The long walk for worship

Published : Aug 27, 2004 00:00 IST

Lakhs of Siva worshippers carrying Ganga water throng the roads in Uttaranchal during the monsoon - a phenomenon that has evoked the administrator's concern and the sociologist's curiosity.

Purnima S. Tripathi on Haridwar-Delhi highway Photographs: Sandeep Saxena

COME Shravan (the monsoon month of July-August in the Hindu calendar, which is believed to be auspicious), the northern States of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab and Bihar acquire a flaming orange hue. Lakhs of saffron-clad pilgrims carrying water collected from the Ganga in Haridwar, Gangotri or Gaumukh (the glacier from where the Ganga originates) in Uttaranchal, return to their hometowns to consecrate the lingams as a gesture of thanksgiving to Siva.

In Uttar Pradesh, some pilgrims make a short trek to Allahabad or Varanasi to collect the `holy' water and in northern Bihar, despite the grim situation owing to floods, the devout Hindus are said to have offered worship at Deogarh with the water collected from Sultanganj, covering a distance of 105 kilometres on foot.

But it is the Haridwar-Delhi highway which is choked this season with a steady flow of kanwarias (so called because they carry a kanwar or pole on their shoulder with the covered water pots balanced on its two ends), several of them footslogging, some riding bicycles or bikes and some travelling on trucks and vans and even bullock carts. The route, a distance of over 250 km, reverberates with the high decibel chants of bol bam and Har Har Mahadev, as invocations to Siva. Loudspeakers on the roadsides and those fitted to the vehicles blare out bhajans, some set to the tune of raunchy Hindi film songs. The frenzy of the kanwarias knows no bounds; they do a jig to keep the mela mood going even as entranced older pilgrims quietly utter their prayers as they continue the trek

The outcome of this growing practice of Ganga water collection is that, for almost 20 days normal life comes to a standstill in most of these States. To the extent that the main highways connecting the rest of north India to Haridwar are closed for vehicular traffic to facilitate the safe passage of these devotees.

Since tradition has it that the water pot must not touch the ground till the time of consecration, charitable organisations put up makeshift stands where the pots can be kept. All along the route to Haridwar, voluntary organisations put up food and medical stalls to cater to the yatris.


The tradition of collecting Ganga water seems to have acquired a new vigour in recent years. An estimated 60 lakh kanwarias trekked to Haridwar, Gangotri and Gaumukh this year. "The number has been increasing over the years. Last year up to 55 lakh kanwarias visited Haridwar. The movement of kanwarias in such large numbers calls for massive arrangements for their smooth passage but there is no provision by which the government can do so," said Haridwar District Magistrate R.K. Sudhanshu. So except for ensuring their safe passage and maintaining law and order, the government has no role to play in the kanwar mela. "Our problem is that this yatra is not notified so there is no budgetary support for managing it. A proposal is pending with the 12th Finance Commission to notify this yatra," he says.

However, in view of the growing number of kanwarias it will not be long before the need is felt to regulate their movement and treat them on a par with pilgrims visiting Amarnath or Kailash Mansarovar, says Sudhanshu.

According to him, the closure of the main highways for other vehicular movement for almost 15 days during the mela, is something unusual. "But they are on the road in such large numbers that we have to divert traffic. Besides, the kanwarias tend to be very aggressive and even a minor traffic mishap could lead to major incidents so we cannot allow traffic on the roads where they move," Sudhanshu explains. According to him, it is high time the government comes up with an alternative route for the kanwarias. "I have sent a proposal to the Uttaranchal government suggesting an alternative route so that we don't have to close the highway," he says. The increasing number of kanwarias requires matching logistic arrangements as well, which at present are done by voluntary organisations and local citizens.

What baffles observers is the hypnotic behaviour of the kanwarias, as if the physical discomfort of taking up such a long journey does not matter to them. Quite incredibly, unmindful of the scorching heat, and despite the sores in their feet, men, women and children - many disabled people among them - keep up the trudge for hours. If you ask them whether their feet did not hurt, they say it is god's grace, with hands raised skywards.

On the Haridwar-Delhi highway.

"Lord Siva sustains us," says Chandrabeer, walking back to Delhi from Haridwar with wife Seema and infant son. Chandrabeer, who sells flowers, is undertaking the journey because he, a father of two girls, was "blessed with a son by Siva".

Another pilgrim Chandrapal, in his early 30s, is on his 11th kanwar yatra. "For the past 10 years I have carried water from Haridwar. This time I went up to Gaumukh," says this father of four, looking fresh and cheerful even after being on the road for seven days.

It is not as though only people of the lower income group undertake this journey. The profile of an average kanwaria is changing and people from richer sections, including businessmen, undertake the journey for the "fun of it".

In view of the adventure associated with the exercise, a number of youth join the `walkathon'. "It is quite macho going up to Haridwar and coming back the same day," said this smart looking youngster zipping along the highway on a motorbike with a younger companion, both clad in saffron.

The most remarkable of the lot are the dak kanwarias. They complete their yatra running all the way back. These marathon runners, normally travelling in a group, have to complete the journey within a specified period, say 28 hours or 56 hours, depending on the distance of their destination. But, as in a relay race, each leg of the journey is covered by a different yatri from the same group. While one of them runs with the pot filled with water, the others follow him in a vehicle and take over from him after a fixed time.

The dak kanwarias are the biggest problem for the administration because their groups and vehicles choke the road. "They are our biggest worry because they tend to be aggressive and even a minor traffic mishap could turn explosive," says Sudhanshu.

In Ghaziabad, the administration closed all schools and colleges. Roads leading to Haridwar on the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border were closed for vehicles and the traffic diversion caused chaos during the duration of the yatra.


WHAT intrigues one is the sudden increase in the number of kanwarias of late and their aggressive behaviour, the last thing that one would associate with a religious congregation. "One can blame it on socio-economic factors. There is so much unemployment that people have all the time in the world for things like this," says Sudhanshu.

"Maybe it has something to do with the general sense of insecurity whereby people have nothing to fall back on, hence this belief in God," avers a priest from Haridwar. But what can explain the aggressive behaviour of the pilgrims? They refuse to yield even an inch of the road and force other vehicles to go off the road. Dr. Suresh Sharma, Director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says that besides the aspect of faith, the aggressiveness of the kanwarias could be the result of the feeling of "empowerment": of being able to encroach upon public spaces. This feeling, he says, is enhanced by the sense of unity among the devotees.

According to Naresh Goswami, a research scholar with the CSDS, who is doing research on the kanwarias, the increase in the number can be explained by the increasing influence of "the overall ambience of Hindutva".

Dak kanwarias run on the highway, carrying Ganga water.

What, however, is disconcerting is the fact that the kanwarias create law and order problems in various places. In Ghaziabad, for example, a particularly violent group of kanwarias burnt a hotel, an automobile service station and vehicles parked nearby and blocked the roads following a minor altercation with the members of a minority community. Gunshots were fired and brickbats exchanged; in the melee one person died and many sustained injuries. Although such serious incidents were not reported from any other State, there were reports of skirmishes between the kanwarias and the local people.

Another aspect that is causing concern is the damage done to ecology by the convergence of such a large number of people in the Gaumukh glacier region. "The full-throated cries of bol bam by the kanwarias and the plastic waste they leave behind can cause immense damage to the glacier. Their entry into Gaumukh should be banned," says Shanti Thakur, president of the Janjati Mahila Kalyan Samiti in Uttarkashi.

The samiti is spearheading a campaign to restrict the movement of kanwarias to Gaumukh, demanding that they not be allowed beyond Rishikesh. Uttarkashi District Magistrate K.K. Pant says he has forwarded the samiti's demand to the "higher authorities". Thakur and her associates also object to the "commercialisation of Gangajal". Although scientists are yet to study the impact of the kanwaria movement on the Gaumukh glacier, the problem has evoked widespread concern in the region.

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