Kanwariya/ Kanwar Yatra

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A Kanwar pilgrim, drawn by Shoberl, 1823
Azimvth Ashram
A Kanwar pilgrim, drawn by Montgomery, 1858
‘Ganges-pilgrims-passing-a-ghaut’-From The Illustrated London News 1864 Azimvth Ashram
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
Kanwariyas travelling to Deoghar Photo: AP


The pilgrimage


Kanwariya yatra / The Times of India

Hindu devotees take part in the Kanwar Yatra, an annual pilgrimage of devotees of Shiva. They visit Hindu pilgrimage places of Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand to fetch holy waters of Ganges River which is later offered at their local Shiva temples.

The Kanwar Yatra, its motive, route, dates, costumes 1
From The Times of India
The Kanwar Yatra, its motive, route, dates, costumes
From The Times of India
Some facts: Kanwarias, India; Graphic courtesy: The Times of India, August 1, 2015

The Yatra takes place during the sacred month of Shravan (Saawan) (July-August), according to the Hindu calendar. Shravan is considered the holiest month in the Hindu calendar with many religious festivals and ceremonies.

Kanwariyas are young men performing a ritual pilgrimage, in which they walk, sometimes hundreds of miles, to the Ganges River to take its sacred waters back to Hindu temples in their hometowns. During the Hindu lunar month of Shravana, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims can be seen walking the roads of India, clad in saffron, and carrying ornately decorated canisters of water over their shoulders.

Kanwariyas walk on (or drive through in trucks) the roads of India, clad in saffron, and carrying ornately decorated canisters of sacred water from the Ganges River over their shoulders to take them back to Hindu temples in their hometowns.

Kanwariyas are Hindus and worshippers of Hindu God Shiva. Some carry metal canisters filled with holy water from the Ganges River in Allahabad, which they then take home.

Many Kanwariyas pilgrims travel through lucknow

Kanwariya pilgrims collect Ganges water from the river in Hardwar. They carry and store this holy water in kanwar containers and then offer water to the Shivlinga at the ancient temple.

Some Devotees participate in 51 feet Kanwar Shova [shobha?] yatra in Patna city.The shova yatra travels to Deodhar in Jharkhand to pray at the Baidyanath temple.


Alok K N Mishra & Jasjeev Gandhiok | Kanwar yatra: For God, with a bit for the country | TNN | Jul 21, 2017

NEW DELHI: The journey is a test of grit and determination and a show of piety. The saffron-clad devotees, weighed down by pots holding water from the Ganga at Haridwar or Gaumukh, walk almost 40 kilometres each day, most of them preferring to traverse the distance barefoot. Bruised feet and shoulders are the least of their problems. Several are felled by stomach bugs, many others by dehydration and fatigue. But the kanwariyas soldier on.

"It is a trial of faith and once you complete the kanwar yatra successfully, your wish is granted by Lord Shiva. The yatra also gives you inner peace and that is what inspires devotees to undertake the gruelling walk every year," said Rishipal Yadav, a devotee.

Some of the pilgrims of the 2017 yatra
From The Times of India

The kanwar yatra is indeed the Shiva bhakt's gratitude for wishes granted or undertaken in penance in the hope of some boon being granted by the poison-ingesting destroyer of the Hindu trinity. In mythology, Lord Shiva nobly swallowed the poison released by the churning of the oceans and the gods offered him Ganga water to lessen the bite of the toxin. Ever since, people carry water from the Ganga and take to their own temples to offer to Shiva.

Among the estimated seven lakh from Delhi who annually undergo the week-long privations, a majority are people living on the margins of society. For the kanwariyas from such sections, the yatra gives them a little more than just spiritual succour. It is a special time of the year when they feel empowered, a period when social standing no longer matters. "Everybody is a devotee of Lord Shiva, and his or her class and caste slips into insignificance," said Chaudhary Premjit of Balaji Seva Sanstha, which is running a camp for kanwariyas at Laxmi Nagar in east Delhi.

At this time, therefore, even those who are treated as inferiors throughout the year see themselves as socially equal to everyone, this being evidenced in the way they are addressed. Nobody is called by name or surname. That would betray caste. So, each is 'Bhole' to the other. The policemen, who intimidate them daily, now facilitate their dominance of the roads. The government, businesses and industries go all out to guarantee them food and comfort. This year, 116 camps have been set up in the capital with funds from Delhi government. Many others have come courtesy companies, trusts and NGOs.

Some of the pilgrims of the 2017 yatra
From The Times of India

In this brief period in the month of Sawan, the kanwariyas like to believe they are kings of the thoroughfares. This sense of power is elating and the marginalised youth look forward to the yatra, often asserting their days-long right with aggression. This year, that expression has taken on the keener edge of nationalism. "We are proud to be devotees of Lord Shiva, proud to be Hindus and proud to be Indians, so why not showcase our feelings?" asked Rishi Prasad, who held aloft the tricolour, on the stretch between Dhaula Kuan and Karol Bagh.

Around Prasad, there was a profusion of the saffron, white and green of the Indian flag amid the dominating Hindu hue of saffron. Many of the national flags were several metres long, visually depicting the might of the nation. Patriotic songs, added Prasad, "give us the strength to help us power on". While many undertake the yatra out of personal faith, others are now clearly getting involved in the annual pilgrimage to assert their political-religious identity.

In this mix of devotion to god and country, there are others too from affluent families and professions. The kanwariyas travel in raucous groups in cars and mini-trucks on specially barricaded portions of the national highways to Haridwar and Gaumukh and then walk home with the Ganga water on their shoulders. The protocol for transmitting the holy water contained in the kanwars to their hometowns is decided by the devotee's chosen code of difficulty.

"Kanwariyas are very particular about the type of kanwar they want to carry as each is related to a different level of devotion," explained Narinder Rathi, who himself chose the jhoola kanwar this year. The more difficult the task — dak bam requires the water carrier to be constantly running — the greater the divine blessing.

The Kanwari(y)as

When They Run To Deoghar

Lakhs of kanwarias make it to the temple town of Deoghar every year and the numbers continue to be on the rise, reports Sopan Joshi

Sopan Joshi August 28, 2010, Issue 34 Volume 7: Tehelka

Balancing act Kanwarias have become a countrywide phenomenon over the past three decades


How and when did the practice of carrying water from the Ganga to a Shiva temple become a mass phenomenon involving crores of people? In 2010 the number touched a crore in Haridwar.

The tradition traces its genesis from Deoghar, a temple town in Jharkhand. Kanwars bring water from the Ganga in Sultanganj in Bihar, 105 km north of Deoghar, and offer it to Shiva in the Baidyanath temple in Deoghar.

Former irrigation minister Krishnanand Jha who grew up in Deoghar and now runs the Hindi Vidyapeeth says the number of kanwarias rose steadily after the 1970s. Earlier, only a few thousand would undertake the yatra, that too only on Maha Shivratri. There was also a mela in bhadon, the month after saawan (shravan/ sravan), wherein farmers would celebrate after the seasonal labours had ended.

“Only rich Marwari families from Kolkata came to spend saawan in Deoghar. What the rich do usually becomes fashionable; with increasing incomes and better transport, more and more people began to throng during saawan,” says Jha.

SANSKRIT scholar Mohananand Mishra offers references from scriptures, showing the practice was specific to Deoghar. “Kanwar may well be an Adivasi custom that spread around,” he says, adding that the saffron colour was chosen because it discourages pride and desire and makes them calm. Ironic considering the kanwarias thronging Haridwar look anything but calm.

People who have watched the kanwaria phenomenon grow in Haridwar since the 1980s explain it differently. Some say it became big in reaction to the insurgency in Punjab. Some point to a Hindu [radicalisation] after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid and the communal riots that ensued. Pretty much everybody agrees that devotional songs popularised by music-magnate Gulshan Kumar’s extremely low cost audio cassettes/ CDs and videos also played a role in popularising it.

The social sciences do not seem to offer anything either on the rise of the kanwaria. Suresh Kumar, a historian and sociologist at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, says the custom in Deoghar seems to have the humility of a folk tradition. In Haridwar, the same custom has acquired the trappings of a mass cultural event with its characteristic celebration and consumption.

Deoghar and the annual pilgrimage

The walk takes an average of three days and one category called Dak kanwars run the distance in 24 hours.

On the way from Sultanganj to Deoghar, the atmosphere is a lot calmer than the Delhi-Haridwar route. Unlike its macho reputation, about a half to a third of the kanwarias are women. The calmness ends when the devotees enter the temple. The prospect of a darshan makes them desperate, resulting in chaos. The temple management and police man the queue with lathis, but it isn’t easy to maintain order.

Managing lakhs of people can be a nightmare for the authorities. During saawan, The District Collector’s office shifts to the Baidyanath temple, for there is just one priority: managing the saawan mela and the hordes of kanwarias. His control room has 15-odd CCTV screens. This month-long festivity sustains the economy of this temple town of 2.5 lakh people for the rest of the year. “It’s probably one of the world’s largest annual fair of its kind,” local officials say.From hotels to curio shops, everybody plans for the fair. Street vendors book vantage spots in advance.

The temple gets 40-50 lakh kanwarias each year during saawan. An average of 90 kanwarias offer water to Baidyanath every minute. And then there are a few lakh who don’t get to worship. In 2009, the kanwar queue stretched 10 km at one point. One person takes about one foot in the queue. That is 32,000 people in the queue.

One devotee had run 105 km in 28 hours. His T-shirt had his brother’s phone number hand-printed on it ‘in case I die of exhaustion’ Even with blistered feet, his energy and excitement remains unmatched. After running 105 km in about 28 hours, this may seem strange. He sits on the stairs near the exit of the premises to offer water to goddess Parvati. He hadn’t had a meal in 36 hours, only some fruits. Despite the exhaustion, he was waiting patiently for a group to get over with their darshan.

Most people come with a wish, a prayer, and keep coming till the prayer is fulfilled but nobody tells you what it is. It’s only for the deity to hear. Some do the yatra just because they think it is the right thing to do with friends and family. The rest come to thank the deity after their wishes come true.

The zeal is shared by millions of other kanwarias most of whom hail from different backgrounds and regions. There are rich and poor, young and old, men and women, high castes and low castes. And yet, this lot does not show signs of aggression unlike the ones on the Delhi- Haridwar route who come across as arrogant.

But haughtiness or no haughtiness, their commitment remains unquestionable. As is the commitment of those who provide for them during these strenuous months. For a month, an Agrawal trader from Sultanganj, and his family shut their businesses and serve kanwarias. All this is done without causing inconvenience to the general public. The commuters do not get bullied. Muslim auto drivers ferry saffron-clad Hindus.


Journalist Sopan Joshi mentions an altercation on NH-24 in 2007. Armed with sticks, a group of saffron-clad kanwarias threatened to do unspeakable things to him if he ended up disturbing their procession. While serving him with an ultimatum, the kanwarias assaulted a motorist for getting in their way. Consequently, he changed his course.

This annual deluge of devotion claims a few lives and scores get injured due to road accidents, quarrels and altercations. And yet the number of devotees increases each year. No one has a clue why.


Taking over roads and ears, aggressively

Alok K N Mishra & Jasjeev Gandhiok | Kanwar yatra: For God, with a bit for the country | TNN | Jul 21, 2017

Kanwar yatra: They take over roads and ears with easy aggression


Motorists are dismayed by the sense of entitlement that kanwariyas exhibit on the roads

The loud music favoured by the kanwariyas is another bone of contention

NEW DELHI: Perhaps the experience of being pampered is too alien an experience for many kanwariyas to accept with equanimity. After all, the majority of them live out the rest of the year deprived of social respect and attention. That is why the month of Sawan (July-August) can become a trying time for people trying to cope with the suddenly empowered kanwariya, who himself is caught up in the novelty of being treated specially by the government, police, businesses and NGOs.

Most complaints about the annual exercise come from road users. Motorists are dismayed by the sense of entitlement that kanwariyas exhibit on the roads. "They do not follow traffic rules. They avoid using foot overbridges or zebra crossings and encroach on the road in large groups, halting traffic," grumbled P N Singh, a traffic cop at Laxmi Nagar.

Despite the authorities frequently assigning portions even on important streets for the pilgrims, they — and often their convoy of bikes, music-blaring mini-trucks and cars — take over the entire roadspace. Normal traffic has to give way, leaving commuters annoyed and chafing.

The loud music favoured by the kanwariyas is another bone of contention. Bharat Singh, himself a longtime devotee, ruminated, "The yatra has certainly changed in the last decade. Earlier, it used to be quieter and more peaceful. The loud music disrupts our sleep in the camps and, of course, it must be irritating for many people. The use of music should be regulated."

Sunil Goel, head of Mayapuri Kanwar Sangh, however, explained that loud music was meant to lift spirits. "Devotional songs give the kanwariyas energy and assist them in walking a few extra kilometres even when their feet are hurting," said Goel.

Many kanwariyas find themselves suddenly feted for their piety and they often get into the spirit of things, but not in a very spiritual manner. A medical assistant at a Delhi government-aided kanwariya camp in Ghazipur pointed at a man lying in a semi-conscious state near the medical stall and, rather upset, asked: "See his condition. Do you think he has the characteristics of a true devotee?" He could have said the same of some others in the camp, who were roundly mocking the intoxicated kanwariya.

Honey Singh, a resident of Sector 49 in Noida, who had been on the road for 12 days, did not hide that he smoked marijuana. "It is the prasad of Lord Shiva, and it gives you the power to undertake this arduous journey on foot," Singh asserted as his friend nodded in agreement.

The trouble is when some of them begin creating trouble while high on intoxicants. It is a sensitive time when no one is ready to take on the saffron-clad marchers, not the common people, not the police. And this often leads to unsavoury scenes. Many kanwariyas, of course, follow their own behavioural code, which is civil, devotional and focused.

But in the lakhs there are sometimes people who cannot come to terms with the licence they have been given. They smoke in public places where smoking is prohibited, play disturbingly loud music, aggressively take over the roads and argue — even have physical fights — with other road users. Police are vigilant along the entire kanwar route. They not only prevent non-marchers from harassing the kanwariyas, but also rein in unruly Ganga water carriers.

Court: Punish law breaking kanwariyas

The Times of India, Aug 20 2015

Sana Shakil

`Book kanwariyas flouting rules'

Raising concerns about increase in the number of accidents on Delhi-Uttarakhand route in the months of July and August due to “rampant traffic violations by some pilgrims,“ a trial court has reprimanded authorities for not taking action against violators. Additional District and Sessions Judge Anoop Kumar Mendiratta said, “Law cannot be permitted to be flouted merely under apprehension of law and order situation.“

Directing police to book violators, the court said, “The number of accidents during Shrawan Shivratri Festival cannot be overlooked.“

The court said that commercial goods vehicles are used for carrying passengers.“This endangers not only public safety but also the life of devotees who travel in these vehicles. There is a complete mockery of law as commercial goods vehicles are operated in complete violation of permit conditions and provisions of Motor Vehicles Act and Rules. Due to this, victims of accidents may not be able to get the benefit of insurance claim,“ the court said. It added that during this season massive traffic jams are also witnessed causing severe inconvenience to commuters. “The vehicles carrying the Kanwar and passengers encroach on most part of the road with devotees running in front and leaving little space for other vehicular movement. The violators of traffic rules need to be booked and prosecuted,“ the court said. The vehicles flouting rules can be found out from CCTV cameras installed at various intersections and thereby prosecuted. “Prosecution shall enforce the rule of law and ensure that in the forthcoming years the vehicles are not operated in contravention of rules,“ the court hoped.

The court was hearing an accident case in which a fouryear-old died in an accident on July 21, 2014. The girl, who was on a pilgrimage to Haridwar with her father and siblings on a motorbike, was hit by an Innova. The court ordered the owner and insurer of the vehicle to give Rs 50,000 as interim compensation to the girl's family.

The camps en route: meals, other arrangements


Jasjeev Gandhiok & Alok KN Mishra| At day's end: A choice menu to feed the faith, balm for the weary soul | Jul 21 2017 : The Times of India (Delhi)

Kanwariya camps in Delhi

After an exhausting day of marching with the Ganga on their shoulder, the kanwariyas would be grateful just to have some basic needs addressed: water, palatable food, a durrie to sleep on perhaps. But no, what awaits them at the camps dotting the capital is nothing short of lavish.

“I used to go past Sonepat to Jhajjar and then to Rewari, but the Delhi route means you are better rested and you get more facilities,“ testified Jitender Lakhra, a Haridwar-Rewari yatri. He added happily, “The camps keep getting better every year and each one wants to outdo the other.“

This year, Delhi government has funded 116 camps, tying up with registered NGOs to organise these stop-overs. There are sev eral others put up by private companies, making for around 150 altogether. At these camps the weary kanwariyas can rejuvenate t h e m s e l ve s w i t h f re s h ly squeezed fruit juices, jaljeera and lassi and then partake of an enviable array, whether it is breakfast, lunch or dinner.

“We have spared no expenses to ensure the kanwariyas are well rested and well fed,“ said a volunteer at Mayapuri Kanwar Sangh near Karol Bagh as he handed out fresh kiwi and grapes. The pradhan of the camp, Sunil Goel, said that kanwariyas who had run out of money were even provided financial assistance. “We give from Rs 100 to 500, as the need of the kanwariya may be. We look at the water carrier as a form of God,“ said Goel.

In addition to the plenteous food, the camps have doctors in attendance and medicines to take care of most ailments. “A doctor and an assistant are available here 24 hours. The health problems range from blisters on the feet to fatigue, but some of the devotees also have dehydration, bad stomach and high fever due to infected bruises,“ said Tarul Bala, a medical aide at a Delhi government camp in Pan dav Nagar, east Delhi.

Most of these camps, howev er, didn't have designated sleep ing areas for women, which could explain the low number of women yatris. “There are s e p a r at e ch a n g i n g rooms for women, but they often sleep in a common area with their families. Some women don't feel secure in common camps and prefer not to take part in yatras,“ Ram Bhushan, a kanwariya, pointed out.

The kanwar yatra is so popular that people come forward to help the devotees in places where there is no trust or NGO to support them. In Nehru Nagar in south Delhi, people have joined hands to organise a camp. Some donated vegetables, some rice, while others contributed money to run the camp. “We have been doing this for five years,“ said Ram Kishore Saini, a caretaker at the camp.

Toilets are a big concern. Many camps got mobile toilets installed; others requested petrol pumps nearby to allow the kanwariyas to use their facilities. There is an occasional hitch. “Delhi government sent us a mobile toilet, but its doors are locked and nobody can use it,“ said a sheepish Saini at Nehru Nagar.

See also

Kanwariya/ Kanwar Yatra


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