A running acrimony necessitated a walk down memory lane for me, into a time when the sun seemed to be a little cooler, the air a little clearer and we heard the chirp of birds more than honking vehicles.
For as long back as I look into my childhood I remember the annual celebration of “Saawan” with the unbroken chain of my parents’ Kaanwar Yatras with their large yatra group. I remember my father going on the yatras with my grandmother who was in her late 60s then. After I learnt to button my own shorts, grandmother stopped and my mother joined my father on the annual pilgrimage. My father had an unbroken run for more than 30 years, I remember my mom going along with him for more than 20 years.
Preparations would begin a couple of weeks before the onset of Saawan. There was great excitement for visiting Lord Shiv in Devghar on the first Somvar (first Monday) of Saawan. The saffron kurtas, shorts, mom’s saffron saree would be brought out, washed and dried. My sisters and I were tasked with repairing and decorating the Kaanwars. On the day of departure, many uncles and aunties (everyone in your parents’ age group is either an uncle or an aunty) would gather at one place, men in saffron short sleeved kurtas adorned with the words “Bol Bum” and/or images of Lord Shiv, and shorts, and women in saffron sarees.
My parents’ group, like all others, had people from diverse backgrounds. There’d be Singhjis, Jhajis, Sinhajis, Paswanjis, Manjhijis. There were Brahmins, Rajputs, Bhumihars, Baniyas and Dalits, men and women, young, not-so-young, and old, many of them my father’s subordinates at office. But on the pilgrimage, they’d all address each other with perfect equanimity suffixing “bum” after the names, as Singh-bum, Manjhi-bum, Tiwari-bum, Babloo-bum, Chhotu-bum etc.
This cultural tradition perhaps predates by centuries (possibly millennia) the communist discovery of the need to call each other “Comrades” for equality’s sake!
The kaanwariyas congregated and pooled auto rickshaws to the bus stand and even the autos would have stickers of Lord Shiv or ‘Bol Bum’ written. The entire road and nearly the entire colony would be in a deluge of saffron, for almost every house had a kaanwariya. Before they left they’d sing and dance on the roads to beats of the dholak and folk songs in honor of the Lord. Maithilis would tastefully sing Vidyapati’s songs written in the 14th century. It was great fun to watch the otherwise grumpy looking uncles in shorts, dancing clumsily but spirited, happy and carefree, to the beats of the dholak.
The party would leave and the colony would be in the hands of the kids until the next week. This was particularly exciting for me because there’d be no one to stop me from watching TV or playing beyond sunset or coaxing me to study. Or so I would think…
My sisters would suddenly turn mom for me and stop me from doing everything that mom or dad would stop me from. In a few years I would myself learn to conduct more responsibly in my parents’ absence. The colony would also turn up to parent us in the interim, with aunties and uncles paying visits and checking if we needed something. The neighborhood doodh-wala would deliver milk at homes of all the pilgrims. The kirana-wala would often reassure “paisa rakho, kuchh aur zarurat pada toh? Note kar lete hain, papa ayenge to le lenge”. (Don’t pay, you might need it for something else. I’ll make a note in my books. I will take it from your father upon his return).
This annual pilgrimage brought out the best even in those who did not go for it. Apart from the inherent human goodness and community values, they did it for sharing the blessings of Lord Shiv by serving families of the pilgrims in whatever little way they could. They were not bound by considerations of caste or status.
On the 108 km barefooted walk from Sultanpur to Devghar, my parents and their group would walk together in the rain and the sun, support when one slipped, nurse each other’s blisters or when one hurt their feet. They cooked and ate together, sang religious and folk songs together. The speed of the journey was determined by the slowest, for nobody should be left behind.
Upon their return from the Kanwar Yatra, us kids and our neighbours would get together and we would wash the feet of all Kanwariyas with lukewarm water and wipe them dry. All kids and our neighbours would partake in washing the Kanwariyas’ swollen feet, ridden with cuts, huge blisters and the skin of their soles scaling out. It was believed that Kanwariyas on the pilgrimage and back are manifestations of Lord Shiv himself and serving them is the surest way to earn the Lord’s bliss.
My mom was particularly greedy about it and would ensure that we had touched and washed every foot. I would feel icky about the blisters and the hanging skins initially and would make sure I only touched the cleaner areas. Embarrassed, my mom would yell at me and order me to wash properly. One Majhi uncle, a Dalit, would feel very shy and coyly tell my mom, “Ap bachho se pair chhulwa ke paap karwayengi bhabhi ji” (You’ll make me sin by having my feet touched by children). But he’d have to give in to my mom’s insistence.
The next few days would be very difficult for my parents as it would be for others. They’d invariably fall ill. They’d be cranky and irritable and in a lot pain with aching bodies and blisters. Hoards of people would visit us to touch their feet, as with other pilgrims at their homes. As long as the blisters stayed, the grace of Lord Shiva was with them! And my parents wouldn’t mind elders by a few years, touching their feet because they knew they only wanted to earn some of the lord’s bliss and were happy to share it.
With such fond memories of Kaanwar yatras alive and vivid in my mind, it hurts to see news articles and tweets from eminent media personalities viciously attacking and maligning Kaanwariyas. Over the last few days, in interludes between “dalit atrocities have risen under Modi” stories, kaanwariyas have been charged with being traffic nightmares, being hoodlums, being jobless and causing terror:
This is how Kaanwar Yatra and kaanwariyas are mentioned now
One eminent journo who specializes in coup-fiction, fell short of declaring them as the cause of deluge in Delhi and Gurgaon. I am intrigued by the sudden attention to and animosity for Kaanwariyas in the liberal circles.
There are complaints of angry behaviour, bordering on “terror”, from kaanwariyas. The dumbing down and appalling usage of the word “terror” is shocking. One must understand that a crowd has a different mentality and a lesser bandwidth for reason vis-à-vis instigation. A crowd oppressed with travail may be even more flippant towards commuters (I mentioned my parents’ crankiness earlier). But likening them to “terror” is doing grave injustice to the people who have suffered at the hands of real “terror”.
The scale may be less pronounced but we are not unknown to the socio-ecological phenomenon at play here. In ecology, we study man-animal conflicts, in demography we study migration, refugee crises and the conflicts that fall out of it.
Kaanwariyas used to own the tracks, but the tracks have now been replaced by pitched roads. The cities and their motorists own the roads. There are two kinds of participants on the same route now, each unable to relate with the other’s priorities, each thinking of the other as the “invader”. Lately, governments have thought over it and laudably so:
But could this administrative focus have brought Kanwar Yatras into liberal focus too? A celebration so massive that governments have to ramp up and make elaborate arrangements, and that must prove to be an eyesore for the “liberals”.
Holi has been beaten with the stick of water conservation concerns, Diwali with environment conservation and scared stray dogs’ concerns, Maha-kumbh with drug abuse and prostitution concerns, Ganpati Puja with law & order, corruption, water pollution concerns, but fortuitously, Kaanwar Yatras were left out… until now. Will they be beaten with law and order and administrative concerns until studies are conducted in JNU, Jadhopur and by Oxbridge liberals and more solid concerns, threatening human existence on planet earth are identified?
At a time when liberals are disturbed, pained and outraged by “sudden appearance of, and rapidly increasing atrocities against Dalits under Modi”, the egalitarian tradition of Kaanwar yatras where castes and classes evaporate, should give them hope! Or could this be their biggest problem?
At a time when they’re assiduously peddling re-emergence and virulent propagation of Dailt atrocities, Kaanwar yatras stand in the way of their targeted imagery? The entire liberal ecosystem’s existence in India depends on keeping Dalits as Dalits. When dalits stop feeling wronged, there’ll be none to outrage for! More importantly, if Dalits connect with their Hindu identity, their entire dream of a divided Hindu society falls flat. This would be a giant thorn sticking from their throats right down to the liberal intestines!
Maybe it’s a combination of all these concerns for the detractors. That’s why the modern propaganda must be countered to keep these age-old traditions alive and realize their integrative potential. All the same, the genuine concerns should be dealt with administratively and with targeted messaging in order to deal with changes and conflicts.
My parents’ Kaanwar group transmorphed into an extended family, specially post-retirement. All Kaanwariyas from the group keep in touch and visit each other often. Owing to age & frailty, their kaanwar yatras have discontinued but have been replaced by get-togethers once a year over satsangs. Most kids have families and the kids are each other’s family friends now. 108 km of torturous walk together has given all of them friendships that would comfort them for life.