwariyas resting by the side of the highway. The crowd shouts, “Jai Bhole (Shiv)” and takes a selfie with the Minister.

At another camp near Khatauli in Muzaffarnagar, the organiser, Rajveer Singh, who claims to be an office-bearer of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, says he is feeding over 20,000 kanwariyas every day, at his own expense, supported by family and friends. He regards U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Prime Minister Narendra Modi highly for giving so much importance to the kanwar yatra. He is quick to add that the farmers’ agitation that went on for 16 months across 2020-21 was against the laws that the BJP-led Central government had introduced. “We never had a problem with Yogi or Modi,” he says.

Ghaziabad residents Vinay Lodhi and his friend Sachin are BJP voters. They say that the yatra has become smooth after Mr. Modi came to power. Dheeraj Sharma, from Gurugram, disagrees with them, saying such arrangements were also made during the rule of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in U.P., but the governments never advertised them the way it is done now.

Caste counts

At a camp near Siwaya toll plaza in Meerut, there is a dairy milk farmer, an electrician, a petrol pump worker, a daily wage labourer, an auto driver, a safai karamchari (sweeper), and a businessman in the transportation industry. Most don’t give their second names for fear of the stigma that comes with being ‘classified’ as someone from a so-called low caste. Sandeep Sharma stands out as a lone corporate lawyer.

Subhash Meghawl, from a Dalit community in Hanumangarh, Rajasthan, is on the road with a jhoola kanwar, along with 10 other villagers. They are carrying 1,000 litres of Ganga jal with them. They have a relay system where a couple of them carry the jhoola for a few kilometres, then those on a tractor catch up and pick it up from there.

Mr. Meghwal says he will place these jars outside the temple. From here, the upper caste women of the village, including Brahmins and Thakurs, will take water. “What we do is respected and appreciated by the villagers. They welcome us when we reach and also give us donations,” he says, commerce and opportunity winning over caste suppression.

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