Kanwar pilgrimage, which commenced this year two days ago on July 10, is an annual month-long yatra in the Hindu calendar month of Shravana (Saavan) in which saffron-clad Shiva devotees walk barefoot with pitchers of holy water from the Ganga, balanced between shoulders using decorated slings known as Kanwars. The water is used by the pilgrims to worship Shiva lingas at shrines of importance in one’s village or town. This form of Shiva worship has a special significance in regions around the Ganga. Bearing similarities to the Kanwar yatra in north India, another important festival, called in Kavadi festival, is celebrated in Tamil Nadu wherein Lord Muruga is worshipped.
The painstaking journey with the Kanwar potentially stretches for over a 100 kilometres. The pilgrims — a motley assembly including old and young people, women and men, children and even differently abled — can be spotted at holy sites by Ganga such as Gangotri, Gaumukh and Hardwar, spots of confluence of holy rivers and the Jyotilingam shrines of Shiva, chanting Bol Bam and Jai Shiv Shankar. The motivations to undertake the arduous journey could range from anything from personal devotion to unfulfilled wishes to seeking penitence.
The legend of the ritual goes back to samudra manthan or churning of the ocean of Milk, which is one of the best known episodes in Hindu mythology. From it, many divine beings emerged, but also halahala or a highly potent, lethal poison. All entities approached Lord Shiva to consume it for protection of the living worlds. As Shiva drank the poison, Parvati grabbed his throat in an effort to contain the poison and prevent it from affecting the worlds inside him. As a result Shiva’s neck turned blue from the effect of the poison, which earned him the name Neelkantha. The poison still had an impact and his body was inflamed. To decrease the effects of that poison, the practice of giving water to Shiva began. Another origin story of the Kanwar yatra is intimately connected with Lord Parshuram, the renowned, loyal devotee of Shiva. The first Kanwar yatra was believed to have been undertaken by Parshuram. While passing through a place called ‘Pura’ in present day Uttar Pradesh, he had been struck by a desire to lay the foundation of a Shiva temple there. He is said to have fetched Gangajal every Monday in the month of Shravana for Shiva’s worship.
Like other religious processions such as Durga Puja, Ganesh Visarjan and Muharram, Kanwar yatra also has exerts tremendous pressure on law and order, often intermittently resulting in its breakdown. Fatal road accidents and stampede deaths among pilgrims are in the news year after year.
While some pilgrims take part in the procession peacefully, a number of others annually have been guilty of causing a ruckus with their booming DJs and screeching loudspeakers, flouting the time rules and disturbing whole neighborhoods in process of their passing through towns and cities. Many so-called pilgrims part ways from the prescribed barefoot tradition by mounting on to motorbikes and other means to transport in large numbers which disrupts the traffic, resulting in jams. Crowds of such ‘Kanwariyas’ also pose more serious threats to law and order, due to disruptive behaviors, substance abuse and hooliganism displayed by anti-social elements in religious garb, manifesting mob-like behaviors, sometimes a stone’s throw away from giving rise to riot-like situations.
This year too, extra vigil has been arranged along previously earmarked Kanwariya routes and directions issued to pilgrims to stick to them. DJs are completely banned and permissions and time limits enforced on noise making. In addition, pilgrims have been asked to carry valid ID cards at all times to ascertain their identities during routine checkings. In the wake of Monday’s militant attack on Amarnath Pilgrims, the pilgrims themselves could be vulnerable to an attack. A special alert has henceforth been placed in Delhi and security arrangements for the pilgrims stepped up.