The Supreme Court on Wednesday (July 14) took suo motu cognizance of a report published in The Indian Express on the decision by the Uttar Pradesh government to allow Kanwar Yatra this year with certain restrictions, even as the Uttarakhand government had suspended the yatra amid fears of a possible Covid-19 outbreak.
The yatra this year, as confirmed by senior police and administrative officials in Uttar Pradesh, will be held from July 25 to August 6. Officials said that in 2019, the last time the yatra was organised, nearly 3.5 crore devotees (kanwariyas) had visited Haridwar while over 2-3 crore people had visited pilgrimage spots in Western Uttar Pradesh.
The Kanwar Yatra is a pilgrimage organised in the Hindu calendar month of Shravana (Saavan). Saffron-clad Shiva devotees generally walk barefoot with pitchers of holy water from the Ganga or other holy rivers. In the Gangetic plains, the water is taken from pilgrimage sites such as Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand, Sultanganj in Bihar, and Prayagraj, Ayodhya or Varanasi from Uttar Pradesh.
Devotees carry the pitchers of holy water on their shoulders, balanced on decorated slings known as Kanwars. The water is used by the pilgrims to worship Shiva lingas at shrines of importance, include the 12 Jyotirlingas, or at certain specific temples such as the Pura Mahadeva and Augharnath Temple in Meerut, Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar, Jharkhand, or even in the devotee’s own village or town.
This form of Shiva worship has special significance in the areas around the Ganga. An important festival with similarities to the Kanwar yatra in North India, called the Kavadi festival, is celebrated in Tamil Nadu, in which Lord Muruga is worshipped.
The legend of the ritual goes back to the ‘samudra manthan’, one of the best-known episodes in Hindu mythology, which is narrated in the Bhagavata Purana, in the Vishnu Purana, and explains the origin of ‘amrita’.
As per the legend, many divine beings emerged from the manthan along with amrit, as well as ‘halahala’ or a highly potent and lethal poison. All entities approached Lord Shiva the Destroyer, to consume it so that the living worlds could be protected. As Shiva drank the poison, his wife Parvati grabbed his throat in an effort to contain the poison and prevent it from affecting the worlds inside him. Shiva’s neck turned blue from the effect of the poison, which earned him the name Neelkantha, or the one with a blue throat. But the poison still had an impact, and his body was inflamed. To reduce the effects of that poison, the practice of offering water to Shiva began.
Another origin story of the Kanwar yatra is intimately connected with Lord Parashuram, the renowned, loyal devotee of Shiva. The first Kanwar yatra was believed to have been undertaken by Parashuram. While passing through a place called Pura in present day Uttar Pradesh, he was struck by a desire to lay the foundation of a Shiva temple there. Parashuram is said to have fetched Gangajal every Monday in the month of Shravana for Shiva’s worship.
The painstaking journey on foot with the Kanwar can potentially extend to over a 100 kilometres. Pilgrims, including old and young people, women and men, children, and even the differently-abled, can be spotted at holy sites by Ganga such as Gangotri, Gaumukh, and Haridwar, at the confluence of holy rivers, and the Jyotilingam shrines of Shiva, chanting ‘Bol Bam’ and ‘Jai Shiv Shankar’.
While those in Western UP and states like Punjab, Haryana and Delhi generally travel to Uttarakhand, devotees from Ayodhya and nearby districts go to Sultanganj by the Ganga in Bhagalpur district of Bihar, from where they take the water, go on a 115-km journey to Baba Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar, Jharkhand to offer the holy water to Lord Shiva.
Some travel to Baba Basukinath Dham in Jharkhand’s Dumka district.
People from eastern UP come to Ayodhya to take water from the Saryu river to offer it to the Kshireshwar Mahadev Temple in the town.
Others go to Varanasi and offer Ganga water to Baba Vishwanath.
Another important temple where devotees come is the Lodheshwar Mahadev in Barabanki.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Yatra is undertaken by pilgrims especially from the districts of Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Bulandshahr, Hapur, Amroha, Shamli, Saharanpur, Agra, Aligarh, Bareilly, Kheri, Barabanki, Ayodhya, Varanasi, Basti, Sant Kabir Nagar, Gorakhpur, Jhansi, Bhadohi, Mau, Sitapur, Mirzapur, and Lucknow.
The important routes used by Kanwariyas in Uttar Pradesh include the Delhi-Moradabad NH-24, Delhi-Roorkee NH-58 via Hapur and Muzaffaranagar, Delhi-Aligarh NH-91, the Ayodhya-Gorakhpur highway, and the Prayagraj-Varanasi highway.
The Yatra follows some strict rules. Some devotees take a bath every time they sleep, eat, or relieve themselves during the journey. Once the kanwar is filled with holy water, the pitchers should never touch the ground.
Also, once the pitchers are filled, the yatra to the shrines should entirely be on foot. Some devotees even complete the entire journey by lying flat on the ground, marking the entire length of their body and repeating the process.
Over time, many of these rules have been loosened. Some so-called pilgrims have abandoned walking for rides on motorbikes and other means of transport. Vehicles of devotees often disrupt traffic, and cause traffic jams. Fatal road accidents and deaths of pilgrims in stampedes are reported almost every year.
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Like all religious processions, the Kanwar Yatra exerts tremendous pressure on the law and order machinery, and often causes breakdowns. Over the last few years, the Yatra has hit headlines for all the wrong reasons. There are also incidents of disruptive behaviour, substance abuse, and hooliganism by anti-social elements in religious garb.
The Yatra has at times led to hooliganism, and altercations and clashes between groups, sometimes in the presence of police, who often attract the wrath of both the kanwariyas as well as ordinary people who find it difficult to go about their daily lives due to disruptions. There have been several instances of vehicles being attacked and vandalised by saffron-clad Kanwariyas in Delhi and UP.
UP Police Additional Director General (ADG) Law and Order Prashant Kumar said police have to be extra cautious during the Yatra, and plan their strategy based on the expected crowd and intelligence reports.
“Basically we have cater to a few things. Like we have to regulate the traffic, which is the most important part. In case of any accident or incident, the local administration has to respond immediately,” Kumar said.
“We need to put our ambulances, police response vehicles at very strategic points. The important challenges are ensuring proper lighting, good roads, and quality food at reasonable prices along the Yatra routes. In areas with a mixed population of communities, we identify sensitive places in advance and increase security presence. To avoid conflicts, the local administration shut shops selling mutton or chicken for the duration of the Kanwar yatra. This generally happens at the local level,” Kumar said.
The Yogi Adityanath government has given a lot of leeway to Kanwariyas. There is no ban on DJs playing loud music as long as they restrict themselves to bhajans. The Chief Minister has attacked previous governments for allegedly ignoring kanwariyas in the state. In 2019, district administration officers were instructed to shower flower petals from helicopters on devotees.
All of this has led to a situation in which some officers have come to believe that it is important to demonstrate their love and respect for the kanwariyas.
In Gautam Buddha Nagar, kanwariyas were reportedly exempted from the ‘No helmet, no fuel’ rule that was applied to others. In 2018, Prashant Kumar, who was then ADG (Meerut Zone), took to the skies to supervise the Kanwar Yatra and showered petals on Kanwariyas.
In Shamli district, the SP was seen massaging the feet of a Kanwariya. The SP and DM later showered rose and marigold petals on the pilgrims, who then danced in the street and raised slogans of ‘Yogi Adityanath Zindabad’. At many places, kanwariyas also raised slogans contrasting their treatment by the Adityanath government with the previous Akhilesh Yadav government.
Asked about the Supreme Court taking suo motu cognizance of the Kanwar yatra being organised in Uttar Pradesh, Additional Chief Secretary (Information) Navneet Sehgal said a response would be provided to the court by the given time; however, as of now, the government’s stand is in favour of allowing the Kanwar Yatra in the entire state.
However, given the concerns around the Covid-19 pandemic, the state government has urged pilgrims to keep their numbers low this year. State officials have also said that a negative RT-PCR test report could be made compulsory for the Yatra, if required.
ADG Prashant Kumar said that the Kanwar Yatra will start with the month of Saavan from July 25, and will end on August 6 this year. The administration plans to set up Covid care booths, with masks, sanitisers, testing kits, pulse oximeters, and thermometers, etc. along the roads taken by the devotees.