Right, folks.

I am about to appeal for information and for some explanations.

Earlier this morning, driving back from my run, I was caught up in crazy traffic scenes, courtesy kanwariyas.

For the benefit of non-Indian readers, let me give you a quick low-down on kanwariyas – with a request to my local readers that if I am incorrect, please, please correct me.

As far as I understand it, kanwariyas are followers of Shiva, and for a few weeks a year, usually July-August, they make a pilgrimage from Gaumukh or Haridwar, up in the Himalayas, back to their homes, carrying vessels of holy water from the sacred river Ganga.

So far so good.

Not that it really matters, but for the record I am a Roman Catholic, so totally get the notion of holy water.  We always had a holy water font in our house, and as children leaving for school, we’d dip our fingers in it and make the sign of the cross.

All that to say that I fully understand the notion of holy water.

Ditto the notion of carrying holy water from a sacred place to your home.

I have Lourdes water here in Delhi that a lovely Indian friend brought for me from France.

I carried water back from Lake Mansarovar for Indian friends…you get the picture?

So, these pilgrims walk hundreds of kilometres, usually barefoot, carrying their holy water on a device called a “kanwar” which is a bit like a yoke, and usually has a pot of holy water at each end.

Apparently the kanwar is never supposed to touch the ground, so at regular stopping places there are stands, where they can be propped up while the pilgrims rest.

I remember, just a few years ago, that there were stands near the huge Shiv Murti on the road to Gurgaon, and water and food was available.

But of late, and this year especially, the whole thing seems to have got blown out of proportion and, by extension, out of hand.  There is now loud Bollywood style music blaring from these stopping places.  Not religious music.  Bollywood.  I was running in the forest in Naraina with the dogs at 6.15 and the music was blaring from a nearby village.  Ear-splitting.  Presumably it had gone on all night.

This morning, driving, I came across an extraordinary scene.

On the Ring Road, outside the Hyatt Hotel, in crazy morning rush hour traffic, a gaggle of men, shirts off, were standing in the middle of the road, flailing their arms around, imagining (I suppose) that they were directing traffic, as a truck slowly drove behind them, ear-shattering music pumping from it.  On board, lots of young men all wearing blue T shirts proclaiming “Basant Gaon Delhi” (Vasant village).  Then came a posse of young men on motorbikes, some in blue T shirts, some shirtless, weaving in and out of the traffic, flapping their arms, presumably to tell everyone to move out of their way.

So.

What’s the deal here?

These rowdy men were clearly not pilgrims, because they were racing around on motorbikes.  Aren’t pilgrims supposed to be on foot? So who are they?  Why the loud music?

I’m all for a bit of religious pageantry.

I’m totally onboard with the notion of pilgrimages – have one on my bucket list, as it so happens.

But when does someone’s notion of devotion become a traffic hazard, and a noisy, selfish display?

And, last but not least – where are the cops when all this tamasha is taking place?  Ne’er a cop in sight when you want one.  Like when a truck and the attendant motorbikes jump a red light…

PS: the heavy breathing during those clips is courtesy of my Golden Retriever, Yoko.  In case you were wondering.

51 Comments

  1. Sasha Karma Yangchen

    Christine ur post makes me say only one thing…
    ”Baat niklegi to door talak jaaegi”. ??
    Sadly it’s about every damn thing these days….remind me of this line I spoke….
    It’s only the act/event we keep being judgemental about all the time n ranting to the point of verbal violence….cause/events hv a long history to trace back on whys n hows… which we hv no time n energy to bother about….

  2. Ruby Toor

    Kudos for another well written article supported with accurate details. I feel a little embarrassed but honestly you’re more of an ‘Indian’ than most of us! Frankly telling you I didn’t know so much about kanwariyas. But then, I totally find the whole thing a sham as I’m an atheist……a sip of holy water from the Ganges or Lourdes can never alleviate us of our sins.

  3. ashish sachdeva

    thanks for highlighting this.. what more can you expect from these politicians, its them who are providing the funding for bhandara’s, hoardings and yes whole police is deployed in all this.. they are just misusing the religious sentiments and youth future. In last 5 years Kanwar thing has become so bigger from where it can not turn back.. instead of directing traffic and other things cities like meerut is totally shut due to this including schools and many hospitals too at modi nagar.

    1. christine

      Ashish, I just read an article today about schools having to close because of these kanwariyas. Madness. At least things are not that bad here in Delhi, but it’s still unbelievable.

  4. Christine I know this is a sensitive issue but I think I’m gonna stick my neck out on this one. The problem is not about Kavaad or any of such ritual…if we see it in a wider perspective it is a case of subverted society which would do anything to prove or at least express their superiority. Large part of this has to be blamed on political patronisation, and if you may realise it prevails across all sects and religions. At the time of holi if we go out playing on the road causing inconvenience to those who do not wish to participate we feel they are wrong…each Friday in various part of city you would find namaaz being held on the roads without giving a damn about anyone…I can name many more processions across the spectrum which are pushed beyond the dignity of civil society only to show “if you can so can I”…I think till the time as a society we take the onus on ourselves not much would change anytime soon…

    1. like me, tarun gave a centrist view. so let us not brow beat just one religion because it doesnot issue a fatwa. rules need to be applied equally. religion belongs in the bedroom and you got to either put it back there or criticise all equally.

    2. Vinay the only point I may differ with you is that these issues are not religious at all.. That’s just an alibi.. I respect each religion and no religion would prophecies such practice.. If anything I believe these are social flaws which needs to dealt at individual level..

    3. Tarun – you are bang on with the civic sense thing. But in today’s world where everything goes up on display / for show off including posts on FB, why would anyone play it down. And if we want India secular then we will have to live with the cacophony that an Id, Ganesh utsav, or a Kawariya procession brings. That’s the beauty of India

      1. Vinay Nagyal

        Tarun Walecha chill. i too WILL leave it at this. we dont need to be told what civic sense is – we are talking about a solution to control those people on the street. we are not kids giving a politically correct answer to a teacher; we are responsible citizens discussing how to resolve a problem. religious processions are mob events and there will always be that at least one odd element who will create a nuisance. so “civic sense”, how much so ever we demand, will remain subjective for many people and is unlikely to be an immediate solution. best to ask people to keep religion in their homes, or make the administration responsible for ensuring civic rules if we accept it outside. politics is dirty, so let us not get sensitive or judgemental when we are participating in an open discussion. ??

  5. I have simple principles & logics in life, and I try to follow them as much as I can. I try that my Personal acts and belief do not have a negative impact on others life, and should not disturb their routine. And that’s how it should be.

    1. Some ofthese ganpati pandals in mumbai have all cheap bollywood music playing, there is nothing religious in that. And same with most kawariyas..Very few following in the way they should. It is not just a religious journey in fact it is a penance if done in a right way..

  6. When a marathon is not silent which lasts 21 or 42 kms…….blaring music, dancing and shouting runners friends and family, why expect this to be a silent procession.
    All roads are cordoned off for these events……Some people always complain ……That’s fine

    1. Christine Pemberton that’s true.
      But not all kawads are aggressive. I went cycling last Sunday almost till Rajasthan and saw these kawads as really disciplined lot. They were carrying their load in the lanes marked for them. The govt of that state did a commendable job segregating their walk. I’ve yet to see that in Delhi.

  7. Christine People on bike doing relay are called DAANK KAAVAD they dont stop in entire journey and complete their journey as a team by doing relay run. All said and done these ppl have hockey baseball and weapons which is wrong. A silent possession is required and some serious piligrims are away from m all this and doing their bit silently without show off.

    1. I am with you on this, Masood. Vinay, I don’t think my nationality has anything to do with my faith. I don’t feel the need to wave the Union Jack when I go to church. I fear that the weaving of nationalism into religion will lead to this whole “anti national” rhetoric. But I know I’m in a minority in this regard…but Vinay, never stop the comments coming! Always so well articulated & appreciated

  8. It is the ‘legit’ vacation for ‘rejuvenation’ with ’em weed!

    5 days to do whatever shit you want to; causing traffic jams, eve teasing, smoking up, basically being moronic low lives.

    Yes, there are some devotees who are carrying forward the tradition. However, one : they are decreasing every years, two: they have started using alternative routes to avoid the above stated chaos and three, they usually finish their journey before such types take to streets.

    Most of these people are rowdy, disruptive, and also so very abusive. I have had countless run-ins with these groups where not only am I being told to ‘get out of the way or we’ll run you over’ but also had been called names for being a woman.
    Yes, all in the name of GOD!

  9. I think that today’s noise and violent displays were too much, even for our indecent and opportunistic political leaders. It is quiet this evening, and I am hoping it will remain so. It has been an extremely awful week of noise and mayhem.

  10. the kawarhiya “tamasha” has indeed gone viral over the past decade or so. and like the rural newly-marrieds whose honeymoon basically consists of a few days of temple/masjid visits, the annual vacation of a lot of rural youth from haryana-rajasthan-UP consists of this kawarhiya trip. due to lot of traffic incidents in the past, the administrations /local religious bodies are nowadays coordinating the movement through big towns/cities – there is a lot of scope for improvement of course. certain facts – 1. an increase in groups doing the trip is noticeable since about a decade, not since the current govt came into power. 2. it is linked to more opportunities, time and money available to do such activities (like city youth doing marathons, treks, bike rides nowadays) . 3. it is more noticeable since it happens on the roads eg interruption of rail movement due to Id / Friday prayers being done on tracks in delhi is not so visible. 4. indian religious mobs are always boisterous and rude in india, this includes late night motorcycle stunts by hordes of muslim youth in delhi too – stabbings / clashes with cops were a norm till as late as 2014……….. notwithstanding the above, all religions are basically spirituality mixed with politics, and what is partially on display is the “political” component. the administration needs to be more organised, and us city folks, more accepting – a few of these groups are rude, but to call them goons may not be correct. Personally, it is the lewd bollywood item songs that are re-appropriated as loud bhajans i find irritating.

    1. And the Tazia processions on moharram!!!! Total stop to everything.
      And walking from Haridwar to Delhi is no mean feat……carry a load……The loud music is only to cheer them up
      Like when we run with music…..it helps in not giving up. And please religion has entered politics all over the world. Let’s not be ostriches

  11. vinay nagyal

    the kawarhiya “tamasha” has indeed gone viral over the past decade or so. and like the rural newly-marrieds whose honeymoon basically consists of a few days of temple/masjid visits, the annual vacation of a lot of rural youth from haryana-rajasthan-UP consists of this kawarhiya trip. due to lot of traffic incidents in the past, the administrations /local religious bodies are nowadays coordinating the movement through big towns/cities – there is a lot of scope for improvement of course. certain facts – 1. an increase in groups doing the trip is noticeable since about a decade. 2. it is linked to more opportunities, time and money available to do such activities (like city youth doing marathons, treks, bike rides nowadays) . 3. it is more noticeable since it happens on the roads eg interruption of rail movement due to Id / Friday prayers being done on tracks in delhi is not so visible. 4. indian religious mobs are always boisterous and rude in india, this includes late night motorcycle stunts by hordes of muslim youth in delhi too – stabbings / clashes with cops were a norm till as late as 2014. notwithstanding the above, all religions are basically spirituality mixed with politics, and what is partially on display is the “political” component. the administration needs to be more organised, and us city folks, more accepting – a few of these groups are rude, but to call them goons may not be correct. Personally, it is the lewd bollywood item songs that are re-appropriated as loud bhajans i found irritating.

  12. For most of the folks, it’s like fully sponsored / paid vacation and an opportunity for their idle minds to keep busy. Surely, these goons doesn’t have knowledge about Genesis / history of Lord Shiva. Clearly disrespectful attitude.

  13. Navi Singh

    These people get undercover Govt support,, The Police turns a blind eye , obviously cause of some kind high command diktat.

    It’s a sad story of gondaism in the garb of religion.
    It’s very much like the vigalante groups lately.
    They have a free run creating havoc in the society.
    Anything is possible under garb of religion.

  14. Oh its a complete non sense. Its anything but religious, the govt allows it because they are their vote bank. One of these motorcyclists bumped into our cyclist today morning and he fell off from his bike with a summersalt (hopefully he is fine now). I was going at my pace when one of the kanwaris told me that “mind your way and ride on the pavement, one of your cyclist friend got hurt and you could be next, the Kawar Yatra never stops for anybody”.

  15. Rajat Dua

    Its anything but religious, the govt allows it because they are their vote bank. One of these motorcyclists bumped into our cyclist today morning and he fell off from his bike with a summersalt (hopefully he is fine now). I was going at my pace when one of the kanwaris told me that “mind your way and ride on the pavement, one of your cyclist friend got hurt and you could be next, the Kawar Yatra never stops for anybody”.

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