A couple of kilometres before I reached Rishikesh, I stepped off the taxi on to a hilly road, buzzing with motorcycles and fluttering with orange flags and the national tricolour. It was a muggy morning, and to better fit into my surroundings, I put on an orange t-shirt and shorts. But my shoes – Skechers, I noticed – stood out in my milieu. This was because the kanwariyas around me, who were carrying on their shoulders, a kanwar – a bamboo pole with water from the Ganga hanging from a brass container at each end – had on their feet, only chappals or nothing at all.
It was the day before Shravan Shivratri, and I had joined the throngs on their yatra (pilgrimage) from Haridwar to Neelkanth temple, 32 km ahead of Rishikesh. Just like in Delhi, nine out of ten yaatris were male. Maybe 9.5.
Over the past decade, the monsoon-swell of kanwariyas has grown and grown, and with it so has the ire directed against them from my peers and myself alike. I, therefore, came to Rishikesh as a challenge. I wanted to partake in this Hindu phenomenon – which has grown to become India’s largest annual religious gathering with an estimated 20 million participants – even if it was for two days.
After I greeted our family guru, I dove in with my questions. Swami Shraddhanandji, now white-bearded and sage-looking, had been a Rishikesh sanyasi since before I was born. “Why do you think the kanwar yaatra became so big?” I asked him. “I don’t remember so many yaatris when I was little.”
“The crowd has increased hasn’t it?” he said jovially. “Before there were no amenities. But today there is free food and lodging. So they come,” he laughed. “This custom is very ancient. To lift water from the Ganga and take it to a Shiv temple. But this yaatra, the way it is now, is new.”
Several NGOs and local trader committees step forward to provide for the yaatris, he told me. In addition to water, food and tea, people collect funds for first-aid and medicines such as painkillers, too. It is the community’s way of vicariously participating in the yaatra.
I ran into Pandit Mahesh afterwards. He was of my age and had performed poojas at our home over the years. I asked him if he would like to join me on my journey, but he declined. “These boys are corrupt,” he said. “They only want to dance and smoke.”
At noon, Rishikesh, though heaving with pilgrims, was empty of cars. The main road was split in two by a wooden fence going down its length, along one side of which yaatris were going up to Neelkanth while on the other side one could see many more returning.
On the roadside, all manner of clothes stalls could be seen. The t-shirts ranged from orange to blue and black – each one blessed by Lord Shiva either pictorially or in words; and while the god himself was mostly shown in a posture of deep penance or coolly smoking a chillum, there were a fair few images of him adopting the hirsute avatar of a new-age gym-man: in possession of a fierce brow and six-packs, and a trident in hand.
I heard the chime of ghungroos on the ankles of the boys marching beside me, and then came legs wrapped in cloth bandages (to prevent blisters, I was told).
An array of smoking pipes of distinct shapes and sizes, from fat earthen ones to thin loopy brass cursives. The cheapest is 10 rupees apiece and teenagers from Haryana made the purchase.
“In the olden days,” Swamiji had said earlier, “only the very devout would make the journey and always by foot. In fact, the word ‘kanwvar’ is a coming together of the terms, ‘kam’ and ‘var’: kam, meaning water and var meaning pure. It is considered so holy that a kanwariya should never even place it on the ground. So these boys who carry it on bikes, they are following a fashion.” He chuckled. “Before people would take water from Gaumukh in the Himalayas to their homes. Then it became water from Gangotri, and later it moved down to Haridwar and Neelkantha.”
The Neelkantha temple is where Lord Shiva ingested Halahal, the poison that originated from the churning of the ocean when the gods and demons joined hands in order to obtain amrit, the divine nectar of immortality. Lord Shiva stopped the poison in his throat, neither imbibing it nor leaving it out in the world, and as a result, his throat went blue and he came to be known as Neelkanth, the blue-throated one. Water is put on Shiva to cool him.
But I was more interested in the present state of affairs and I pressed, “do you believe it is a fashion then?”
Swamiji laughed again. “Well, what is fashion? As people’s wishes get granted, their aastha (faith) also increases. Now see, Ganapati pooja was originally there only in Maharashtra. Now we see it all over the North also. And so it is with this yaatra.” He became thoughtful. “But yes, many boys just copy others,” he conceded.
Threading my way through thousands of yaatris, I crossed the pedestrian suspension bridge Ram Jhula, going over the Ganga. The walk uphill from there was some 14 km and the sheer implausibility of spending the night away from Rishikesh hit me. It wasn’t the climb that daunted me, no. My shoes were hardy and I wasn’t likely to tire if I took breaks. It was the growing prospect of having nowhere to sleep that was becoming increasingly distressing.
A little uphill, I got chatting with a young bunch smoking ganja. “Will you lagao dum? Do you want Bhole Baba ka prasad?” the gang-leader asked me, wide-eyed. I refused him, politely. The group was from Badaun, UP and this was their third yaatra to Neelkanth.
I ventured, “Have the yaatris from your town increased?”
“Yes. Increasing, increasing”, the gang-leader said, pulling on his chillum. “All have belief in parmatma.” He was in his mid-20s and had friendly, if mischievous, eyes.
“Do people come more for bhakti (belief) or masti (fun)?”
“They should know that themselves. How should I know?” He grinned. “We have belief. I think 70% must come for bhakti. We have to spend our own money and Rs 4,000-5,000 is a lot. I only have a small barbershop.” He took another pull and said, “And the journey is tiring. Last night we stayed at Swarg ashram, but tonight we will have to stay on the road because there’s no place available up”.
I glanced at my phone. It was 3 pm. I would trek up another hour, then turn around. As I got up to leave, the gang-leader said, “And why can’t we do mauj masti (fun) and also have bhakti?”
Rajesh Kumar Choudhary, a 53-year-old lean but solid-looking farmer, from Muzaffarpur district, was making his way down the slope using his kanwar as a walking stick. “Its job is done”, he said smiling.
“I’ve put Gangajal (Ganges water) on Mahadev. Now I will bathe in Haridwar and from there I’ll take jal back home with me”. I made some small talk before asking Kumar some more pointed questions. “See, before 3-4 people used to come from my area, then it grew to 5-6”, he said. “This time, it’s my third time, we are 22 of us. We usually go to Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar. So we came here for a change”.
Shravan Mela, a major festival at Deoghar, Jharkhand, is where thousands of yaatris bring Gangajal from Sultanganj covering a distance of 105 kms and offer it to Lord Baidyanath. Kumar believed this yaatra dates from the time of the Ramayana. When Ravana decided to lift Lord Shiva from the Himalayas and carry him to Lanka, Shiva told him “Don’t you make the mistake of placing me on the ground; because if you do, I will not budge.”
En route, Ravana had a strong urge to urinate, so he asked a cow-herder who was passing by to hold the Shivlinagam for a moment. And when he returned, he saw that unable to bear the immense weight, the herder had put the Lord to the ground. Where he had joined inseparably with the Earth. It was Ravana who first offered Gangajal to Shiva asking God for forgiveness. “This is the story from our area”, Kumar said. “All this is aastha.”
“How come there are no women in your group?” I asked.
“It is difficult for them. There are few provisions here. In Haridwar, there is a Kali Kamli Mandir. We used to stay the night there. But this time the police didn’t let us. And if it is raining or hot, we manage.” He gave a genial laugh of resignation and turned to his companion. “It was raining and we slept on the road because there was nowhere else to go. But if we have ladies or kids with us, they might have a problem. So we leave them at home.”
“You look like a true believer,” I found myself saying. “But many come for fun, yes? I believe there are many troublemakers too.” This came out more as a statement than a question.
Kumar’s friend who’d been quiet thus far was then stirred to talk. “No,” he said. “We all have aastha. Otherwise you tell me, we are poor people. Why should we spend so much? I can have masti at home. Why come this far?”
“We spend so much on dharam (religion) that we don’t like to have things for free,” Kumar said with a touch of pain in his voice. He looked as though I’d accused him of a small theft. “We spend on the train, on food and all this.” He pointed to his kanwar and a sealed metal container in his hand. “On this alone, I spent Rs 2,000. And it is almost Rs 10,000, with the train tickets and everything.”
He met my gaze again. “The troublemakers make it difficult for everybody.” He stared into the distance. “Maybe some boys become excited when they are in big groups. But we are kisaan aadmi so why should we spend so much money? We spend in the name of dharam.”
While most kanwariyas said they were driven by bhakti, it maybe of a style that sat uneasily with those aspiring for a more austere of its varieties.
For a trio from Bareily, aged 18, 19 and 20, the yaatra was a matter of bhakti but it was as much an outing with friends. But for Padam Singh from Uttam Nagar, Delhi, it was purely a matter of faith. While this 50-year-old put up a stall of chappals back home, he came here barefoot. He said he had trekked through the night without even a drop of water, and, going by his wearied face, gaunt body and swollen feet, I had no reason to doubt him.
“You know why you don’t see many girls and families around?” he said rhetorically. “It is because if these boys bring their wives and sisters, they can’t smoke and drink. Do you see any of them carrying a kanwar? Only 20% carry it. The rest walk with their plastic bottles, or go brrrrr-brrrr on their bikes. They’ve made this mela into a party.”
He shook his head. “This is a fashion,” he said.
On the last couple of kilometres during my return, I met brothers Kuldeep and Vikas, aged 19 and 17 respectively, who had made the journey from Laksar, near Haridwar. Their bare and calloused feet tinkled with ghungroos and their frail shoulders each bore a kanwar. It was their fourth trip to Neelkanth and their reason for undertaking the yaatra was simple. They had come to thank God, for, were it not for him, they wouldn’t be here in the first place.
Their mother had pleaded Shiva for the birth of a son and, after years of prayers, she had got not one, but two boys. However, her deteriorating health prevented her from making the yaatra herself; so Kuldeep, the elder of the two, stepped up to the plate when he turned 15. He promised her that he would make a total of five yaatras on her behalf. That was four years ago, when their mother was still alive. Now it is just the brothers and their father, who is a labourer, at home.
“The yaatra was fine,” Kuldeep said. “There is a langar but the line is very long so it’s good we got our own food. The problem is that it gets tiring and the expenses add up. When we get home we will have to spend another Rs 5,000 on pooja and a bhandara.” But Kuldeep smiled easily and moved onto lighter matters. “Our friends will come after the 15th”, he said. “They will come for masti.”
“Won’t you come with them?”
“Not this year. But after our final yaatra, I will.” He pointed over his shoulder. “I won’t have this load with me then.” As I admired the duo for their stoicism, I remembered that my hotel was approaching and I wished the brothers good-bye.
“We’ll just keep walking”, Kuldeep said. “It will take another four hours to Haridwar. From there, we’ll take the train home, if we get one. Otherwise, we’ll lie down where we can.” He smiled again.
August 9 was to end in Shivratri: the night of Shiva, when yaatris rushed to put the Gangajal lifted from Rishikesh or Haridwar on Shivlingams in temples in their villages and homes.
The crowd had thinned out substantially and the main road had opened partially to cars. It was no sooner than I went a hundred metres down it though that I was stopped in my tracks by a sight: A kanwariya was running hard as bystanders cheered him on. A couple of motorcycles, on which additional kanwariyas rode, moved alongside.
He was barefooted and bare-chested and his head was wrapped in an orange gumccha. The sprinting kanwar passed the baton, a bag of Gangajal, to the next runner some 100 metres ahead whose arm was stretched back in anticipation, but not before he made a flourishing juggle with his hands behind his back. Then the second runner relayed the baton to a third and the race went on.
I spotted Pandit Mahesh observing the spectacle from the side-lines and walked up to him. He had the air of somebody who appreciated what he was seeing but couldn’t be bothered to do the thing himself. “These are what they call the Dak Kanwars,” he explained. “They move non-stop. They’ve made a promise to complete the yaatra within 24 hours…or 36, or 48 hours, it all depends on how far their home is!” He let out a hoot.
And at this moment it came to me: this race neatly captured the soul of the kanwariyas, didn’t it? A rousing show of both bhakti and masti. A performance in which focus meets fun and sheer grit combined with an unabashed display of pomp and masculinity. Weren’t these the core impulses of the kanwar yaatra? Or at any rate, the essential ingredients of what it had, in this day and age, become?
“Last year, these bikers caused some accidents and people got very against them,” Pandit Hemant said. “But now look at this, all this effort they put in. I even saw one boy carrying his grandmother on his shoulders all the way to Neelkanth”.
The road between Rishikesh and Haridwar was jammed with trucks carrying armies of Dak Kanwars booming with DJ music. There was a Mahadev DJ truck and a Bhole Baba DJ truck. And a while later, I even saw a “Fire Gym truck”. Its side had been painted over with the blue-hued back of Shiva, the shoulder blades sculpted, the spine taut. The hair flowing down, jet-black. A song blared: “Har-Har! Bam-Bam! Jeetega bhai jeetega (We will win)”.
It was a veritable open-air night-club, except that it was afternoon, not night, and there were only boys in it. Boys merrily dancing; boys smoking; boys clapping.
I asked the taxi driver to pull over. “Hey!” I said to one particularly intoxicated guy who was dancing without a care in the world. “I am interested to learn about your yaatra. Can you tell me why you play this music?”
“Utsaah (excitement) hai,” the dancer replied, all sweaty. “Bas.” There was excitement, indeed. “You are writing about us?” he said. “Please also write that since Yogi Adityanath has come in UP, he’s allowed us to enjoy fully. Every Hindu supports him. He is a great person! I say there should be more DJs! Many DJs! We should be free to enjoy ourselves. When Akhilesh Yadav was chief minister, he would not let us enjoy. He only promoted Muslims. Please write this.”
He collapsed into the back of the truck and his friends went into a tizzy of laughter.
I was unfazed when a while later I heard the lyrics of another song. It went, “DJ Bajwa Diya Yogi Ne. Rang Jama Diye Yogi Ne” (Yogi allowed DJs. Yogi injected colour).
The train going to eastern UP that evening was like a bloated orange snake. And even after it lumbered out of the platform, the station air felt just as hot and humid as it did when it was standing; filled up with yaatris. I had changed my clothes by then, back to a staid grey from the festive orange, and this small act had somehow also produced a shift in disposition. I had been so comfortable with all the madness a couple of hours back, but now I was tired.
Now all I wanted was an AC room and quiet.
Inside the Shatabdi, I was greeted by light chatter in English, the rustle of newspapers, and the smell of coffee. Cool air.
There was a newsflash on my phone:
“Delhi: Outrage Over Kanwariya Vandalism” read a headline.
“Kanwariyas engage in violence in Delhi, UP: It’s time to stop unruly ‘pilgrims’ threatening people’s safety” read another.
And a funny thing happened: I felt a pang of defensiveness. This is highly unusual given the distance between myself and the persons being referred to on the screen, but my mind surged. Certainly, there are some hooligans, but this news portrayed such a lopsided picture! What about Kuldeep and his brother? Or Kumar? Why do we never read about their stories?
If the kanwariyas blocked vehicular traffic then wasn’t it also true that we, car-owners, came in their way as they tread down the highway, barefoot and thirsty? And whose right of way was it? That of cars or of the millions of pedestrians? That of the SUV or the cavalcade of trucks?
Outside the window, a group of boys waiting to go home had gathered to play cards while another lot tapped away on their phones. They are like boys anywhere, really.
Boys looking for a sports-ground, a night club, a gym. Boys in search of a higher calling. They wanted to have fun! And when their circumstances were unable to give them what they desired, they went ahead and got it anyhow. In the form that was available to them, and in a way that they understood.
I think I would do the same if I were in their shoes. If my shoes weren’t Skechers.
I turned to the popcorn on my tray. So much of my judgment stems from my position of privilege, doesn’t it? I stretched my worn legs and ate a fistful, then closed my eyes. Yes, I’ll think more about this tomorrow, I thought.
For now, I was happy to be back in an AC room.
Siddharth Kapila is a lawyer-turned-writer presently working on a travel memoir on Hindu pilgrimage sites.