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Festivals

Kanvar Mela - Adventure Holiday In Indian Style
By Maria Wirth, June 2014 [Mariawirth12@gmail.com]

Chapter :

All  over India, an interesting phenomenon can be observed. On one hand,  materialism is on the rise, and on the other hand, spirituality is  also on the rise. Even difficult poojas, like the Chat Pooja, and  arduous pilgrimages, like the Kanvar Mela, attract huge crowds, most  of them young. It shows that in spite of modern life style and  western influence, the ancient bond to the spiritual dimension is  strong. The majority of Indians still feel connected with the  invisible power behind the visible forms and to the Gods who  represent this unimaginable truth.

On  July 13th, the first day of Shravan month, the Kanvar Mela will start  again. Two years ago I mingled with the Kanvarias in Haridwar. I post  here, what I had written then. It is still valid:

Sitting  in Dehradun, I could have got the impression that the Kanvar Mela is  mainly about traffic jams, and about young rowdies who want to race  on motorcycles through Dehradun and up to Mussoorie, if the police  would let them. Most of my ‘secular’ friends consider the  Kanvarias as a big nuisance and heave a sigh of relief when it is  over.

As  over one crore Kanvarias come to take Ganges water from Haridwar  during the first fortnight of Shravan, there are bound to be some  trouble makers, as well. Yet from my own experience, the overwhelming  majority are amazingly good natured and cheerful, though they are  actually the ones who have a hard time. The people of Haridwar of  course also have to put up with great inconvenience, especially  towards the end of the mela, when those who walk the whole distance  back home on foot have left the city and when it is the turn of  trucks, motorcycles and loud music. Around 50 000 vehicles entered  the city on each of the last 3 days of the Mela.

The  number of Kanvarias has exploded over the recent years. In 2012 more  than 12 million pilgrims came. The huge crowds everywhere take a  toll. All the more, the genuine friendliness of the Kanvarias and the  tolerance of the Hardwar residents stand out.

I  went to Haridwar during the early days of the Mela and coming in by  train overlooking some city roads was a spectacular picture. As my  sister called just then from Germany, I gave her a running commentary  of the milling crowds, dressed in orange, and mainly young men. I am  sure she could not have pictured it. We simply don’t have an  equivalent in the west.

Maybe  that is the reason why I appreciate and enjoy the atmosphere and my  western oriented Indian friends don’t. They seem to be irritated  and embarrassed by such display of religious fervour. Maybe they feel  that it shows India in poor light. They don’t realise that this  living spirituality makes India special in the international  community. The western attitude of ignoring and even denying the  invisible power behind the visible has made our lives empty and  barren. Natural joy, cheerfulness and a solid grounding in human  values are lacking without being connected to the spiritual  dimension. No surprise that mental depression is so rampant in  western societies.

In  the west, we try hard to enjoy ourselves and to have a ‘good time’  on holidays. There are many options, like going out for meals,  walking around street festivals, going for sunbathing to a lake in  summer or into the mountains for trekking, and of course not to  forget, the one thing many people live for – the yearly vacation in  some far away dream country. And indeed, we might have a good time,  provided nothing gets on our nerves. At the same time, a sense of  futility creeps in. Back from a holiday, everyone is likely to say  how wonderful it was. But for many, it turns wonderful only in  retrospective, while boasting before friends.

In  India, celebration and enjoyment are ingrained in the culture and  mostly connected with the Divine. Almost all festivals have a  religious nature. A beer festival like the Munich Oktoberfest is  simply out of place. And an ‘egg throwing competition’, as was  held recently in some western country, and competitions about who can  eat or drink most in the shortest time span that happen regularly  there, leave a bad taste in India.

In  India, divine power and sacredness are still taken for real and the  tradition of doing tapas is still alive. The Kanvar Mela is all in  one: enjoyment, bonding with family and friends, adventure, trekking,  devotion and rather severe tapas, i.e. sacrificing one’s own  personal comfort as an offering to the divine. There is a sense of  purpose. In the back of the mind, there is the link with Shiva. “Bum  Bum Bhole” and “Jay Shiv Shankar” reverberate. There is still  the acknowledgment, if not a sense of wonder and genuine devotion,  regarding the invisible power behind the visible forms.

This  attitude makes Indians cultured, even if they come from a very poor  background. They have certain guidelines they stick to, and being  good natured and accommodating towards others is one of them. This is  not so in the west. Egoism is the main guideline there. I remember a  discussion in psychology class. “Is it good to be selfless?” was  asked. “No, it is not good”, was held, “because to express and  fulfill one’s own needs has to be first priority to stay  psychologically healthy”.

In  Haridwar, I watched the unending stream of Kanvarias walking back  home, carrying fancily decorated bamboo structures, called kanvars,  with containers of Gangajal dangling at both ends. Even in pouring  rain they continued walking. Several wore bandages around their calf  muscles and ankles. One young man, barefoot, was limping. Even one  blister would make every step painful. Two handicapped men pedalled  along in their decorated wheel chairs. Some middle aged men did not  carry the kanvars but had two containers with Gangajal hanging around  their neck. Yet, although tired, all smiled easily and waved, while I  took photos.

Strangely,  even 20 years ago, there was no Kanvar Mela in Haridwar. Kanvarias  have been traditionally associated with Baidyanath Dham in today’s  Jharkhand. How did it happen that the Kanvar Mela became such a huge  event in Haridwar – after the Kumbh Mela the biggest religious  gathering worldwide?

“You  know, in Hinduism, we don’t have fixed rules how to worship.  Everyone is free to do as he pleases”, an old Haridwar resident  answered my question. “During the holy month of Shravan, there were  always people coming to Haridwar to take a bath in the Ganga and then  they would offer water in the local Shiva temples or go to Neelkanth  Mahadev near Rishikesh. At one point, someone must have got the idea  to carry the Ganges water all the way back to his hometown. And then  next year, more people did it and so on. And now there are over 10  million people who carry Gangajal home to their respective Shiva  temples. A new form of worship has been born,” he chuckled.

This  flexibility regarding worship in Hinduism, allows also changes in  tune with the times. Nowadays, many pilgrims make use of trucks and  vans, yet in an original way. The trucks are only the support system.  It works like this: Relatives or villagers get together and rent a  truck for the pilgrimage. Cooking utensils, stove, provisions,  sleeping mats etc. are carried in the back of the truck, and a wooden  platform above the luggage is packed with passengers. Once the holy  water is taken from the Ganga, it is, however, not placed in the  truck, but reverentially carried on foot by the young men of the  group in a relay. At least one man at a time runs behind the truck  with a Kanvar over his shoulder and when he is tired, another man  takes over. This gives a chance to older people and those who are  doubtful whether they can walk long distances to be part of the Mela.

Undoubtedly,  nowadays even young Kanvarias are not used to walking long distances.  Yet the majority of Kanvarias reach Haridwar by train or bus and  resolve to go back on foot to their villages and town in northern  India. One group for example had come from Meerut. They planned to  cover the 175 km in three days. There were several women, stoically  walking along. Apart from the kanvar, many seemed to carry nothing  else. Some had a small backpack strapped.

From  where I watched the stream of pilgrims, they had not yet walked ten  kilometres from Har ki Pauri. How will they feel after 100  kilometres? It is certainly an arduous journey. Yet along the route,  several Hindu organisations and even some individuals offer food and  shelter for the Kanvarias and stands to hang their kanvars on.

“Those  facilities were not there in the old days,” a man from Bihar told  me. In 1965, as a 20 year old, he had walked the 120 km from  Sultangunj to Baidyanth Dham. “The path through hilly terrain was  very rough, often littered with pebbles as sharp as needles and we  all walked barefoot. I had blisters as big as cricket balls”, he  remembered. Had he wished for something from Shiva? I asked. “No, I  had gone in thanksgiving. I had promised to do the yatra if a certain  thing would happen. It did happen and I fulfilled my vow”, he  explained.

Many  of the Kanvarias may have come to thank Shiva for fulfilling some  desire; others may have come to ask for some favour. For many it is a  special outing, physically demanding yet ultimately far more  fulfilling than simply ‘having a good time’, thanks to the  heartfelt connection with their beloved Shiva. Bum Bum Bhole! Jay  Shiv Shankar!

Some  background information about Kanvar Mela

The  Kanvar Mela goes back a long time, and was originally connected with  two popular Shiva shrines – Baidyanath Dham, also called Deoghar,  in today’s Jharkhand and, to a lesser extent, Taraknath in West  Bengal. Devotees traditionally worship Lord Shiva with bel leaves and  water. The tradition to pour water over the Siva lingam is supposed  to have its origin in the churning of the milk ocean. Before the kumbh (pitcher) with Amrit emerged, poison wallowed up that threatened to  destroy the world. Lord Shiva came to the rescue, swallowed it and  kept it in his throat. His throat turned blue and the Gods rushed to  pour water over him to mitigate the effect of the poison.

And  to this day, devotees pour water over the Shiva lingam. It can be  done any time and with any water, yet Shravan month, which falls in  July/August, is devoted to Shiva and Gangajal is said to be  especially dear to Shiva. After all it was He who had cushioned the  impact of Ganga’s descent to earth in his matted locks.

During  Shravan (July/ August), devotees traditionally carry Ganges water  from the place nearest to those two temples – from Sultangunj,  which is 120 km from Baidyanath, and from Sheorafuli, which is 65 km  from Taraknath. The pilgrims walk barefoot through difficult terrain,  carrying kanvars. The Shiva Bhaktas are required to maintain utmost  cleanliness, austerity and penance. Once the kanvars contain the holy  Gangajal, they must not be put down on the ground.

Until  around 1990, the kanvar mela was a local affair in Bihar and West  Bengal and still continues to be highly popular there. Yet since the  1990s, the Mela expanded in a surprising way. Har ki Pauri in  Haridwar, where a drop of Amrit had supposedly been spilled during  the chase after the churning of the milk ocean, became more and more  the focus. Millions of Kanvarias now fetch Ganges water from there,  carry it in kanvars to their home towns in northern India and pour it  over the lingam in the local Shiva temple at Shravan Shivaratri,  which falls on the night before the new moon.

Courtesy Maria Wirth
1. http://mariawirthblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/kanvar-mela-adventure-holiday-in-indian-style/

First published Click here to view

Also see
1. Pics of Kanwar Mela Haridwar

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