The Art in Kanwar – 1858 and 2017, Stanford University

“It is at this point of emergence from the hills that persons journeying from a great distance are anxious to fill their jars with water, that their homes may be hallowed by a portion of the sacred element. Rich and pious Hindoos, who inhabit the provinces remote from this spot, spend large sums of money in procuring it by means of messengers, who are employed specially for the purpose. The water-pots are oftentimes conveyed to their destination in a picturesque manner, being enclosed in a framework decorated with flowers and feathers, and slung upon bamboos resting on the shoulders of long files of men, who will convey it thus, without contamination, for several hundred miles. The bearers of the sacred fluid, although enjoying immunity from danger from all other enemies, are yet frequently waylaid and murdered by the Thugs…”

Montgomery 1858 This is an excerpt from the book titled “The Indian Empire Illustrated” by Robert Montgomery Martin and Emma Roberts published in the year 1858. The account is fascinating and the engravings are equally delightful.

The coffee-table books came into being only a century later.

The book has 472 pages and right on the second page, the sub-chapter is “The Ganges, Entering The Plains Near Hurdwar”. Let’s hear more from Montgomery…

“Emerging from the Keeree Pass, the road proceeds in the direction of Hurdwar (Hari-dwar, the Gate of Vishnu), near the point at which the sacred waters of the Ganges enter the plains of Hindoostan. The scenery around Hurdwar affords some of the most splendid landscapes which are to be found on the bright and beautiful river whose majestic course is diversified by so many interesting objects. The stands at the base of a steep mountain, on the verge of a slip of a land reclaimed from the forest, and surrounded on all sides by thick jungle…. The locality about Hurdwar has for ages been held in high veneration by the worshippers of Vishnu, and the town itself is one of the most frequented resorts of Hindoo pilgrims, who flock thither from all parts of India, to perform their devotions in the mystic stream at the moment of its emancipation from the untrodden recesses of the vast Himalaya, in whose profound solitudes the infant waters spring from their everlasting fount.

To behold the Ganges at the moment in which its faith-inspiring current bursts into freedom from its mountain boundary, and glides in one broad stream along the plain, is to the exhausted devotee who has endured weeks, perhaps months, of fatigue and privation consequent upon a painful and hazardous journey, an ample recompense for all his toil and suffering. He gazes enraptured on the holy river, and, gathering up his failing strength to the task, presses onward, but too happy to yield up life with the first plunge of his body in the hallowed wave. Guided by faith in the doctrine of his race, the worshippers of Bramah believe that a blessed immortality is secured to the person who shall thus end his earthly career; and, consequently, many who are wearied of life, or are anxious to enter scenes of purer enjoyment, will cheerfully commit suicide, or, if too weak to performthe act themselves, will prevail on their nearest friends to accelerate the progress of dissolution by leaving their bodies to float down the sacred stream, while their souls are absorbed in the Divine Essence.”

Following engravings begin on page 3 of the book.

1 Hurdwar, A Place of Hindoo Pilgrimage indianempirehist03martuoft_0025Image: “Hurdwar, A Place of Hindoo Pilgrimage.” Drawn by S Pront

2 Hurdwar, the Gate of Hari, or Vishnoo indianempirehist03martuoft_0031Image: “Hurdwar, the Gate of Hari, or Vishnoo”.

3 The Ganges Entering the Plains Near Hurdwar indianempirehist03martuoft_0022Image: “The Ganges Entering the Plains Near Hurdwar”. The Ganges is the principal river of India traversing the centre of the presidencies of Bengal and Agra. Between Hurdwar and Allahabad the river is from 1 to 1.5 miles broad, below it increases to as much as 3 miles in breadth and 30 feet in depth. Its total length is 1500 miles.

Cut to 2017, Stanford University 160 years later, in 2017 Stanford University Press has published a book of 258 pages and titled “Uprising of the Fools: Pilgrimage as Moral Protest in Contemporary India” by Vikash Singh. An excerpt is given below –

“Thus, for several weeks during the pilgrimage, the busy social landscape between Delhi and Hardwar is replaced by a vibrant community, a moving sea of enraptured pilgrims in ochre clothing, carrying kanwars with all manner of ornamentation.”

The word ‘fools’ is rather misleading. Lord Shiva is called by several names; the contemporary Shiv Puran, by Vyasa (10th century) lists 1000 of them. It is said initially there were 100000 names and Vyasa simplified them to a lesser number.  Vyasa also documented Mahabharata, of which Gita Bhagvad Gita) is a part. Most oaths in India are taken on Gita and in this respect it is comparable to the Western Bible.

The name Bhola is actually colloquial. It’s a name adoringly used by the disciples and others. Bhola means a simple person. It is said that of all the deities, it is Lord Shiva, the superior amongst all in the Hindu pantheon, who is easiest to please. Shiv Puran has an interesting account of a bahelia, a bird-hunter (kind of food gatherer by occupation) who unwittingly makes a sequence of prayers to Lord Shiva and the he is blessed directly by the Lord.

The word fool has clear negative connotations.

In the modern age, every project is an even larger team-work. Often, one can find the same news item, dispensed by even standard news agencies like Reuters, published in different news-papers and media outlets with entirely different headings. The headline editor is different than the news editor and both of them independently build upon / edit a news-item / story filed by a correspondent.

Incidentally, Vyasa is said to have lived on the banks of Ganges in Haridwar. His birthday is celebrated as Guru Purnima. In 2017, the day falls on 10 July. On this day, one can think of and pray to / for anybody from whom he might have derived a lesson. Buddhists celebrate the day as Lord Buddha gave his first sermon on this day in Sarnath, 800 km downstream Haridwar.

Despite the title, the book is quite an objective essay. Its an ethnography study which can also be read as a travelogue.

Following is a description of the book –

“The Kanwar is India’s largest annual religious pilgrimage. Millions of participants gather sacred water from the Ganga and carry it across hundreds of miles to dispense as offerings in Śiva shrines. These devotees—called bhola, gullible or fools, and seen as miscreants by many Indians—are mostly young, destitute men, who have been left behind in the globalizing economy. But for these young men, the ordeal of the pilgrimage is no foolish pursuit, but a means to master their anxieties and attest their good faith in unfavorable social conditions.

Vikash Singh walked with the pilgrims of the Kanwar procession, and with this book, he highlights how the procession offers a social space where participants can prove their talents, resolve, and moral worth.  … Uprising of the Fools shows how religion today is not a retreat into tradition, but an alternative forum for recognition and resistance within a rampant global neoliberalism.”

The Kanwar is governed by many, though often variable, injunctions: for example, when shifting between shoulders, the kānwaṛ may be moved only around the back; the water pots should never hang below the waist; one should not pass under the cluster fig tree; it is imperative to take a bath after using the toilet; neither the pilgrim nor his family is to abuse or hit any living beings during the pilgrimage; family members at home are not to eat fried or spicy food during the pilgrimage; the pilgrim should not enter home (domestic life) before the ritual is completed, that is, until the libations at the Śivalinga have been performed. Pilgrims generally go in groups, usually with a leader to ensure that pilgrimage rules are adhered to, since a breach would violate the kānwaṛ’s integrity, destroying the merit of the act.

Cover_of_indian_empire_illustraded indianempirehist03martuoft_0015Image: Inside Cover of the book ‘The Indian Empire Illustraded”.

1427016673Image: Cover of the book ‘Uprising of the Fools’

1 Ganges Pilgrims Passing a Ghaut from The Illustraded London News 1864

Image: “Ganges Pilgrims Passing a Ghaut”. The Illustrated London News 1864

In 2017, Kanwar Pilgrimage starts on 10th July.

365 Haridwar, the International Artist Residency at AZIMVTH Ashram, Haridwar offers a month long residency titled “A River on Shoulders: Kanwar Pilgrimage”. More information is available here.