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Kanwariyas As Bogeymen? Most Yatris Are Just Pious People On A Spiritual Journey

Author: Swati Goel Sharma
Publication: Swarajyamag.com
Date: August 16, 2018
URL:      https://swarajyamag.com/amp/story/culture%2Fkanwariyas-as-bogeymen-most-yatris-are-just-pious-people-on-a-spiritual-journey?__twitter_impression=true

If you simply go by media reports and prime-time debates, you might get the impression that kanwariyas are just hooligans out to sow chaos on the streets.

That is far from the truth. Besides the three incidents of violence, the yatra, which sees crores of pilgrims take to the streets, is overwhelmingly peaceful.

“Annual pilgrimage concludes today amid violence and vandalism,” said a portal last week even, as another ran the headline, “Kanwar Yatra has come to an end but Kanwariya hooliganism is here to stay.”

All of the past week, television channels held heated debates such as “Is Kanwar Yatra being overrun by violent thugs?” and “Why is it difficult to maintain law and order during Kanwar Yatra?”

Anyone not following this year’s Kanwar Yatra would assume the pilgrims must have left behind a trail of destruction for media houses to come up with these alarmist headlines and hold prime-time debates.

Far from it; it was really these three incidents that sparked their fury: In Uttar Pradesh's Badaun, a group of pilgrims torched a truck after it crushed a fellow pilgrim to death; in New Delhi, pilgrims damaged and overturned a car after it brushed past a fellow pilgrim and the car driver slapped him; in Uttar Pradesh's Bulandshahr, pilgrims vandalised a police vehicle after a scuffle with the locals.

Outrageous acts of hooliganism, all. One wonders if these goons deserve to be called religious pilgrims at all. Pilgrims, as we understand, must be peaceful and pious and endure every hardship in their way with a smile on their face and piety in their hearts. They should also not complain about being slapped in public, run over, pelted with stones when passing in ‘Muslim areas’, or having pieces of meat thrown in their way, because who asked them to undertake the pilgrimage anyway?

Nothing justifies the acts of pilgrims who didn't follow basic rules, took law into their hands, and indulged in goondaism.

But here’s some perspective. Crores of pilgrims do just that – they endure all the hardships and quietly carry on. An estimated four crore pilgrims (called kanwariyas) arrived in Haridwar alone this time. The total number of kanwariyas in north India itself would be much more, as Haridwar is not the only place from which to pick up the holy Ganga water. Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand are popular, and even smaller ghats like Garh Mukteshwar in Uttar Pradesh's Hapur district attract large crowds.

The pilgrim’s path is paved with perils. Incidents where kanwariyas got electrocuted, thanks to the electricity department's negligence, were crushed by running trucks, fell to death in open drains, or got injured in communal attacks were reported from several places.

But it took all of three incidents for the media to decry the entire pilgrimage and paint crores of kanwariyas as hooligans.

Yet another manifestation of media’s inherent bias against yet another centuries-old tradition?

Here's some more perspective. The annual Milad-un-Nabi procession to celebrate Prophet Mohammad's birthday witnesses several incidents of violence almost every year. This December, too, participants rioted and looted and even fired bullets and attacked people with swords.

Saw any prime-time debates on that?

Kanwar Yatra, as described by yatris

I meet Sunita Kumari, who is walking briskly on a road in Amroha district of Uttar Pradesh. She is already trailing behind in her group of four men and six other women, all residents of Bareilly, and requests me to walk with her so she won’t get left far behind – she is not carrying her mobile phone along.

“My son was quite sick some months ago. I had prayed to Shivji that if he recovers, I will undertake this yatra,” she says. It's her first Kanwar Yatra, and she has already decided to return the next year.

The group left their homes on Thursday evening (9 August) and travelled all night to reach the ghat of Garh Mukteshwar, some 170 km away, on Friday morning (10 August). They took some rest and had breakfast at one of the many shivirs (makeshift tents offering free food and places to rest to kanwariyas, set up by private charities). They bought kanwars (decorated wooden structures fitted with canisters), filled the vessels with holy Ganga water, placed them on their shoulder, and set off for return. They had arrived in a bus, but would walk for the journey back home. The group hoped they would reach Bareilly on Sunday (12 August), where they would pour the Gangajal on a Shiva lingam in a local temple.

Kumari, a housewife, admits that it is a rare outing for her without family and she likes the experience.

Several kilometres ahead, we find a group of 13 men from Moradabad who have undertaken a tougher journey. After taking kanwar from Garh Mukteshwar, they walked 75 km to the famous Pura Mahadev temple near Baghpat district. As is the tradition, their return home would be on foot as well.

They do not know about the violent kanwariya incident in Delhi. When I show them the video, Pushpendra Singh, a 26-year-old farmer, says, “It's bad. But they must have been provoked.”

Others in the group that comprises farmers, truck drivers, shopkeepers, and shop assistants, say the kanwariyas don't lose their tempers easily, but can get provoked if someone spills their Gangajal. “If the water is spilled, the entire journey goes to waste. It’s also considered very inauspicious and portends grave misfortune. You can imagine how we would feel,” says Kapil Thakur.

But who has given them the right to damage the vehicle? I ask.

“Not all men are the same. So how can all kanwariyas be the same?” says Thakur’s cousin Pradip Thakur. “But these incidents are very few. I have been taking kanwar for many years and have never seen such an incident.”

The group has heard that flower petals were showered on kanwariyas in some places in Meerut. Everyone approves. “Bahut khushi hui jaankar (we felt very happy),” says Singh. “No kanwariya will ever forget this beautiful experience.”

Further, I meet a group of men from Rampur, who are returning from Brijghat. Unlike those I have met so far, this group is travelling in a truck decorated with Indian flags and complete with the infamous loud DJ and hockey sticks. It’s a ‘dak kanwar’, where the vehicle is carrying supplies while kanwariyas are running relays on foot carrying the holy water.

“Why do you need the DJ?” I ask.

“Ye to baba ki baraat hai (It's Lord Shiva's procession). It has to be full of fun and music,” says Sonu Rathor.

“Why the sticks?”

“To help us walk long distances,” says Rathor.

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