Kanwar yatra : The march of a million faithful..

By @Saravana |
"Its Refreshing to see." he said.

"Back home and in the West people climb mountains in the name of sport. But here in India they do it in the name of Spirituality."

He, Andrew, was talking about the scores of saffron clad pilgrims who were walking on the same trail as us towards the Gangotri glacier, the source of the holy Ganges.

We were over 3800 meters high, walking a rugged mountain trail. The weather was cold and misty with a bit of rain in the air. But the pilgrims, some in their shorts & t-shirts, walking barefoot or just wearing chappals were undeterred by the terrain or the climate. They breezed through it all and focussing only on getting to Gaumukh ('Gau' - cow & 'Mukh - face), the terminus of the Gangotri Glacier and the source of the Bhagirathi river. One of the main tributaries of the mighty Ganges.

Getting to Gaumukh does not mark the end of their journey. It is the beginning. Here the pilgrims collect the water from the Ganges and then walk hundreds of kilometers back to their villages, where they use the holy water to anoint the Shivalingas in their local Shia temple as a gesture of thanksgiving and pray for a good harvest.

This is the Kanwar Yatra. Millions of pilgrims under take this yatra every year during the monsoon season between July and August.

Some start their yatra from Gaumukh, the very source of the Ganges, while others start a bit downstream based on their convenience. From Gangotri town, from Uttarkashi, or even further down at Rishikesh or Haridwar. The more closer to the source of the Ganges, the more merit they believe will be bestowed upon them.

Growing up in South India, i hard never heard of the Kanwar yatra or knew the story behind it. It took an Australian, Andrew, whom i met on the trail, to explain me the beautiful story behind the pilgrimage.

The Kanwar yatra, he said, takes place in the month of Shravan. According to the Hindu mythology, Shravan was a young man who was devoted to his blind parents. His parents were old and frail and he carried them around in a Kavad (a piece of wooden pole slung over the shoulders with a basket hanging from either end where his parents were seated). One day, in a forest on the outskirts of Ayodhya, Shravan went in search of water for his thirsty parents. The king Dashrath (of Ayodhya) happened to be hunting at that time and he mistook Shravan moving in the jungle for deer and shot an arrow at him and killed him. Thus died Shravan, a devoted son whose whole life was centered around serving his parents. This Kanwar yatra happend during the month of Shravan in honor of the boy who died serving his parents.

That was the story Andrew told me, but further research on the internet pointed me to a whole different legend which might be the actual reason behind the pilgrimage. This legend refers to Lord Shiva who swallowed the various poisons that emerged from the churning of the great oceans ('Samudra Mantan'). As a result of the poisons he turned blue (hence his name 'Neelkanth'). The various gods then offered him water from the Ganges river to eventually dilute the poison. And this ritual of offering the Ganga Jal ('Jal' - water) to lord Shiva is practiced even now during the month of Shravan.

Over the course of the next two weeks, i encountered the Kanwar yatris everywhere on my travels as a hiked, biked and walked the roads and streets of Uttarakhand.

They were there on my trek to Gangotri. They cheered me on as i rode my bicycle from UttarKashi to Rishikesh, my first ever touring ride. They walked with me when i was too tired to pedal. They enthusiastically flagged me down whenever i passed by one of their rest stops (put up by pious patrons), inviting me to share their delicious food and rest a while before slogging up the mountains under the sweltering sun. They gave me a hand when i punctured my bicycle going too fast downhill. And finally they were there in their hundreds of thousands at Rishikesh and Hardiwar, painting the streets Orange and tirelessly posing for me whenever i took my camera out.

Some tourists might be put off by their sheer numbers and the sporadic acts of revelry. But i enjoyed it all and hoped to one day do this journey with them, from Gangotri to Rishikesh. Walking in their footsteps, eating where they eat, sleeping where they sleep and living the life of a pilgrim for a few days.

Now.. wouldn't that make for a better story ??
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