Kanwar Yatra: Ganges travelling from Haridwar, on shoulders, with prayers

Woman carrying Ganges water in 2018 - NPKanwar The town of Haridwar is the focal point of the annual pilgrimage called Kanwar Yatra. Devotees from across north and central India travel to Haridwar. They collect water from the Ganges river at Haridwar mostly at the place called Har-ki-paidi. ‘Kanwar’ a locally fashioned device that balances two loads at two opposite ends of a bamboo stick. The purpose is to carry stuff at two ends of a stick which rests on the shoulder while a person is walking. ‘Yatra’ is Hindi (and Sanskrit) for ‘travel’.

(Image to the left: A woman carrying Ganges water, 2018, (c) Napatt Piyawongwatthana)

Descent Ganges is considered to be holy. The legend says that Ganges descended from heaven. The might of the descent could have been cushioned only by the flowing hair of Lord Shiva. Thus the name of the twin town of Haridwar called Rishikesh. Rishi means sage and kesh is hair. Soon after, Ganges cascades into Haridwar where the river starts its journey to the plains.

Shravan, the rainy-holy month The Shravan month of the Hindu calendar in the year 2017 is from 10th July to 7th August. From one full moon to the next. Being a lunar-solar calendar the dates of various festivals and months are slightly different every year.

This month is when the Monsoon rains get incessant in north India. This brings enormous relief to the plains and its flora and fauna. The month is considered auspicious by Hindus. Special prayers are offered to Lord Shiva.

Kanwariya A Kanwariya, the pilgrim who arrives in Haridwar, takes a dip, prays, Untitled - Copycollects water in Kanwar and begins his journey to his home-town on foot. He will not lay his Kanwar on ground till he arrives home. People create thousands of resting points on the way. Each place has an arrangement to hold Kanwar.

(Image to the right: A woman carrying Ganges water, 1827, (c) Frederic Shoberl)

Ten million Over ten million pilgrims participated in Kanwar Yatra in 2016. The pilgrims wear saffron / red coloured light clothes. While walking, they chant ‘Bham Bhole’. If a lay person comes in the way the Kanwariya will call out ‘Bhole’ for a man and ‘Bholi’ for a woman to claim right-of-way. Over the month the roads and paths in the vicinity of Haridwar reverberate with chants of Bham Bhole. The national highway is nearly blocked. Alternative ways are created for traffic.

Home coming On reaching his home-town, a Kanwariya will visit the local Shiv temple and take out his water, offer prayers and pour water over the Shiv-ling. This completes his journey. Or penance. Or wish. He might have made a wish while embarking on the Yatra.

Lately, one can see a few women also in the Kanwar Yatra.

Culture A whole new local industry has emerged oriented around Kanwar Yatra. An array of devotional songs by local singers is available on CDs. Locally dyed T-shirts with images of Shiv and associated stuff is the common apparel. Visual depictions (cards, posters, picture frames etc) of Lord Shiv and consort Parvati can be bought everywhere. A range of containers to carry water are available. Road-side tea-shops spring up in every nook and corner. It is common to see a Kanwariya dancing at these halts.

Contemporary In olden times, this pilgrimage was taken up only by a few holy men. Over the years, it has become quite popular. Earlier, a pilgrim will start his journey the day after the full moon’s night of the Shravan month. And return back by the next full moon’s night. Now one can see occasional open trucks. Some who are infirm or pressed for time make their whole journey, both ways, in open trucks. This is known as ‘Dak-Kanwar’. Neighbours from any community pool together money to arrange a truck. In these trucks, while traveling, they will attempt to maintain a posture. So, if a person is standing, he will continue doing so till he reaches back home.

Haridwar residents Faith-full who live in Haridwar do this actually everyday. A devotee at the numerous temples and shrines that dot the Ganges in Haridwar would pick up the Ganges water and pour it on Shiv-ling.

AZIMVTH Ashram Though Ganges flows just about a hundred metres from AZIMVTH Ashram, it is nice to walk a few kilometres to Har-ki-paidi and walk back to pour water at our own Shiv-ling.

Many photos of the Kanwar Pilgrimage of 2019 can be seen at this album on flickr.

Videos can be seen at the weblink here.

More information is at the following links within AZIMVTH website.

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