Shiva’s band of men: Into the world of the Kanwariyas

Hindustan Times | By
Jul 24, 2017 01:04 PM IST

Who is a Kanwariya and what does he want from life? HT travels with a group of pilgrims, who are getting younger, wilder and more male every year, to understand why they take the journey

“Where are the hockey sticks?” Omi Saini shouts into the air as his open-top truck first hits traffic 25 km into the drive from Haridwar. His fellow travellers first look at him in puzzlement and then at each other in accusation. They are six in all, but except for the one at the wheel, the rest of them are sitting in the back of the truck on a deck erected on bamboo poles and stacked up with mattresses. Actually, not all five of them are together on the deck at any point in the 300-km drive between Haridwar and Firozepur Jhirka, their destination. Two of them are always on the road, running behind the truck with a bag carrying two bottles of water. The positions change every 100 metres but without the truck ever coming to a full stop. As the vehicle slows down, two men climb a wooden ladder to the deck dripping sweat and two slither down a large plastic drum dripping water they have just poured over themselves. All that passes between the two set of sodden men across the truck in this split second is water: two bottles of Ganga jal from one of its holiest sources in Hindu mythology – the ghats of Haridwar where the river is believed to descend from lord Shiva’s topknot. The men are dressed like a team: orange T-shirts inscribed with the name of their town, orange shorts, travel pouches across their chest, compression sleeves around their calves, rescue whistles around their necks, and ghungroos around their ankles. The look – a mix of hiker, football player and Kathak dancer – is only strange until you notice that the highway is crammed with all-male teams dressed the same way.

A group of Kanwariyas on the move. Traffic snarls are common on the roads that the Kanwariyas take for their pilgrimage.(Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)
A group of Kanwariyas on the move. Traffic snarls are common on the roads that the Kanwariyas take for their pilgrimage.(Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

The whole exercise is planned around the holy water. One is only a true Kanwariya if his Ganga jal remains in motion over the two-day Kanwar route between Haridwar and his home, where he will offer the water to the nearest Shivalinga. It’s up to him to decide how he wants to cover the 200-odd km without spilling a single drop: walking, running, crawling, or participating in a relay race involving a moving vehicle. Hordes of pilgrims have covered the route carrying the Kanwar – a wooden pole with an urn of Ganga jal tied to each end – since the 19th century. Little about the pilgrimage remains the same, however. What used to be a monsoon ritual undertaken in pockets of the Gangetic plains is today India’s biggest annual pilgrimage. Only a few thousand made the journey until the 1980s; around 20 million carried the Kanwar between Haridwar and Delhi in 2016.

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A Kanwariya wearing a T-shirt with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s photograph on it. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)
A Kanwariya wearing a T-shirt with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s photograph on it. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

What has also changed is the scale and the style of the pilgrimage. The Kanwar itself is no longer two aluminium pots hanging from a wooden pole, but two multi-storied temples fashioned from every decorative item available in the local markets – tinsel, streamers, lace, Styrofoam – and attached to either side of a glittering rod. But only the pilgrims travelling on foot carry a Kanwar these days. The cooler set carry the water in bottles and switch between running like an Olympic racer and winding down on a motorbike or a truck. Nothing is cooler than a trailer – the bigger, the better. The trucks come equipped with a sound system and a DJ who can play the Kanwariya version of every hit Bollywood song. However, if you’ve got a trailer, you can pack it tight with speakers – floor to ceiling, side to side – turn up the bass, and blast the latest House beats from L.A. If you are more into sight than sound, you can hire a company of Kanwariya artists to dress up as Shiva and Parvati and enact domestic squabbles or swipe their faces with ash and roll their eyes into their heads.

“Bhole Has Called Me”

No change in the world of Kanwar Yatra is as visible as the composition of the Kanwariyas, who get younger, more male, and more out of control with every year. Until only a decade ago, the Kanwariya season meant a procession of saffron-clad men and women wobbling along the roads between Hardwar and Delhi. Now, it’s 200 km of free-ranging masculinity: thousands of young men taking over every inch of public space to do what they think is their right – walking, running, driving, dancing, dressing, undressing, bathing, sleeping, getting high, and making all kinds of trouble.

Year after year, Kanwariyas make headlines for coming in the way of law and order. This season alone, Kanwariyas have been in the news for falling off trains, being electrocuted on a street, being hit by a bus, vandalising buses, blocking highways, blowing up a police vehicle and later a police station. Few things disrupt life in north India as extensively as the annual passage of the Kanwariyas. If in Haridwar their arrival means special battalions of police, in Delhi it means a shutdown of schools. Along the rest of the route, it means willing or enforced surrender, from the usual lockdown of shops and restaurants to the recent ban on selling meat and eggs in Greater Noida during the season. But who are these young men taking over the streets in much of north India and why is everyone afraid of them? For one, they are armed with hockey sticks.

“I definitely remember we loaded them in,” says Raju, reaching under a mattress in search of the hockey sticks. He goes by one name, like most members of the Kanwariya gang: Naresh, Naveen, Ajay… The oldest of them is 36 and the youngest 20, but currently their place in the hierarchy is decided by their Kanwar cred. So it’s 28-year-old Naresh with four yatras under his belt who took charge of the preparations a month and a half in advance. “There is so much to arrange for. Clothes, trucks, DJ, videographer, cook, diesel, generator, food, water,” he says, as the truck whips round a bend, flinging us to opposite sides of a deck only separated from open air by a rope. The “craze for Kanwar” only took off in his village seven years ago. Since then, larger numbers of young men set off every year on a week-long pilgrimage their parents hadn’t even heard of. The men from Firozepur Jhirka know each other like brothers. All of these men were born in the same village, belong to the same caste – Mali (OBC) – and most continue to live and work there. “Some of us work as cooks, some of us as vegetable vendors, some of us as construction labourers,” Naresh says, now holding on to the bamboo pole tied across the middle of the deck. He is a small man with dark skin, high cheekbones and sunken eyes. He and his friends make up the first generation of men in their families to work outside the fields; only one of them has gone to high school. Naresh himself dropped out in fifth grade to support his family. A vegetable vendor, Naresh makes Rs 15,000 a month and saves at least Rs 7,000 through the year to put in the Kanwar kitty. It’s what everyone must contribute towards a basic fund of Rs 1,25,000.

“Why spend the saving on Kanwar?” I ask him. “What to do – Bhole (lord Shiva) keeps calling me,” he says, sliding to the edge of the deck to prepare for the plunge.

Ask any of the tens of thousands of men streaming in and out of Haridwar on any day of the Sravan and you will hear the same thing: Bhole has called me. A vast majority of Kanwariyas are young men from low-income families in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan who are themselves hanging on to the edges of the informal economy as drivers, labourers and security guards. The four words – Bhole has called me – are uttered less in devotion and more as a code for escape from the uncertainties of their daily lives, from chances of earning fixed wages to chances of finding a good wife. The Kanwar Yatra is their one chance to prove their talents – physical strength, resourcefulness, wit – without being faced with market realities. Like an annual company offsite, the challenges of a Kanwar yatra prepare them to go back to their lives wiser and stronger.

That Special Feeling

Apparently, only a man can understand what a Kanwar yatra means to another man. Married for four years, Naresh has never brought his wife along on a Kanwar trip. “It’s not for the ladies. I have visited Haridwar with my wife otherwise but not like this. Some ladies from our village do the yatra but they prefer to walk back and forth, like the older people.” No matter what his wife thinks of his annual adventure, Naresh will keep returning to Haridwar with his gang. ““I like so many things about the journey.” It’s the only time in a year when, irrespective of his caste or class, the world treats Naresh like he thinks it should: families offer him meals, shopkeepers reserve a discount, complete strangers press his feet, and a policeperson accompanies his team from when their truck enters Delhi to when it recedes from the capital.

It’s the most conflict-prone leg of the Kanwariya’s journey: this is when Naresh and his friends come face to face with an urban middle class they only provide their services to otherwise. As Kanwariyas, though, their only loyalty is to each other and to “Bholenath” so the rest of the world can go to hell. The roads can remain jammed, the schools shut, and loudspeaker limits extended.

A group of Kanwariyas take a selfie in Hardwar - the pilgrimage is increasingly becoming a show of male bonding. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)
A group of Kanwariyas take a selfie in Hardwar - the pilgrimage is increasingly becoming a show of male bonding. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Halfway down the road from Haridwar, someone does finally find the hockey sticks. The one to discover them next to the stove is Vikram Majhoka, the youngest member of the team. Twenty-year-old Majhoka, a tall, muscular man with a big forehead and long hair, is also the most educated of the gang. He is currently enrolled in a professional institute in Gurgaon from where he will graduate in a year with a degree in computer applications.

He isn’t sure what he will do next. “I will sit for Haryana police exam maybe,” he says, panting. He has just covered about 25 km running with the Ganga jal. I wonder if the labour is for lord Shiva, but he doesn’t even see himself as religious. “Not really. My family does agarbatti-dhoop before the gods every Sunday. Sometimes I also stand around, that’s all.” I ask him why he is here at all. “To have a good time with friends. To have fun,” he says, sharing on Facebook a selfie he has just taken with me.

He would have got a real tattoo of Shiva on his arm for the trip if not for the fact that “some people have been rejected in the physical exam for Haryana police because of that.” He’s making do with a psychedelic tattoo sleeve. It’s his first Kanwar yatra and he tells me it’s been plenty fun so far. I ask him what he likes the most about it. He says it’s the dancing on the roof of the truck between the sprints. What about the part with the hockey sticks? “Oh that’s just to clear the traffic. If people are blocking the truck then you have to move them aside.” What if they are hurt in the process, I ask him as he swings a stick over his head. “No, no, we are not there to hurt anyone,” replies Omi Saini, who is now back on the deck after two rounds of running. “We are peaceful people.”

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    Snigdha Poonam is a national affairs writer for Hindustan Times. She has previously written for a wide range of Indian and international publications on Indian politics, society and culture.

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