Rituals - Pilgrims’ Progress
by Maria Wirth
All over India, an interesting phenomenon can be observed. On one hand, materialism is on the rise, and on the other hand, religiousness is on the rise too. Even difficult pujas, like the Chaath puja, and arduous pilgrimages like the Kanvar Mela, attract huge crowds, most of them young people. Despite the Western influence, the majority of Indians still feel connected with the invisible power behind the visible forms of the gods who represent this power.
Sitting in Dehradun, I would have lived with the impression that the Kanvar Mela and Kanvarias are mainly about traffic jams, and young rowdies who want to race on motorcycles through Dehradun up to Mussoorie, if only the police would let them. Several of my acquaintances consider the Kanvarias a big nuisance and heave a sigh of relief when it is over.
Undoubtedly, among the over one crore Kanvarias who come to take the Ganges water from Hardwar over the first fortnight of Shravan month, there are bound to be some trouble makers. Yet from my own experience, the great majority are amazingly well behaved and they are actually the ones who have a hard time. The people of Hardwar too are highly inconvenienced, especially towards the end of the mela, when most of those who walk the whole distance on foot leave the city to make way for trucks, motorcycles and loud music. Around 50,000 vehicles entered the city on each of the last three days this year. The number of Kanvarias has exploded over the recent years; there were more than 12 million this year alone. Huge crowds everywhere take a toll on good humour. All the more remarkable then is the genuine friendliness and cheerfulness of the Kanvarias. The Hardwar citizens bear the teeming crowds rather calmly. They know the reason why they come, and respect it.
I went to Hardwar during the early days of the mela. As my sister called just then from Germany, I gave her a running commentary of the milling crowds, all dressed in orange, and mainly young men. I am sure she would not have been able to picture it. We simply don’t have an equivalent in the West. Maybe that is the reason why I appreciate and enjoy the atmosphere while my Western-oriented Indian friends seem irritated and embarrassed by such a display of religious fervour. Maybe they feel that it shows India in a poor light. They don’t realise that this living spirituality makes India special in the international community. The Western attitude of ignoring and even denying the invisible power behind the visible has made our lives empty and barren. Natural joy, cheerfulness and a solid grounding in human values are lacking when disconnected to the spiritual dimension. No surprise then that depression is so rampant in Western societies.
In the West, we try hard to enjoy ourselves and to have a good time during weekends and holidays. There are many options, like going out for meals, visiting a picturesque town, walking around street festivals, going to a lake for a swim if it is summer or into the mountains for trekking, and of course, the one thing many people live for – going for the yearly holiday to some far away dream country. And indeed, we may have a good time, provided nothing gets on our nerves. At the same time, a sense of futility creeps in. Back from a holiday, everyone is likely to say how wonderful it was. But for many, it turns wonderful only in retrospect, while boasting before friends.
In India, celebration and enjoyment are ingrained in the culture and mostly connected with the Divine. Almost all festivals have a religious nature. A beer festival like the Munich Oktoberfest is simply unthinkable here. An ‘egg-throwing competition’, held recently in some Western country and competitions about who can eat or drink most in the shortest timespan so commonplace there, would leave a bad taste in India.
In India, divine power and sacredness are still taken for real and the tradition of doing tapas is still alive. The Kanvar Mela is all in one: enjoyment, bonding with family and friends, adventure, trekking, devotion and rather severe tapas, sacrificing one’s own personal comfort as an offering to the Divine. There is a sense of purpose. In the back of the mind, there
|In India, celebration and enjoyment are ingrained in the culture and mostly connected with the Divine. Almost all festivals have a religious nature.|
In Hardwar, I watched the unending stream of Kanvarias walking back home, carrying fancily decorated bamboo structures, called kanvars, with Gangajal. Even in pouring rain they continued walking. Several wore bandages around their calf muscles and ankles. One young man, barefoot, was limping. Even one blister makes every step so painful. Two handicapped men pedalled along in their decorated wheel chairs. Some middle-aged men did not carry the kanvars but had two containers with Gangajal hanging around their neck. Yet, although tired, all smiled easily and waved, while I took photos of them.
Strangely, even 20 years ago, there was no kanvar mela in Hardwar. Kanvarias have been traditionally associated with Baidyanath Dham in today’s Jharkhand. How did the Kanvar Mela become such a huge event in Hardwar – second only to the Kumbh Mela which is the biggest religious gathering worldwide?
Orange rules! Kanvarias on the road “You know, in Hinduism, we don’t have fixed rules how to worship. Everyone is free to do as he pleases,” an old Hardwar resident answered my question. “During the holy month of Shravan, there were always people coming to Hardwar to take a bath in the Ganga and then they would offer water in the local Shiva temples here or go to Neelkanth Mahadev near Rishikesh. At one point, someone must have got the idea to carry the Ganges water all the way back to his hometown. And then next year, more people did it and so on. And now there are over 10 million people who carry Gangajal home to their respective Shiva temples. A new form of worship was born,” he chuckled.
This flexibility allows changes in religious practises in tune with the times. Nowadays, many pilgrims make use of trucks and vans, in a very novel way. Relatives or villagers get together and rent a truck for the pilgrimage. Cooking utensils, stove, provisions and sleeping mats are carried in the back of the truck, and a wooden platform above the luggage is packed with passengers. Once the holy water is taken from the Ganga, it is, however, not placed in the truck, but reverentially carried on foot by the young men of the group in a relay. At least one man at a time runs behind the truck with a kanvar over his shoulder and when he is tired, another man takes over. This gives a chance to older people and those who are doubtful whether they can walk long distances a chance to be part of the mela.
Maria Wirth is a German national
who came to India for a holiday
and never left, drawn to this
country's devotion to the Divine. Undoubtedly, most Kanvarias are not used to walking long distances, yet this did not prevent them from making the resolve to go on foot. One group, for example, had come from Meerut. They planned to cover the 175 km in three days. There were several women, stoically walking along. Apart from the kanvar, many seemed to carry nothing else. Some had a small backpack strapped. One group had a cart packed with children pulled by a cycle, while the adults walked.
From where I watched the stream of pilgrims, they had not yet walked even 10 kilometres. How would they feel after 100 kilometres? It is certainly an arduous journey. Along the route, several Hindu organisations and even some individuals offered food and shelter for the Kanvarias and stands to hang their kanvars on.
“Those facilities were not there in the old days,” a Bihari said. In 1965, as a 20-year-old, he had walked the 120 km from Sultangunj to Baidyanth Dham. “The path through hilly terrain was very rough, often littered with pebbles as sharp as needles and we all walked barefoot. I had blisters as big as cricket balls,” he remembered. Had he wished for something from Shiva? I asked. “No, I had gone in thanksgiving. I had promised to do the yatra if a wish of mine was fulfilled. It did happen and I, in turn, kept my vow,” he explained.
Many of the Kanvarias may have come to thank Shiva for fulfilling some wish of theirs, others may have come to ask for some favour. For many, it is a special sort of outing, physically demanding yet, ultimately more fulfilling than simply ‘having a good time’, thanks to the heartfelt connection with their beloved Shiva.
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