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Kanika Datta: Kanwariyas & their rampant religiosity

Kanika Datta 

Kanika Datta

The Hindu month of Shravan has become a period of penance for residents and commuters of the National Capital Region (NCR) regardless of their religion. Straddling July and August, this period coincides with heavy rain of the high monsoon. Dealing with the inevitable traffic chaos as signals stop working and NCR turns into a Lake District of less than scenic beauty is just one part of the struggles. Lately, a new menace has emerged in the form of the lumpen religiosity of the kanwariyas, so-called devotees of Shiva, purveying water from the Ganga to various temples.

With interestingly decorated bamboo poles hung with pots of holy water and slung across their shoulders, toiling kanwariyas were one of many annual sights that add to the charms of India's perpetually animated public life. Over the past decade, though, their number has expanded in direct proportion to the rise of political Hinduism, so much so that the authorities started blocking an entire stretch of the National Highway to Hardwar to accommodate them. Kanwariya pilgrimages are no longer limited to some designated temples either - pretty much any Shiva temple anywhere in the region has become an acceptable destination. Which is how kanwariyas have come to throng the arteries of outer Delhi and National Highway 8, a vital link to Gurgaon, Manesar and Jaipur in July-August.

Far from representing the flexible, philosophical and innately pacific appeal of Hinduism, the behaviour of a large number of these kanwariyas highlight the more unprepossessing elements of unlettered faith. It is, in fact, becoming increasingly difficult to detect much piety or devotion in the disruptive behaviour of the men - and 99.9 per cent of them are male - who venture on these pilgrimages. The similarities with European football hooligans are disturbing.

To be sure, there are many genuine devotees to undertake the hard slog of walking with their heavy pots of Ganga water all the way to their destinations. If we discount the ear-splitting music and litter at wayside rest stops, they rarely disturb the peace. The real problem is the mobs who pile into trucks and motorcycles (with their silencers removed) to undertake a relay pilgrimage, a uniquely Indian innovation like the relay fast. This means a couple of men from each transport walk a certain (fairly short) distance with a pot of holy water before handing over to others. It also means that the motorcycles and lorries - fitted with giant speakers belting out what should be hymns but sound suspiciously like item numbers and crammed with hollering men - have to cruise alongside these "pilgrims".

Thus, hundreds of vehicles process down the roads in uncoordinated stop-start rhythms, drivers decline to stay in the lane designated for them or travel with impunity down the wrong side of the road. Traffic doesn't slow, it simply stalls for hours, trapping commuters into what blues-rocker John Mayall once described as our "prisons on the road".

Traffic jams are an irritant that NCR residents have learnt to live with. But the kanwariyas add a threatening element to the mix. Many have the glazed look of people on substance-induced highs and, like gang leaders in an anti-social mohalla, they stride about armed with sticks and missiles with which they randomly attack passing cars. Not surprisingly, women drivers are particular targets; the worst qualities of the Indian alpha male are very much on display. In the notable absence of enforcement authorities it is impossible, and indeed unwise, to challenge them in such hemmed-in spaces. The kanwariyas are a law and order threat that is one clash away from becoming a riot.

This simmering volatility is inevitable in a situation where such disorderly, entitled religiosity intersects with the practical concerns of city dwellers trying to get from point A to point B on time. But it begs the question of why civic authorities do not manage this annual event more pro-actively. Simply designating lanes for kanwariya traffic without any form of policing is meaningless. One easy solution, for instance, is to limit this traffic to off-peak hours. Even the Army and para-military services would prove a useful resource for stretched local civic bodies.

Increasingly, however, the tenor of the political discourse has ensured that the secular business of law enforcement is considered incompatible with the growing demonstrations of unfettered public devotion, whether it is the Char Dham Yatras, Muharram processions, or the kanwariyas. The annual Amarnath Yatra and the giant Kumbh Mela conclusively show that this need not be the case. The Kumbh, held every three years, attracts numbers from around the world that are several orders of magnitude more than the kanwariya pilgrimages. Yet it remains a wonderland of law and order and civic infrastructure of the kind that most Indians rarely experience in their daily lives. The Kumbh effortlessly represents the virtuous confluence between the sacred and the temporal. That's a lesson the NCR's civic authorities urgently need to imbibe before next Shravan.

First Published: Fri, August 14 2015. 22:44 IST