Myths are collective fears and dreams of a society, looking up for their veracity is pointless. Human civilisations have thrived upon such fables, it is the only thing that makes sense even to an inane man. One such story, of the Hindu Mythology, marks the origin of the Kanwar Yatra, an annual pilgrimage undertaken during the Shravan month, that is, the month of July to August.
This yatra is one of gratitude that the devotees present towards Lord Shiva, who is the main deity associated with the tradition. The myth starts with the demons and the gods fighting over the churned out venom from the sea, Samudra manthan, as it would have the world destroyed with its very drop. It was then that Shiva came to rescue and drank the poison and stored it in his throat, turning it blue, thus the name Neelkantha, the one with the blue throat, has been assigned to him. The impact of the poison was tamed only with the pouring of Ganga water on him, by the Gods. Shiva saved the world by drinking the poison and thus the entire month of Shravan and the Kanwar yatra is dedicated to him.
The tradition of paying homage to pilgrimage sites has been rooted deep within the Hindu religious consciousness. One can find mention of such sites even in Vedas and they increase considerably in the Puranas. A person undertaking the holy journey hopes to end the suffering from the unending cycles of life and death and bring happiness and prosperity back home. The origin of the practice of this particular tradition can be found in yet another myth, where it all began with Lord Parshuram, an avatar of Lord Vishnu and a devotee of Lord Shiva, worshipping the Shiva idol installed at Bholenath Mandir in Haridwar by fetching water from the Ganges, in the Shravan month. Thus it becomes important to worship Parshuram before worshipping Shiva. Another fable traces the rituals of Kanwar Yatra from the Treta yug with King Rama, one of the ten avatars of Vishnu, taking Gangajal from Sultanpur in a kanwar or earthen pot and offering it to Lord Shiva. According to the Puranas, Ravana had also brought water from the Holy Ganges and offered it to Lord Shiva. Today, such stories don't seem to bother much to the devotees but they clearly show the importance that the tradition holds in the mythology and thus in the hearts and minds of people of culture.
Today the Yatra attracts millions of devotees, ranging primarily from the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Bihar, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand. The holy water is fetched from Ganga flowing at four places of Hindu pilgrimage. Three of these are in Uttarakhand – Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri, along with Sultanganj in Bihar. The water is carried in a Kanwar, a long bamboo stick with earthen pots at both ends. Devotees offer this water to their local Shiva shrines as well as a few specific shrines like Pura Mahadeva, Augharnath and Kashi Vishwanath in Uttar Pradesh and Baidyanath, and Deoghar in Jharkhand.
The Kanwaris, or the people who participate in Kanwar Yatra, are generally seen in saffron clothes, reciting songs associated with Shiva and on foot, padhyatra, they might also indulge in consuming bhang and cannabis, which is perceived as a blessing from Lord Shiva. However, such sights have changed over time, with new modes of transportation one can catch a glimpse of Kanwariyas walking barefoot alongside other devotees on the Kanwar Yatra in cars, trucks, cycles and other vehicles. The route is filled with camps set up by several voluntary organisations to provide food and shelter to them. One should not confuse Kanwariya as a caste, the term merely refers to a group of Shiva devotees who carry the Kanwar.
To categorise the Kanwar Yatra just as a religious event would be unjust. The tradition has the social, political and economic implications that have played a major role in evolving the tradition in its present form. Traditionally, women were denied the right to participate in the month-long pilgrimage that had to be completed on foot. One possible reason for this could be the lack of proper roads and shelters in earlier times and the belief that women are not strong enough to be part of such strenuous journeys. During the journey the kanwariyas renounce all the worldly pleasures, some even avoid using a bed. They pledge to follow a strict vegetarian diet during this entire time of the Yatra. Although conditions have changed over the years, women participants are still scarce.
Flash forwarding it to modern times, the 20th century saw a monumental development in the tradition of Kanwar Yatra : from being relatively an unsung tradition to being required to be a high security protection yatra. Organisers recall the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1993 and the cultivating Hindutva ideology around the theme, giving a fresh form and an unprecedented significance to this tradition — in political as well as social sense. Many religiously inclined groups began to establish their own samitis (committees) for the Kanwar Yatra which gave impetus to the locals to take part in the yatra in large numbers, especially the youth which led to a ruckus. Initially it was the monetary incentives, given by the religiously inclined political parties, that attracted the young enthusiasts but soon they began to enjoy the limelight, freedom and free supplies of marijuana and cannabis. The Kanwariyas were now feared due to the involvement of the free spirited youths, who went around, ungoverned, projecting their aggression. Just as the late 1990s saw a dramatic rise in public participation, so did the culture of attacks by mobs. The political undertone of this increase is hard to miss.
The Ayodhya disputed case of Babri Masjid-Ram mandir penetrated and affected the mind of majority of the citizens and political propagandas, whether supporting or opposing the once-famous debate, acted as fuel in the burning psychs of people. Volunteers of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, in 2018, decided to introduce a bamboo kanwar that carried the model of the proposed Ram temple at Ayodhya through Western Uttar Pradesh. Such acts ended with the Supreme Court’s judgment on the matter, in 2019, but instances of politically and religiously instigating pamphlets being distributed seem to be in practice.
Following the trajectory of Kanwar Yatra’s intersectional issues of social and economic background of kanwariyas, its meaning for different sections of the society and its effect on the non-kawariya citizens of India, provide a fairly distinct turn in the discussion. If one associates the devotees practising the tradition with the mythological characters who are credited with initiation of the yatra, the disparity between their caste, class and creed strikes the most. A tradition, which according to one fable is initiated by Lord Pashuram, a Vishnu avatar, and as per other by Lord Rama, another Vishnu avatar, is now owing its continuance to the large participation of people coming from the lower and poorer sections of the society. This inclusive nature of Kanwar Yatra presents a picture of equality of classes in Hinduism. When exploring the subject on a deeper level, such participation in itself is an example of caste-class competition at play. For a large section of the participants the month-long yatra guarantees food and shelter provided by various organisations and state governments as well. Furthermore, the high numbers of devotees that walk or drive have made it compulsory for the Government of India and the different state governments to avail high-security measures on roads to ensure safety for the devotees. Thus, ensuring security as well. These are some privileges that an economically marginalised citizen cannot afford all year round, which provides enough reasons to indulge in the tradition. Though the 2000s saw instances of participation of urban middle classes too, they are usually privileged enough to drive through the yatra route and afford fairly better accommodation. It is a matter of faith and sometimes a vow they made to the Almighty. Such participation is few, usually the upper middle class and the middle class, trying to rise in the class-ladder, stereotyping the ones indulging in the tradition. Within the Indian caste system, upper caste people have been in minority since its inception, this close-knit community prevented inclusion but promoted creation of numerous jatis and castes, all at the lower level of the social order. The increase in the number of devotees in the Kanwar Yatra was in essence the increase of participation from the lower section of the society, thus creating an unconscious association of Kanwar Yatra with the socially backward classes. Moreover people working in ‘respectable’ professions, like in MNCs, doctors, lawyers etc, don’t actually have the time or will to go on Kanwar Yatra, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t religious or hold contempt against the fellow participants, the yatra simply doesn’t suit their lifestyle. But the significance that this Kanwar Yatra holds in an individual’s life, apart from the materialistic reasons of the world, is beyond a layman’s understanding. The journey is believed to provide an alternative world, an escape from reality with Shiva as their saviour and partner in that world. The aim is to please him by proving their sincerity and moral worth. The Yatra also helps in cultivating self respect and relief from humiliating social conditions. However, such elements of the Yatra are now being influenced by political issues, social and economic factors and now also take the brunt of the globalisation, like in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Talking of Kanwar Yatra in the most recent circumstances of COVID-19 pandemic is essential. The last organised Kanwar Yatra was in 2019, before the outbreak of COVID-19. The cancellation of Kanwar Yatra in 2020 in light of the pandemic seemed smooth and a smart decision on the part of the government but when the second wave of COVID-19 subdued in the month of July 2021, the devotees were filled with hope of resuming the tradition.
However, the Uttarakhand government banned the Kanwar Yatra in the state, in view of the pandemic which is at a critical stage with the expected third wave, of the pandemic, to hit the country. Such measures were not taken by the Uttar Pradesh government, where the CM even convened a meeting for the preparation and security arrangements for the yatra, on July 9, 2021. The distinct voices demanded the intervention of the Supreme Court. The apex court was satisfied with the government of Uttarakhand and told the UP government to reconsider its decision as no physical movement of such a large number would be taking place in the pandemic. Soon after, the UP government initiated talks with the Kanwar Sanghs to cancel the Kanwar Yatra this year. It was a success. Moreover, the state government of Uttarakhand has also announced a shutdown of its borders for ‘Kanwariyas’ from July 24, 2021, for the safety of the people. The Quick Reaction Teams have also been deployed along with the police force at state borders to stop Kanwariyas from entering the state. Thus, the Kanwar Yatra scheduled to start on July 25, 2021, now stands cancelled.
DNA web team, 2021, DNA Explainer: What is the Kanwar Yatra? Who are Kanwariyas? Where do they go?
Firstpost, 2018,The Kanwar Yatra: Tracing the historical origins and the present day journey of the Kanwariyas
Financial express, 2019, Kanwar Yatra: History of the pilgrimage associated with Shravan month
Republic World, 2021, Kanwar Yatra 2021: Know Significance Of Kanwar Yatra, History And More
The Print, 2019, Large number of Dalit-OBC on Kanwar Yatra isn’t a sign of Hinduism’s inclusivity. Here’s why
Hindustan Times, 2021,Call off kanwar yatra, or we will, SC tells UP https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/call-off-kanwar-yatra-or-we-will-sc-tells-up-101626459133520.html
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