Pilgrim’s progress. At what cost?

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Each year, the kanwaria yatra grows in size and spectacle. Karuna John and Shone Satheesh Babu speak to the massed ranks of pilgrims about their arduous trek

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

EVERY YEAR in July, corresponding to the Hindu month of Shravan, the onset of monsoon washes the National Highway 24 a bright orange. Lakhs of Shiva devotees undertake a walking pilgrimage from Brijghat in western UP, taking over the highway connecting Delhi-Moradabad-Lucknow. Called kanwarias, the pilgrims carry Ganga water in a bamboo harness known as kanwar.

Once, the kanwar yatra was an arduous pilgrimage, where devotees rested where they could, ate and drank whatever was offered. It has now morphed into an audio-visual spectacle. Trishul-wielding bikers and cyclists in straw hats are accompanied by “DJ-ing trucks” on which LED swastikas pulsate in tandem with bhajans remixed to Pyaar Ki Pungi soundtracks. There are smaller family groups of pilgrims who often gape at the dancers, and young men in Reebok gear, who could be walking down a park in a posh colony in Delhi, if it wasn’t for the saffron tracksuits. All part of a serpentine, walkathon carnival on north India’s arterial highway.

The road, a double carriageway snaking through lush fields of barley, wheat, maize, with bridges that go over Ganga-fed canals, shrinks to half. When the number of devotees swells, vehicles of all shapes and sizes squeeze into the remaining space. The devotees march on the other side, or rest at the many open-air free kitchens, or bhandaras. According to sources in the Uttarakhand government, around 1.8 crore devotees have completed the yatra, passing through Haridwar and Rishikesh, in July this year. But locals claim the number is actually less than 10 lakh, saying the government inflates these figures for its own vested gains.

They come in all demographics: the flashy well-to-do groups are obvious by their sportswear and well-shod feet. The orange of their well-fitting outfit perkier than the faded clothes of the poorer pilgrims. Their devotion to the lord is perhaps as deep. Yet, the twain never exchange glances. The social divide is too much for even faith to erase.

Farmers Rajvati Devi, 50, and husband Om Prakash, 60, hail from Manoharpur, UP. They’ve brought along four-year-old grandson Sunny for their second yatra to collect the Gangajal, which they will offer at the Chaurasi Ghanta Mandir in Moradabad. “It’s no trouble at all. I had made a wish last time and it was fulfilled. That’s why I must do this yatra again,” says Rajvati. The little boy is dragged along by his grandparents who share the duties of either carrying the travel bag or the holy water.

It’s not just the roads that swarm with the yatris. The space outside every guesthouse, hotel, school and college along the route is occupied by hordes of kanwarias. Spindly young men walk, sometimes even run, with kanwars twice their size with great pride.

Many kanwarias follow the tradition of never setting the kanwar on the ground. Deepak Sharma, 22, has had to haul his khada (standing) kanwar on his shoulders over 160 km. Towering over six feet, the harness cost him over Rs 2,000, and seemed to weigh him down. His brother Alok does his share of the sewa by manning the ropes to stabilise the structure. “I have bruises on my body, but can’t feel the pain,” says Deepak, though he looks like he could collapse any minute.

Some, of course, bend this rule as convenience demands, taking a nap with the kanwars nestled on the roadside, or even smoking a bidi, in Rajabpur town. A community kitchen here dishes out poori and aloo sabzi. Local youth armed with lathis block whatever remains of the road.

By sunset, the final groups reach Joya Mandal in the newly-created Jyotiba Phule Nagar District. This is home to the largest kanwaria camp on the Delhi-Moradabad-Lucknow highway. It’s almost evening after a day of walking in the sultry heat. The roadside DJs are in full frenzy, and hordes of young devotees dance to the rising crescendo.

Joya is a Muslim-dominated area and the administration here seems best prepared for the deluge. Temporary checkpoints at the highway are manned by two armed constables at any given time. Truck after DJ truck parks itself intermittently and belts out loud music, with young kanwarias gyrating suitably.

But there are some in the camp who are suspicious of the younger lot’s enthusiasm. “The youngsters just come here to dance, have fun, and create a ruckus, giving the true kanwarias a bad name,” rues Rajesh Tanwar, 41, a pharma employee who is on his 17th yatra. The “party poopers” are ignored, though. The government, on its part, caters to all. Minister of State, Food and Civil Supplies, Iqbal Mahmood, says facilitating the kanwarias has always been the government’s priority. “Two lanes of the Lucknow-Delhi highway from Moradabad to Garhmukteshwar, around 100 km, have been closed for traffic.”

‘The youngsters come here to dance, have fun and create a ruckus, giving the true kanwarias a bad name,’ says Rajesh Tanwar

However, Abhishek Tomar, 19, says the administration didn’t stick to its word: “The government promised medical vans and police to escort the kanwarias throughout the trip. They said all four lanes would be closed to traffic, but none of this ever happened.”

One kanwaria that TEHELKA tried to speak with refused to talk unless the correspondent confirmed that he was not a Muslim. This despite the fact that the route from Brijghat, in Hapur, to Moradabad passes through predominantly Muslim towns. Here, the locals are wary but resigned. “Sometimes our children dance with the kanwarias. We have no issues, except that since it’s Ramzan, the DJ music drowns out the call for namaaz,” says Mustaqim, a dairy-owner in Dhakia Chaman, Jyotibha Phule Nagar. Another resident rues that the cordoned-off highway causes huge traffic snarls; recently, two people died and 15 were injured after a bus-tempo collision.

Trucks are not allowed to pass here, and hundreds of them can be seen lined up for kilometres, taking up one half of the road that’s open to traffic. Munajir, a truck driver, says they will have to camp in their trucks for three days before being allowed to move ahead. “This after each of us paid Rs 700 to the policemen to just get here, from Brijghat to Lodhipur Rajput village in Moradabad.”

As the night deepens, the blaring music and flashing lights of the kanwar trucks fade away. Exhausted devotees sprawl on the roadsides, the road itself littered with plastic cups and plates. Many will be back on this road next year. They hope the administration is better prepared then.

With inputs from Virendra Nath Bhatt

Karuna John is Associate Editor, Tehelka.com.
[email protected]

Shone Satheesh Babu is an Assistant Copy Editor with Tehelka.
[email protected]

Virendra Nath Bhatt is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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