Varanasi: Varanasi is soaking in the saffron hue. Kanwariyas or Shiva devotees, wearing orange T-shirts and carrying kanwars (pots), are descending upon the city to collect Ganga water.
Some can be seen wearing T-shirts with images of PM Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, while others are wearing ones with ‘Apna Time Aayega‘ — the famous rap song from the movie Gully Boy — printed on them.
“You can get anything printed on the T-shirts and the cost is not too much,” says 18-year-old Sanjeev Yadav from Chandauli.
The city’s skyline is glowing with sunlight and a helicopter is seen showering rose petals on the ghats. The colours on the streets of Varanasi, however, stand in stark contrast to the grim faces of those travelling with the kanwariyas in reserved train compartments.
‘TTEs don’t ask for tickets seeing our saffron clothes’
At Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay railway junction, earlier known as Mughalsarai station, Punit Kushwaha, who is in his 30s, says, “Our saffron clothes are a ticket to travel to Varanasi, Allahabad, Sultanganj and other nearby places. TTEs (Travelling Ticket Examiner) don’t tell us anything when they see us in saffron outfits. We must use the benefits from this.”
Kushwaha says the TTEs’ turning a blind eye to their ‘free’ travel helps as they can’t really afford travelling in trains to visit such places.
For women, the train journey to Varanasi is a liberating one, and a joy ride.
“Women don’t get to travel anywhere. It is only in the month of Shravan (mid-July to mid-August) that we get to travel to holy places by trains. Travelling by train is a dream come true for us,” say Rewati Devi, 45, a resident of Buxar in Bihar.
“Nobody dares to harass us, not even TTEs and policemen. See the power of Bholenath (Shiva), even unruly policemen respect us,” she adds.
‘They harass us in the name of faith’
Sunny Singh, 35, heading to Dibrugarh in Assam, gets annoyed at the very mention of kanwariyas. “They harass us in the name of faith. We have paid full fare for a reserved seat. The government should provide a separate coach for them,” he says.
Savitri Devi, 55, agrees to the predicament of other passengers, but boldly says: “We just walk in and occupy seats (in trains).”
But she adds, “In Shravan, people keep silent, but had it been some other time, they would have thrown us out of the reserved compartments.”
Manish Pandey, a daily commuter from Patna to Buxar, however, has a different view. “These people do not have any means to travel such long distances. We must adjust with them because it’s just a one-month affair.”
But he concedes that passengers have difficulties in sharing their reserved seats with kanwariyas and that the government should provide a separate coach for the devotees.
‘We don’t give freebies to religious groups’
A top railway official tells ThePrint that though kanwariyas are an inconvenience, a separate coach cannot be allotted to them.
“We don’t give freebies to religious groups. Rich or poor, we will impose a fine if we find them traveling without ticket or reservation,” he said.
A TTE, who doesn’t wish to be named, says, “We don’t interfere. Most of the kanwariyas have little money, so even if we impose a fine, it will create trouble for the government itself.”
Not all kanwariyas break the rules, though. Ravi Ram from Dildarnagar in Uttar Pradesh says many save money for these trips, and those who can’t afford it, go to their local Shiva temples to offer holy water.