Children, last month you must have noticed people on the roads wearing saffron clothes, carrying poles across their shoulders from which hangs water-pots in little cane baskets (kanwars). Do you know what these people are called and what is their mission? These people are called Kanwariyas and their mission is to fetch Gangajal from the Ganga in Haridwar, Gangotri or Gaumukh (the glacier from where the Ganga originates) in Uttaranchal, return to their hometown to consecrate the lingams as a gesture of thanks giving to God Shiva.
It is during the month of Shravan (the monsoon month of July-August in the Hindu calendar), the northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Harayana, Rajasthan, Punjab and Bihar acquire a flaming orange hue.
Legend has it that at the time of Samudra Manthan (churning of the sea) both ambrosia (amrit ) and poison surfaced. While the Gods and Goddesses eagerly tasted amrit, no one wanted to have poison. Yet consuming poison was crucial as it would have caused enormous destruction had it touched the earth. It was then the God of Gods?Shiva drank despite Parvati Devi protesting the poison, which caused tremendous heat in his body. It is to pacify this heat that Gangajal (water from the Ganga) is poured over Shivlingas, a process known as jalabhishek.
The practice is said to be as old as the hills and resonates in its own version in South India where the contraption is called Kavadi. There is even a genre of very old, charming rhythmic folk song called Kavadi chinder. In the North the ritual greeting goes Bam Bam Bhole, hailing Shiva. This also became a ritual cementing the cultural oneness of India from Kanyakumari to the Himalayas. It also created a youthful warrior class for the protection of the Hindu dharma.
There is a very plausible theory that the custom was a social ruse to divert the energy of all the restless youths who had no harvesting work to do in the Chaturmasya or the rain month of rest. And now this practice has got converted into a convention.
Kanwariyas take this journey for two reasons?to thank God for fulfilling their wishes and to pray for the things to remain as they are. In keeping with the tradition they offer a portion of the Gangajal collected to a nearby Shiva temple. They travel all or part on foot and take one meal a day.
There are many types of Kanwars?the ?Standing Kanwar? need not run with someone continuously, the only condition is that until reaches its destination the Gangajal has to be carried on someone'sshoulders, even if the person carrying it is only standing and not walking. The ?Hanging Kanwar? also need not run continuously. In fact it can be placed on a stand while the owner rests or takes bath. The ?Sitting Kanwar? can be placed on floor while the owner is working. It is only the ?Mail? or ?Dak Kanwar? that has to keep running like an athlete carrying the Olympic torch. They complete the yatra running all the way. These marathon runners cover the journey in a specified period.
If someone gets sick or too tired on the way that person is free to break his journey and give his Kanwar to another one from his group. Kanwariyas are not supposed to even think of any wrong doings during the yatra.
It is a convention that water- pot (kanwar) must not touch the ground till the time of consecration. Chanting Har Har Mahadev, the Kanwariyas carry the vessels containing the holy water on their shoulders. All along the route voluntary organisations as well as the government put-up make-shift stands where the kanwars can be kept. They also put-up food and medical stalls for the benefit of the yatris.
The pilgrims, all on the same mission develop a strong sense of camaraderie. The psychological and moral support they silently receive from trekkers who are otherwise utter strangers goes a long way in mitigating the rigors of travel. Differences of caste, creed or social status are all swept aside. The entire atmosphere gets charged with devotion and bhajans devoted to the ultimate God-Shiva.
These devotees usually travel in groups and even if they start their journey alone, they get adopted in one of the many groups. Anyone can become a Kanwariya. However relatively few women and children opt for this.
The craze for becoming a Kanwariya has increased so much that for almost 20 days normal life comes to standstill in most of these states. The main highways connecting the rest of the North India to Haridwar are closed for heavy traffic to facilitate the safe passage of the devotees.
The support that the Kanwariyas receive is a reminder of how religion still fosters solidarity and unity.