It’s the month of shravan, and the children of Shiva are on the move to take the sacred waters of the Ganga to their myriad temples at home. On their way to Gangotri in the Himalayas, Kanwariyas pass through communally sensitive districts in Uttar Pradesh. “Shravan fills us with the hope and power to offer ourselves to Bholeynath. Each year the number of camps are increasing so are the number of devotees. In some areas, we hear about clashes and bloodshed but the security arrangement made by the government is sufficient,” says Sikandar, a Kanwariya from Gurgaon.
He is on his way back from Hardwar with brother Rajeev Nagar, through Meerut and Muzaffarnagar, which was excoriated by riots before the 2014 elections. It was in Dadri, where Akhlaq was lynched in 2015, and the memory hasn’t faded. Sikandar says, “There is no need to worry since all Hindus are united and moving together. No one will dare attack us.” Lakhs of kanwariyas are on the roads and on treks, which at times are as long as 100 km.
The multitude of saffron has converged on the highways in Western Uttar Pradesh, almost cutting it off from the rest of the state. The merging point of the devotees from across India is Hardwar. The change that Shrawan has brought about in colour, mood and the landscape of the volatile region is to be seen to be believed. Extravagantly decked-up vehicles have been turned into raths (chariots) carrying DJs, who belt out religious numbers set to Bollywood beats. This, in spite of UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s explicit warning. The popular culture entertains tired kanwariyas and give them a break on the way.
Naseem Ahmed Meer, who runs a car garage with his two sons, has set up a Kanwar Yatri Shivir camp in Muzaffarnagar. The practice of providing pilgrims with refreshment was started by his father Mohmad Mohseen. However, it was stopped after the riots. This year, Naseem revived it. “Bholeys have been accepting our sewa with utmost delight. Such efforts bring communities together. These are just travelers who bear no ill will,” he tells me.
But the police are on their guard. “For the first time, we have installed CCTV cameras along the route. This year, we have started helicopter surveys of the arrangements along the Muzaffarnagar-Meerut route. We are keeping the vigil over communally-sensitive areas and timings, working with local community leaders from both the sides. Most of the camps stop playing DJ music after the stipulated timings,” ADG, Meerut Zone, Prashant Kumar, told The Sunday Standard. The songs are, Kanwariya Ne Bum Bum Ka Macha Diya Shor... Bhole Ne Bhi Dekh Ke Thumka Lagaya Jaanke.
Due to the swelling numbers of pilgrims, the administration has made three separate entrances to Hardwar for the locals and kanwariyas passing through Meerut and Muzaffarnagar. The drive from Delhi to Meerut can be a breezy one. On a normal day, the 70-odd km could be covered in a little over an hour. The highway is out of bounds for private vehicles. Only buses are allowed as and when permitted by Kanwar yatris. I get onto one. Once on the highway, it can hardly move a kilometre without stopping. The road is overloaded by the kanwar yatris; wading through the sea of saffron is the ultimate driving test. This has been the case for the past 15 days.
As my bus moves forward, the deluge of saffron devotees moves alongside, shouting Bum Bum Bholey (Hail Lord Shiva). There are men, women, children and even the elderly, walking day and night, sometimes even without food and water. Elaborate arrangements have been made by both government agencies and NGOs for their comfort.
As our bus reaches the outskirts of Meerut after a four-hour journey, we come across a huge camp called Kanwar Sewa Shivirs, run by the Kankarkhera Traders Association beside the Delhi–Meerut highway. Around 35 DJ sets placed near the entrance blare a mix of retro Hindi film songs amalgamated with Shiva bhajans and folk embellishment. Right beside them stands a replica of Kailash Parvat with a giant statue of Lord Shiva 50-foot above the ground welcoming his devotees.
“Ao Bholey Ao...” fills the air around the camps lining the highway, greeting thousands of weary pilgrims draped in saffron, carrying just about two litres of holy water on their shoulders and backpacks. This temporary camp has been set up mostly for the devotees, who have chosen Khadi Kanwar. It is a stop to rest and rejuvenate while placing your Kanwar on a special stand set up near the camp. At the camp, Kanwariyas are served warm milk and jaljeera by the volunteers. I, too, halted there. Devotees shower in the open though a separate bathroom is available. I felt like being in a mini banquet hall. The camp is divided into a dining area, sleeping shelter, kitchen with a first aid centre.
I was welcomed by volunteers from NGOs and locals, who were busy placing leaf plates on a line of tables joined together in a square. Each volunteer is provided with a steel bucket or a basket of bread, water and fruits. “We see this as a sewa for the God himself done by the carrier,” said Rajesh Gupta, President of the 35-member association, which had been setting up camp in the region for the last five years. Time is the constraint since the water has to be offered at the temple of their choice before Shivratri on July 21.
I watch a devotee take off the bandage from his feet, which he had wrapped in Muzzafarnagar. The doctor at the camp chides him about catching an infection. Anti-septic solution is applied on his feet and a fresh bandage is wrapped. He gets tablets for body ache. In the last five hours, over 230 devotees have sought medical assistance. Each first-aid centre maintains records with the name and the destination of each devotee. “We are impressed about their willpower to keep going, challenging the limits a normal body can handle,” said Krishno Upadhyay, a government-appointed general physician at the camp.
A simple kanwar with moderate decoration, which accomodates two litres of water, costs around `500. The maximum cost may go up to `10 lakh, which is carried by not less than four devotees. But for the Kanwarias, who walk in the name of Lord Shiva, the huge cost is not a burden.
What is Kanwar Yatra?
An auspicious pilgrimage by devotees of Lord Shiva annually. Kanwariyas fetch holy water from Hindu pilgrimage places such as Gangotri, Gaumukh and Hardwar and offer the ‘Ganga jal’ in Shiva temples.
How it started?
After Lord Shiva consumed poison from the ocean, he fell ill. Shiva’s follower Ravana was advised to pour Ganga jal from Hardwar for 31 days. Shiva woke up and said ‘Bhum’.