Photo Essay – Marching with the Holy Water

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A peek into the world of Kaanwariyas.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Appearing annually during the rainy month of Shrawan, and invoking the hippie-God Shiva with the constant cry of Bam Bam Bhole, they are called Kaanwariyas or Shiva Bhakts. Dressed in saffron-colored t-shirts and knickers, these men – young, old and even children – walk all the way from Haridwar, sometimes from the higher reaches of the Himalayas, carrying the holy Ganges water to their homes.

The precious pots hang on the two ends of a wooden rod that is supported on their shoulders. Topped with fluorescent-green and red-colored paper canopies, the rods are usually decorated with plastic flowers, plastic snakes, along with framed portraits of Shiva and his wife Parvati.

The pilgrims do not journey alone; neither are they left to their own devices. They walk in groups consisting of a single extended family or even an entire neighborhood. Most villages and towns falling on the way make arrangements for their bathing water, food, and bedding. In Delhi, the state government provided water tankers in different route stops.

Unfortunately, kaanwariyas are tolerated but not loved. Cocooned Delhiwallas, while driving to work in their teenie-weenie Marutis and Indicas, often consider the pilgrims a nuisance – goondas who dance and disrupt the busy highways. Indignant newspapers have published features on how young men have spoiled the piousness of the tradition by their vulgarity and aggressiveness. This year some kanwariyas burnt a bus in the city’s outskirts following a fatal traffic accident.

However, kaanwariyas I interacted with were unfailingly courteous. True, they all danced to devotional songs which were very conveniently tuned to Hindi film chartbusters; they expressed devotion to Shiva, proclaimed their sincerity in the pilgrimage, and pointedly regretted about those “false kaanwariyas” who create ruckus during the march.

Walking a distance of more than 200 kms, many had sores on their swollen and usually bandaged feet. Some limped while other had faces writhing in pain as they walked. But it was rare for them to be tempted by a bus or car.

Once home, each kaanwariya would perform Jal-Abhishek. They would offer the Ganges water to Shiv Lingam in the nearest temple hoping that the God would make their wishes come true. Only then the journey would end.

Two is Company


Snakes are Alert


Let’s Love Bhole


Ready for the Click


Tired Limbs


It’s Not All Fun


But It’s Some Fun


Miles to Go Before We Sleep