Wednesday, March 24, 2010


I had mentioned the Kanwad mela fleetingly earlier, and had promised you a fuller write-up. It took me a year and another mela, but here we are.

The event:
Every year in the month of Shravan(jul-Aug) and during Shivratri (in Feb)*, millions of people come to the Ganga to carry water back to the temples in their towns. This water is used to anoint Shiva, who presumably would otherwise feel neglected by Ganga. The name for the Mela comes from the bamboo yokes that people use to carry the water in. The pilgrims are called Kanwadiya while their Kanwads (kanvad, kaanvad) are carried on their shoulders. Both can be seen in the picture below.

The Rules: Traditionally people walk to and from their villages, either fasting or living on an austere diet of fruit and milk. The Kanwad with its precious load is not supposed to be set down on the ground, and so teams take shifts, or rest propped up against trees and posts. Haridwar is the most popular place to carry water from, but we also saw a great many pilgrims at 'lesser' ghats like Soron and Bithoor.

The Loopholes: where there are humans, there must be loopholes, no? and so now many kanwadiyas travel by cycles, motorcycles or in vans. Judging from the vast arrays of sticky fried foods at Bithoor, kanwadiyas now no longer restrict themselves too much- though no meat still is important. There are other changes too, largely to do with the focus of the mela and is dealt with here .

The Good: The mela is a good way to bring the river into focus, when it is usually sidelined by temples and assorted gods. Repeat visits to the river help create awareness of the threats to it. Some of the most aware respondents we met were kanwadiyas. Once a male-only event, increasing numbers of women are participating in it.

The Bad: The mela is being usurped by youth groups looking for a good time in the name of religion. These groups largely come in the vans, a phenomenon known as 'Dak Kanwad' - the postal kanwad, a reference to the speed at which they travel. Flush with the arrogance of surging hormones and the holier-than-thou attitude of pilgrims, they essentially go on a rampage. Rash driving, 'shopping' without paying for goods, traveling ticketless and beating up people are the norm, and there is very little the police can do, assuming they are willing to 'interfere in religious matters'.

The Ugly: Pollution. Look at the picture below.

The Beautiful: I didn’t want to end on a negative note, and anyway I wanted to share these things with you.
These are the bottles in which the Kanwadiyas carry water home. Beautiful, fragile, hand-blown, multicoloured bottles at Re 1/- each. I bought 5 and carried them home scarcely daring to breathe on them.

The kanwads themselves. These are lavishly (and to be honest, garishly) decorated by the pilgrims with ribbons, braid, sequins, plastic peacocks (!) and foam rabbits (!!). There is something sweet in watching these tough men debating the virtues of a pink bunny over a yellow one. There is regional variation in the decoration, and the one below is at Bithoor. For a view of the bunnies in vogue at Soron, look at the second photo in this post.
For a lot of the pilgrims, this was a way of reconnecting with their soil and their friends. One of the people I spoke with worked in a mill in Surat. Every couple of years, he and a friend took enough leave to walk remembered paths together and perform a small service for their village deity.

* Thank you very much, Kavita, for pointing this out.


Kavita said...

Superb write up and pictures.. specially the last one.. puts the tradition in perspective.. i remember travelling on the Dehradun-Delhi highway even as late as fifteen years ago one would spot a lone barefoot pilgrim or two carrying a kanwad every twenty miles or so.. a very personal mission..

Anonymous said...

ps - minor detail: Shravan or sawan corresponds to July-August..your earlier post was also in July..