The Kanwar Yatra: Tracing the historical origins and the present day journey of the Kanwariyas

It all began with Lord Parshuram — an avatar of Lord Vishnu and follower of Lord Shiva. It is written that he took water from the Ganges in a container called Kanwar for the abhishekam of Lord Shiva's idol installed at Bholenath Mandir in Haridwar.

Flash-forward to the 20th Century — specifically to the 1980s and early 1990s — and the 'Kanwar Yatra' was not such a well-known concept and this yatra was carried out by spiritual and religious leaders who travelled barefoot to Haridwar and other spiritual places to collect water from the Ganges for the Kumbhabhishekam of the Shiva temples in their respective areas. The journey took place twice a year — during Mahashivratri (the marriage of Shiva and Parvati) and in the month of Shravan (which is dedicated to Lord Shiva).

The Kanwar Yatra during Mahashivratri strictly forbids the participation of women, and men can only travel barefoot in saffron robes with Gangajal carried in a Kanwar (pots balanced at two opposite ends of a bamboo stick) and recite Bol Bum (an exhortation to say the name of Lord Shiva). During Shravan, however, anyone can participate in the yatra. Further, it is not required for this particular journey to be conducted on foot. People associated with this yatra cannot be called Kanwariyas since they don't carry a Kanwar in most cases. It needs to be clarified that Kanwariya is not a caste, but a reference to a group of devotees who carry the Kanwar. The real Kanwariyas do not necessarily wear saffron (the colour of renunciation), they recite Bol Bum, carry a Kanwar and traditionally consume bhaang (cannabis, which is taken to be a blessing from Lord Shiva).

A Kanwariya carrying the traditional Kanwar while on yatra. Firstpost/Mirah Zamin

A Kanwariya carrying the traditional Kanwar while on yatra. Firstpost/Mirah Zamin

Sheela Sharma, a teacher by profession and resident of Ayodhya says that women were forbidden to take part in the yatra because in earlier times, there were no proper roads or places to rest and women were not considered strong enough to be part of such a difficult journey that entailed carrying a heavy Kanwar and walking barefoot across distances between 100 and 250 kilometres. Further, the Kanwar Mela is annually organised only in Haridwar during Mahashivratri where followers of Shiva come to seek blessings.

"During the late 1990s, the religious yatra was given a fresh face in the form of Hindutva," says Shravan Yadav, an organiser of  the Kanwar Yatra, adding, "After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1993, many Hindu voices began to establish their own samitis (committees) for the Kanwar Yatra and this was the first time that the locals took part in the yatra."

The ruckus associated with Kanwariyas began with the involvement of youths, particularly those who had political leanings, for example, members of Hindu Yuva Vahini. At first, the youths were bribed into it by the local leaders of an area, but soon they too began too enjoy the limelight and free supplies of alcohol, marijuana and cannabis. What started as a religious tradition became political propaganda where free-spirited youths were allowed to display and project their aggression.

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A group of Kanwariyas making the yatra. Firstpost/Mirah Zamin

Hussain Imam, an advocate in the Allahabad High Court's Lucknow Bench says, "The Kanwariyas were considered so aggressive that people started fearing them. In fact many incidents of theft, looting and assault were registered against them, but because no particular names were given, no action could be taken. The late 1990s saw a dramatic rise in public participation in the yatra and so did the culture of attacks by mobs."

At presents, incidents of hooliganism have increased because of greater participation. In the past, it used to be a journey conducted by Brahmin hermits who lived on bhiksha (religious alms), but now, anyone can be a part of the Kanwar Yatra. For non-Hindus unfamiliar with the term 'Kanwariya', they often describe them as "sardi laane" (people who bring winter) and "sardi phenkne" (those who discard winter), because nights get colder after the month of Shravan (signalling the onset of winter), while winters come to an end around Mahashivratri.

In the 2000s, people from urban centres also began to participate in the yatra, although they made the journey in their own cars or buses. Rupam from Bhagalpur in Bihar travels to Devgarh twice a year with her family. "We started going to Devgarh, which is 120 kilometres away when my father bought his car. My family takes part in the yatra to seek blessings from Lord Shiva. It is a short religious trip for us, where we get to travel with our family."

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Updated Date: Aug 23, 2018 12:19 PM