During the month of Shravan (July-August) we notice people on the roads wearing saffron clothes, carrying poles across their shoulders from which hangs water-pots in little cane baskets (kanwars). The Hindi word kanwar is derived from the Sanskrit word kanvanrathi. These Kanwariyas are on a spiritual mission 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 on the Maha Shivratri day. This practice of carrying kanwar as a part of religious pilgrimage, especially by devotees of Lord Shiva, is widely followed throughout India.
Kanwar Yatra is named after the kanwar , a single pole (usually made of bamboo) with two roughly equal loads fastened or dangling from opposite ends. The kanwar is carried by balancing the middle of the pole on one or both shoulders of the person carrying it.It is decorated with red and orange cloth strips and other glitzy material.
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 Lord Shiva drank poison despite Parvati Devi protesting, 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. Once the Kanwaria stops for rest at any camp situated along the roadside then he has to take bath as well as wash his clothes before moving on.
There are many types of kanwars—the ‘Standing Kanwar’ need not run with someone continuously, the only condition is that until it reaches its destination the Gangajal has to be carried on someone’s shoulders, 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. Someone walks along with the person actually carrying the kanwar in order to make the run of the Kanwaria continuous. 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 yatries.
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 rigours 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 Lord 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.That the government, the community, voluntary donours and others—all come together to organise and support this tradition is indicative of associativeness that seems to work.
Last year, nearly 1.2 crore Kanwariyas came to Haridwar. The administration estimates that this year, their number is likely to touch 1.5 crore. Not only has the number of Kanwarias gone up, but the profile of the average Kanwaria, too, has changed. It is no longer only the austere devotee but also those among the devout who improvise and take motorbikes, tempos and trucks if they feel the journey by foot is too arduous and time-consuming.
The Shiv Kanwar Sangh, Shadipur Village, Delhi under the dynamic leadership of its President Shri Tej Ram has been involved in serving the Kanwariyas for the last couple of years. Their organisation has been instrumental in making the yatra of Kanwariyas a big success. They ensure that the basic facilities such as food, mattresses etc are provided in their camps to make the stay of the Kanwariyas comfortable. An environment is created to ensure that Kanwariyas don’t feel homesick. The highlight of their camp is twenty four hours provision of medical facilities as during the monsoon season in which this yatra takes place the chances of Kanwariyas falling sick increases. Shri Tej Ram said, “by helping the Kanwariyas who walk all the way to pour gangajal on Shivlinga on Maha Shivaratri in their home town we indirectly serve Lord Shiva.” He emphasised that the government should pay proper attention to the security of the Kanwariyas.
Shri Tej Ram felt quite sorry for the incidents that put question mark on the security of the pilgrims. At times the custodians of this rich culture and heritage are defamed because of some miscreants who take advantage of the situation—this should be checked, he emphasised.—AR