New Delhi: “Remember when I picked up a stick and threatened to beat up that guy? That was fun,” giggles Beena to her friends. The mild-mannered, supine woman in her 50s seems an unlikely person to take to violence, but then, nothing about this particular morning has been in the realm of likely.
For many in Delhi, kanwariyas mean loud music blasting out of gaudily decorated trucks that block traffic for days on end, carrying hyper-masculine dudes wearing Modi t-shirts and brandishing hockey sticks — when they’re not stoned out of their minds. That has been most people’s fleeting annual encounter with these Shiva devotees on their monsoon pilgrimage.
But a drive towards some kanwariya hubs of North and Northeast Delhi presents a different picture.
‘Sanskaari Burning Man’
Huge camps or shivirs dot the roads, each one festooned with pink and blue balloons and massive hoardings to welcome devotees. From one camp in Agrasen Park near the Kashmere Gate metro station, the smell of freshly fried mirchi pakoras mixed with marijuana emanates.
Inside, it is a sea of saffron. One side of the camp is entirely devoted to the business of feeding, with sevaks doling out plates of chhole chawal, pakoras and fruit from stalls. A young guy wearing a ghost mask and ghungroos takes selfies with his friends, while others have passed out despite the disco mashup of Bum Bhole Bum Bhole Bum Bum Bum and Bhole di Baaraat blaring from the speakers.
On another side, there is a medical aid stall, a group of children playing while their parents rest and a few women chatting. Men are stripping down to their underwear with impunity and younger boys are smoking beedis or joints in a corner.
Meanwhile, kanwariyas pour in and out of the place, carrying their colourful poles decorated with streamers, images of Shiva and the national flag.
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A sanskaari Burning Man, someone once called the kanwar yatra — and it seems about right, except that this is in a league of its own. Burning Man, the annual event held in Nevada, US, saw around 67,000 people in 2016. In the same year, 20 million kanwariyas journeyed just between Haridwar and Delhi. And the numbers have only increased.
So what exactly is the kanwar yatra? It’s an annual pilgrimage undertaken by Shiva devotees, typically from Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, in the month of Shravan (mid-July to mid-August).
Their objective is to collect Ganga water from holy sites associated with the deity — Haridwar, Gangotri, Gaumukh and Sultanganj — in kanwars (pots) that they guard more jealously than any other belongings and offer this water at their local Shiva temple on the appointed day.
Processions can last anywhere from three days to two weeks, depending on whether the kanwariyas travel by bus, truck, trailer or train — to the holy site, that is; for the return journey, most pilgrims walk, or run behind the vehicle. The real deal, though, are the ones who walk the whole way to collect water and back.
Kanwariyas don’t really like trucks on their route
Devotees who make the entire journey on foot consider the kanwariyas travelling in trucks and trailers the lowest in the devotee pecking order.
“It doesn’t involve any real sacrifice, any tapasya,” says Santosh. A shopkeeper in her 50s, she’s the ringleader of a group of women, including Beena, who have travelled together to Haridwar from the innards of Gurgaon sans husbands and children, and are now on their way back.
“Like you people go on holidays with friends, this is something we like to do together. We have our fun, but we also have our aastha (faith),” says Beena. Her friend Geeta, whose feet are covered in bandages, gives her a light rap. “It’s time for my ointment. And Beena, who was just laughing about having threatened a guy who had blocked her way during the yatra, picks up a tube of medicine and gently applies it on Geeta’s wounded feet.
“Can any of those horrible men who go on trucks and play loud music say they were injured while doing Bhole ki seva? They just give the rest of us a bad name,” grumbles Geeta.
Santosh points out that traffic jams happen for a large number of reasons, including weddings and water-logging, but “city people only complain about our kanwar yatra, which is only for about 10 days in a year. What about people who buy three-three cars? Doesn’t that cause traffic and air pollution? We’re doing God’s work, but city people who complain about us are just doing dikhaava. Why is that okay?” She also insists that the only problems ever caused to them were “by Muslims” or “if someone stole a kanwar”.
Dolu and Kalu, two young men from Pataudi in Haryana, also feel deeply maligned by city people, and claim that any violence was caused by Muslims who would block their route and heckle them. “But now it’s much better, under Modiji and Yogiji,” says Dolu.
When asked if they believe that no kanwariya has ever been violent or misbehaved without provocation, they look down. “We have never seen it,” one of them mumbles.
Pawan Aggarwal, one of the organisers of the camp, is also quick to distance himself from what he calls antisocial elements. “They are there in every community. Why are only kanwariyas being singled out? Every religion has its faith and rules. There are difficulties and strict rules in the kanwar yatra too (like how no one can touch the kanwar unless they are freshly bathed). If someone breaks the rules or misbehaves, it doesn’t mean you ban the whole pilgrimage.”
He is proud of the camp, which can accommodate up to 2,000 people. He points out where food stocks are kept, the cold storage for milk and yoghurt, the spaces designated for washing clothes and dishes. He also adds that it is a plastic-free camp, that all the utensils are made of steel and regular announcements are made over loudspeakers to not waste food or litter. Security, too, has improved with CCTV cameras all over the site. “This camp is my way of expressing my faith.”
For a few days, they live like kings
“Jo Haridwar dekh leta hai, who ghar-dwar bhool jaata hai (One who has visited Haridwar will not want to go back to domestic life),” says Amar Kumar from Outram Lines in Delhi, wiping his gold shades before putting them back on – even though it’s a rainy day and the camp is fully canopied.
“Once you’ve tasted the freedom to smoke and drink and travel so cheaply — bedding, food, everything is free — you want it all the time. It’s a small taste of the good life. For these few days in a year, people who are otherwise invisible to the upper classes can live like kings. Rich people might hate and call us a nuisance, but they can’t ignore us because for these few days, we rule the city.”
Many of these men are unemployed, and they see this yatra as a way to gain validation — people have to give them respect because they have the government’s protection.
Raja Babu and Sunil, from Delhi’s Hari Nagar Ghanta Ghar, are sitting in one corner, furtively smoking up. Raja, 25, works in a factory that makes ball bearings and 19-year-old Sunil is a tempo driver. They see this trip as a way to make a wish for their families, but also get out and have some fun.
“We do smoke ganja and play music — not too loudly — is that so wrong? We don’t want to hurt our parents’ feelings, so we do it when we aren’t home,” says Sunil.
Just then, a camp manager approaches. The boys quickly hide their joints and start talking animatedly about different types of ball bearings. After the manager leaves, they say that they draw the line at alcohol. “We like ganja because it feels nice to go take a dip in the river when you’re high. It’s good for the stomach too,” says Raja, who calls Shiva “Godfather”.
They also like the travel, and are taking the scenic route back home. They have also taken some videos of each other singing and dancing in Haridwar. “You must have had school trips? For us, this is like that. We saw Neelkanth temple, Chandi Devi temple, all of Rishikesh,” says Raja.
It’s a sentiment echoed by 15-year-old Vikas and his friends at a smaller, quieter camp in Delhi’s Dilshad Garden. Lying down and looking at pictures on their phones as Om Namah Shivaay plays softly from someone’s phone, they talk about the wildlife they saw around Haridwar — deer and birds. “For boys like us, this is also a chance to see more of India.”
What women kanwariyas want
“Better toilets” is the unanimous answer from the few women kanwariyas across the camps. “We don’t feel unsafe, but it would be good to have toilets that lock properly,” says Geeta.
It’s easy for men, they complain. “But we need better facilities. That’s a big reason why women don’t take the pilgrimage,” says Santosh.
This is the first time any of the kanwariyas has openly said it. So far, all of the men, when asked about the low turnout of women on the yatra, have just mumbled “Unko Bhole ka bulaava nahin aaya hoga” (Bhola probably didn’t call them).
“Bhole ka bulaava” seems to be the kanwariyas’ answer to any uncomfortable question. It is used as their get-out-of-jail-free card.
Don’t have a job? This is what Bhola wants for me. Got into a fight with someone on the route? Bhola made me do it. Smoked up a bit too much and passed out? Bhole ka prasad hai. Why don’t women come on the yatra? Bhola hasn’t called them.
Sexism, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, lack of hygienic toilets — these are all neatly brushed aside by the men. Only after some prodding do they admit that most families wouldn’t allow girls or women to travel unaccompanied by a husband, brother, father or uncle. Some argue that the arduous journey is not meant for a woman.
Santosh and her gang dismiss this. “Women should not be afraid. Jo darr gaya woh mar gaya (If you’re scared, you’re dead). Have faith in Bhola, nothing will happen to you.”
Deepika, a 40-year-old single woman at a camp in Seelampur, is doing the yatra solo for the third time. She lives in Gurgaon and went to Haridwar and then Gangotri by bus. Quiet and softspoken, she explains how she hopes that if she asks Bhola nicely, she might get married. But she isn’t too worried about it, because if Bhola wants her to remain single, so be it.
A small group of people she met on the journey look at me suspiciously and circle her protectively until she tells them it’s fine. “I’ve been to Vaishno Devi and Amarnath alone,” she says proudly. “Nothing in this world happens unless Bhola wants it, so he obviously wanted me to come alone.”
Looking for love
Like Deepika, many young people use these journeys and other religious pilgrimages to pray for love. At Shahdara, a few young boys have just left their camp and are heading towards Rithala. It’s drizzling, but their kanwars protect them from the rain.
During the walk, Himanshu, a young AC repairman, says it’s hard to actually find love on these trips because very few young single women come. “Sometimes they do come, but accompanied by a male relative. But then, where there’s a will (especially Bhola’s will), there’s a way,” he says.
Kailash, a teenager, chimes in: “I have a girlfriend but her father wouldn’t allow her to come with me.” Asked if she would be allowed to come had they been married, he responds, “Then I wouldn’t allow her to come!” eliciting loud cheers from the rest of the boys. He sobers down and says it’s for her own safety, but “if Bhola wants her to come, I can’t stop her.”
Hari Om, an energetic 50-year-old, grins knowingly and counsels the boys to not worry. “All love stories happen in mandirs and on pilgrimages, because parents don’t allow young people to meet or go out otherwise.” He then cracks a suggestive joke about the gods and their consorts, much to the delight of the younger boys, who are hopeful that Bhola makes their own secret dreams come true.
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