MY SEARCH began three years ago after an altercation on NH-24. Armed with sticks, a group of saffron-clad kanwarias threatened to do unspeakable things to me if I ended up disturbing their procession. While serving me with an ultimatum, the kanwarias assaulted a motorist for getting in their way. Consequently, I changed my course.
How and when did the practice of carrying water from the Ganga to a Shiva temple become a mass phenomenon involving crores of people? This year, for instance, the number touched a crore in Haridwar.
This annual deluge of devotion claims a few lives and scores get injured due to road accidents, quarrels and altercations. And yet the number of devotees increases each year. No one has a clue why. The urban educated class has a way of dismissing such trends as the inanities of the unenlightened. Only if a kanwar procession were to go out of hand, would it become a hot talking point for the pundits.
The tradition traces its genesis from Deoghar, a temple town in Jharkhand. Kanwars bring water from the Ganga in Sultanganj in Bihar, 105 km north of Deoghar, and offer it to Shiva in the Baidyanath temple in Deoghar. The walk takes an average of three days and one category called Dak kanwars run the distance in 24 hours.
On the way from Sultanganj to Deoghar, the atmosphere is a lot calmer than the Delhi-Haridwar route. Unlike its macho reputation, about a half to a third of the kanwarias are women. The calmness ends when the devotees enter the temple. The prospect of a darshan makes them desperate, resulting in chaos. The temple management and police man the queue with lathis, but it isn’t easy to maintain order.
Managing lakhs of people can be a nightmare for the authorities. But District Collector Mastram Meena begs to differ. During saawan, Meena’s office shifts to the Baidyanath temple, for there is just one priority: managing the saawan mela and the hordes of kanwarias. Sitting in his control room, monitoring 15-odd CCTV screens, he quickly points out that this month-long festivity sustains the economy of this temple town of 2.5 lakh people for the rest of the year. “It’s probably one of the world’s largest annual fair of its kind.” From hotels to curio shops, everybody plans for the fair. Street vendors book vantage spots in advance.
Meena says the temple gets 40-50 lakh kanwarias each year during saawan. An average of 90 kanwarias offer water to Baidyanath every minute. And then there are a few lakh who don’t get to worship. Last year, the kanwar queue stretched 10 km at one point. Meena says one person takes about one foot in the queue. That is 32,000 people in the queue.
Neeraj had run 105 km in 28 hours. His T-shirt had his brother’s phone number hand-printed on it ‘in case I die of exhaustion’
On 6 August, Mukesh Kumar of the district statistics department sat counting devotees at the exit of the temple. By noon, the count was 35,497. One among them was Neeraj Kumar, a cell phone salesman from Balia, who has been carrying kanwars for the past five years. “I’ll keep coming till my mother’s wish comes true.” Even on prodding, he doesn’t reveal what the wish is. Most people come with a wish, but nobody tells you what it is. Clearly, it’s only for the deity to hear. Some do the yatra just because they think it is the right thing to do with friends and family. The rest come to thank the deity after their wishes come true.
Even with blistered feet, Neeraj’s energy and excitement remain unmatched. After running 105 km in about 28 hours, this may seem strange. When I met him, he was sitting on the stairs near the exit of the premises to offer water to goddess Parvati. He hadn’t had a meal in 36 hours, only some fruits. His white T-shirt had his brother’s phone number hand-printed “in case I die of exhaustion”. Despite the exhaustion, he was waiting patiently for a group to get over with their darshan.
The zeal is shared by millions of other kanwarias most of whom hail from different backgrounds and regions. There are rich and poor, young and old, men and women, high castes and low castes. And yet, this lot does not show signs of aggression unlike the ones on the Delhi- Haridwar route who come across as arrogant.
But haughtiness or no haughtiness, their commitment remains unquestionable. As is the commitment of those who provide for them during these strenuous months. For a month, Gopal Agrawal, a trader from Sultanganj, and his family shut their businesses and serve kanwarias. All this is done without causing inconvenience to the general public. The commuters do not get bullied. Muslim auto drivers ferry saffron-clad Hindus.
Former irrigation minister Krishnanand Jha who grew up in Deoghar and now runs the Hindi Vidyapeeth says the number of kanwarias rose steadily after the 1970s. Earlier, only a few thousand would undertake the yatra, that too only on Maha Shivratri. There was also a mela in bhadon, the month after saawan, wherein farmers would celebrate after the seasonal labours had ended. “Only rich Marwari families from Kolkata came to spend saawan in Deoghar. What the rich do usually becomes fashionable; with increasing incomes and better transport, more and more people began to throng during saawan,” says Jha.
SANSKRIT scholar Mohananand Mishra offers references from scriptures, showing the practice was specific to Deoghar. “Kanwar may well be an Adivasi custom that spread around,” he says, adding that the saffron colour was chosen because it discourages pride and desire and makes them calm. Ironic considering the kanwarias thronging Haridwar look anything but calm.
People who have watched the kanwaria phenomenon grow in Haridwar since the 1980s explain it differently. Some say it became big in reaction to the insurgency in Punjab. Some point to a Hindu backlash after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that ensued. Pretty much everybody agrees that Gulshan Kumar’s devotional songs and videos also played a role in popularising it.
The social sciences do not seem to offer anything either on the rise of the kanwaria. Suresh Kumar, a historian and sociologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says the custom in Deoghar seems to have the humility of a folk tradition. In Haridwar, the same custom has acquired the trappings of a mass cultural event with its characteristic celebration and consumption.
Only in a country like India would so little be known about a social phenomenon as widespread and expanding as the kanwarias.