Amar Pal, 52, a farmer in Uttar Pradesh’s Shahjahanpur, has been for over three decades accompanying Kanwariyas from his village to Budaun to fetch water from the Ganga in the Hindu month of Shravan, covering over 150 kilometres on foot.
“To walk such a distance is very difficult but it feels like we have achieved something in life by undertaking this journey for our Lord,” says Pal while talking about the motivation behind undertaking the yatra.
Over the years, the number of Shiva devotees undertaking the yatra to pilgrim centres on the banks of the river has swelled. This year, the yatra began on July 14 and will continue till July 26.
The entire law and order machinery is on alert to ensure its smooth execution.
For devotees like Pal, the authorities have diverted traffic, banned the sale of meat on their routes, set up camps for their halting besides providing medical kits and clean toilets
Pal says two groups of around 50 men each left his village on Friday for Budaun. They will return by Monday and offer the Ganga water to Lord Shiva at a village temple.
Two tractor-trailers carrying food items, first-aid kits, mattresses to lay down and a music system also accompany the devotees, he adds.
People who have been associated with the yatra for years say till the late 1980s, only a few thousand devotees undertook it.
“Nowadays, it has turned into an outing on which most of the village youth go,” says Dinesh Trivedi, a retired UP Police official.
Shambhu Nath Singh (75), a former village head in Moradabad, told PTI, “Earlier, only one or two people from the village used to go. The entire village used to give them some money for their journey. But for the past a few years, someone or the other from almost every house is going for it.”
The support shown by the Uttar Pradesh government has added to its popularity, Singh says. After Yogi Adityanath came power, the authorities showered flower petals on pilgrims from helicopters in 2018.
Mohammed Usam Khan, a meat trader in Budaun, however, says they keep their shops shut on the yatra days but still miscreants attacked their shops.
“We do this as a sign of respect for our Hindu brothers, yet on several occasions, some miscreants attacked our shops,” he says.
In July 2017, violence had broken out when some Kanwariyas were passing through a Muslim-dominated area in Bareilly. The then District Magistrate Raghvendra Vikram Singh criticised the incident, saying, “It has become a trend to enter Muslim localities and raise anti-Pakistan slogans to flare tensions.”
In 2018, a three-judge bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra criticised the vandalism during the yatra in Delhi and other parts of western UP.
This year too, major traffic diversions have been put in places in close to 30 districts of Uttar Pradesh.
Baljeet Singh, a Bareilly businessman, says, “The traffic movement is hit due to the yatra, especially around Mondays when Kanwariyas returns from the Ganga banks.”
“The administration puts up barricades but they jump over them and start walking on roads designated for vehicular movement,” he adds.Crowd management in Uttarakhand’s Haridwar, a major temple town on the banks of the Ganga, is a big challenge. The administration has deployed over 10,000 security personnel and ensured surveillance through CCTV cameras and drones as around four crore Kanwariyas were expected to reach there.
“Though rooted in faith, the 15 days of Kanwar Yatra are a source of trouble for locals. It is like a punishment for women who are subjected to harassment by Kanwariyas. They are afraid of venturing out and even avoid going to office,” says Kavita Panjwani, a Haridwar-based insurance agent.
Nevertheless, the town prepares itself to bear all trouble associated with the yatra as its economy thrives on pilgrimage.
“With a much-scaled down Char Dham Yatra for the past two years and no Kanwar Yatra during the period, traders were facing a livelihood crisis. This year has come as a much-awaited relief to them as both yatras are in full swing with an unprecedented rush of devotees,” state leader of Vyapar Mandal Om Prakash Jamdagni says.
However, industrialists have a different take.
“The Kanwar yatra has always been detrimental to the local industries. Road and freight transport are all disrupted during the fortnight, which leads to the closure of industrial units. On an average, they suffer losses worth Rs 150 crore during the period,” SIDCUL Manufacturers Association president Harendra Garg says.
There are various legends associated with the starting of the yatra, says Jyotishacharya Prateek Mishrapuri in Haridwar.
“According to one legend, Parashuram began the tradition when he collected Ganga jal in Garhmukteshwar and walked up to the Pura Mahadev temple near Baghpat to perform a jalabhishek of Shiva there,” he says.
As per another legend, Lord Ram was the first Kanwariya to collect the Ganga water in Sultanganj and march on foot to Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar to make an offering to Shiva, he adds.
Senior journalist and a teerth purohit of Haridwar, Kaushal Sikhola, says the number of pilgrims began to rise after the Ram temple movement.
“When the Ram Mandir movement gained momentum in 1990 and the disputed structure in Ayodhya was demolished, it generated a kind of religious awakening and the crowd of Shiva devotees coming to the town kept swelling after that,” Sikhola add