NEW DELHI – India’s Gangetic plains were once again recently flooded with hordes of saffron-garbed pilgrims known as “kanwariyas,” chanting the mantra “Bol Bam” and often high on marijuana, who spared no efforts to please the revered god Shiva on the auspicious Hindu month of Shravan during the peak monsoon season of July-August.
Every year, millions of devotees of Shiva (one of the most powerful deities in Hinduism) undertake the Kanwar Yatra pilgrimage, which involves visiting places such as Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand (north) and Sultanganj in Bihar (east) to collect the sacred waters of the Ganges.
The holy water is usually carried in light wooden poles with two water pitchers hanging at the ends, known as “kanwars” – which give the pilgrimage its name – to specific Shiva temples or those in the pilgrims’ hometowns.
It is a journey ranging between 100-400 kilometers (62-249 miles), usually made on foot and lasting several days.
“From my experience, I have noticed that if you don’t chant ‘Bol Bam’ you can’t progress. The words give you strength to advance, as if someone begins to push you forward. And everyone wears a saffron garment,” Sujata Mukherjee, a resident of Bhagalpur district – to which Sultanganj belongs –, told EFE after her recently concluded journey.
During the journey, the pilgrims, traveling in groups, may not put the pitcher containing the Ganges water on the ground, but place it on special stands or hand it over to their companions.
“We are going to Dwarka in Delhi. There are 15 of us,” a man in his 20s who identified himself as Rahul, told an EFE-epa journalist after collecting water from the Ganges in Haridwar.
“Some of us are working professionals, many of us are students. We make a group and come with kanwars. I’ve been coming with a kanwar since the age of 13,” he added.
Another group on the outskirts of Delhi said they walked 30-35 km a day and that it took them one week to return with the holy water from Haridwar.
Kanwar Yatra is related to a story from the ancient Hindu scriptures, in which churning of the ocean by the gods and demons together produced several astounding things, including a huge amount of poison and a potion granting immortality to those who drank it.
Legend has it that Shiva drank the poison to save everyone else and started suffering from its toxic effects but water from the Ganges helped ease the burning sensation in his throat.
Hence, devotees seek Shiva’s blessings by offering Ganges water at his shrine, especially during the month of Shravan.
“This was my second time after 2009. I had heard that this journey pleases ‘Bhole baba’ (another name for Shiva). It took us five days to take water from Sultanganj to the Baidyanath shrine in Deoghar (in neighboring Jharkhand state),” said Mukherjee, a middle-aged housewife.
“I first made the journey in 2009 to pray for the health of my husband, who was having bleeding problems after an operation. By the grace of the Almighty, he’s been fine since then,” she added, underlining the significance of the journey.
Besides Ganges water, Shiva is also believed to be pleased with offerings of marijuana, and roads across the northern plains witness an overwhelming number of intoxicated pilgrims who consume the drug considering it to be bestowed with the god’s blessings.
Mithilesh Kumar Singh, a student in his 20s, told EFE that while there was significant consumption of bhang, an edible cannabis preparation available in the Indian subcontinent, it was usually more prevalent among groups of young people traveling together rather than families making the pilgrimage.
Law enforcement authorities usually look the other way and even make exceptions and special provisions for pilgrims during this period as dope and alcohol freely change hands, while the traffic situation becomes a nightmare for ordinary travelers.
For instance, this year, educational institutions in Ghaziabad and Meerut, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, were ordered shut by the district administration during the peak Kanwar period to ensure the safety of children and maintain law and order.
Similarly, authorities in Noida and Greater Noida, which are a part of the National Capital Region, exempted Kanwar pilgrims from the “No Helmet, No Fuel” policy that prohibits two-wheeler riders without helmets from getting fuel at gas stations.
In a country that is exceedingly touchy on the matter of offending religious sentiment, many sections take advantage of this situation to engage in boisterous festivities as well as anti-social activities while shielded from the reach of the law.
“Revelers use it as an excuse to get intoxicated instead of praying and devotional activities. They even consume alcohol. Antisocial elements also come in the guise of pilgrims to steal from pilgrims,” Mukherjee reflected.