The Kanwar Yatra
The morning mist hung lazily across the riverbanks holding on to shards of grass or marble steps, as the sun – a sleepy crimson against a cerulean blue – slowly started its ascent from the eastern horizon.
We had woken at the crack of dawn, making our way quietly across narrow lanes of resting pilgrims towards the mighty Ganga ready to burst at her seams. Days of torrential rain made visibility low, save for the sound of anklets strumming against each other. Hidden voices chanted Bol Bam in euphoric unison.
Thousands of Shiva devotees made their way in the downpour towards the mighty Sapteshwari to fill their tinkling pots with holy water to take home and offer to Lord Shiva.
This was the annual Kanwar Yatra for the annual pilgrimage to pay obeisance to Lord Shiva. And we were in Haridwar.
A Kanwar pilgrimage
We could see weary pilgrims waking up from sleep, tired bodies exhausted from walking – at times – over 300 kms to reach Haridwar. A line had already started forming in front of the public facilities that catered to an unending stream of people looking to wash off their sins.
We were on our way to meet a 13-year-old who had journeyed from his home to Haridwar. He had made the challenging trek so he too could fetch water from the river, take a holy dip and walk back to anoint the Shiva Lingam back home.
Bhola was waiting for us by the steps of Har Ki Paudi, his decorated kanwar perched beside him. He had not seen us. The youngster’s narrow frame stood stark against the mighty Ganga.
Bhola was wearing a black t-shirt, anklets adorning his weather-beaten feet. He turned and smiled as we approached closer. “Arrey bhaiya aap aa gaye (Brother, you have come)?” he beamed.
“I am almost ready to go home. It will take me another four days at least. The elders from my village are ready to depart. I thought we would not meet again.”
Before I could speak, he continued, “You are wondering why am I not at school but here, in Haridwar? Right?”
“Don’t you know about Samudra Manthan? When the poison had come out during samudra mantha, Shambhu Ji ingested it to protect humanity. But his own throat had turned blue in the process. In the Treta Yuga, Shiva’s devout follower Ravana meditated and poured holy water from Ganga on a Shiva Lingam, thus releasing God from the negative energy of the poison. I have heard it from my mother. We follow the same holy tradition of pouring the river water on our village shivling.”
To my urban mind, it seemed that over hundreds of years, the Kanwar Yatra has almost become a rite of passage for youngsters, who take on an arduous journey with religious fervor, in service to the divine.
No difficulty for the devoted
I asked if it was difficult.
Without batting an eyelid, Bhola replied “Only if you think it is. When we started even I was not sure if I would be able to do this. But now that I am here, I am confident of finishing this task.”
I hoped to treat the young kawaria to a cup of tea and some breakfast, but his group was calling. They had miles to go. So, as the world around me lit up in muted shades, Bhola slung the bamboo poles bearing water-laden pitchers across his tiny shoulders and was lost in a crowd of kawarias on their long journey home.
I sat for a while marveling at their devotion.
We left for Delhi at the crack of dawn the next day before authorities shut down Haridwar to tourists at large.
Kawariyas from Coimbatore
Our driver said that this year, kawariyas came from Coimbatore in the South, traveling a grueling 3000 kms to fetch water for their resident deity.
For us, by contrast, the trip was unplanned.
What is Kanwar Yatra?
Every year Kanwarias travel to Hindu pilgrimage sites like Haridwar, Gaumukh and others to gather sacred water from the Ganges and return barefoot to their hometowns, to make offerings to Lord Shiva at temples or family deities.
Once the pilgrims complete their journey, the Ganges water is used to bathe the Shiva lingam on the 13th day (Thrayodashi) in Shraavana month, which is also known as the Sawan Shivaratri.
This year, that day falls on July 26.