Why I dislike Kanwariyas
What's there not to like about Lord Shiva? He's human in his flaws and yet divine in his power and wisdom. He loves with a passion and fights with a vengeance. He isn't pretentious or 'holier than thou' like the other gods. He belongs to the original 'School of Cool'. And boy, can he party! Shiva has always been a popular figure especially among the youth, and it's only growing in recent times. Today, there are 'psy' parties, intricate tattoos, clothes, and all imagined paraphernalia, each designed on the Shiva theme and his way of life. Shiva has assumed a cult status in India; his appeal now is even more contemporary and modern.
I was first introduced to this God through my late father's daily devotion. Every single day, my dad would pray to Shiva and ask for guidance. Much later in life, I learnt that my dad was not just any devotee, he was a bona fide Shiva 'bhakt'. For over a decade, comprising mostly of his 30s, my dear father joined a retinue of 'kanwars' as they made their annual pilgrimage to fetch holy water from River Ganga and trudge back to their cities, towns and villages. 'Bhole baba paar karega' (Lord Shiva will see us through) on his lips. While the kanwariya movement is more popular in north India with lakhs of devotees culminating at Haridwar or right at Gangotri in Uttarakhand, West Bengal too has its slightly muted version. Shiva followers from the eastern state would converge at the Baba Taraknath Temple in Tarakeshwar dedicated to Lord Shiva. Tarakeshwar, a small town in the Hoogly district - around 60 kilometres from Kolkata - witnesses hectic activity during the month of Shravan.
My father's belief in religion in general and Shiva, in particular, was made of stellar stuff. He would often tell me that he was a God-fearing man. I would think that he'd propitiate the gods for prosperity in business. But the peace of mind that he begot in the process of leaving matters up to the Higher Power, is something that I, along with many of my generation, struggle with. In this complete surrender to the God's will, my father would unquestioningly walk barefoot for over 24 hours to complete his pilgrimage. And while I'm sure it involved some 'chillum'-smoking, my dead father would shudder at the rave that the pilgrimage has metamorphosed into today. He would also be sympathetic towards my complete abhorrence of the practice for I find it devoid of any real love or respect for Lord Shiva. The pilgrimage is simply a licence to maraud.
The kanwariyas now are a bunch of drunk, stoned, boisterous young men who are high on life and the recently acquired 'Hindu' power. They block highways, blast their crass music on cacophonous loudspeakers, ogle at women travellers, and throw life out of balance for a month every year. Two years ago, I was caught on the national highway in peak kanwariya season. The journey that should have taken us 6 hours, took double the time. We were simply stuck on the highway for hours having to ultimately resort to horrendous state highways in order to give the kanwariyas a pass. There was nothing spiritual or religious about the inebriated, loud entourages comprised of raw testosterone (of course, there were no women in their groups).
Last year, during yet another road trip at this fateful time of the year, at least there had been some preparations. State governments on the kanwar route in north India had cordoned off sections of the road to allow the kanwars to move at their own pace or simply camp on the road if they were tired. Though the speed of our journey was still compromised, traffic was still moving, and we thanked Shiva for it. This year though along with Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, the long hours of being stuck on the road have made a determined comeback.
The kanwars have a free hand to behave as they desire and get away with it in the name of religion. After all, most state governments are theirs as is the one at the Centre. Who dares touch them? Just last week, I noticed some of them standing in a line and urinating on the wall of the government-run Central Soil and Materials Research Station in the capital; smack on the campus' name etched in shiny black stone.
Unfortunately, the kanwariya movement has little to do with devotion now. If you want to see true piety, watch out for that old, scraggly, loner kanwar walking barefoot. He shuns large entourage and jukeboxes. The rest, with their remixed music, hyper religiosity and nationalism, are just out to have a good time. Religion be damned.
(The writer is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views are strictly personal.)