Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday on August 14, 2011.
In Mumbai, the month of Shravan, revered by Hindus, starts with the new moon day (Gattari Amavasya) but in many parts of India, it begins with the previous full moon day (Guru Poornima). On this day a huge trek begins from the banks of the Ganga with men (and a few women) carrying the Kanwar, which is a staff with baskets hanging on either side slung over the shoulder. This marks the start of the festival season in the North.
The point is to carry waters of the Ganga barefoot and pour it on the Shiva-linga back home on the Amavasya night. At no point must the pots touch the ground in the long journey back home. And so the staff is hung on trees or specially designed racks that ensure the pots hang above the ground while the traveller rests. The water is poured on the Shiva-linga to reduce the burning sensation that Shiva experiences when he consumes Halahal, the poison released when the ocean of milk was churned by the gods for Amrita, the nectar of immortality.
This is the famous Kanwar yantra that can be seen in the Gangetic plains during these weeks. Scores of young men carry this Kanwar on their shoulders and walk with determination, shouting ‘Bham-Bham-Bhole’. The sling is often decorated with orange-red flags and tassels and is a sight to behold, as thousands crowd national highways. The Kanwariyas, as they are called, have in recent times attracted political forces and become rather infamous for their rowdiness as they take over roads and block traffic.
It is by no coincidence that the month’s name has an uncanny similarity to Shravan, a character in the Ramayana who carries a Kanwar. Instead of water, he carries his parents in the baskets and is taking them on a pilgrimage, when he is accidentally shot dead by Ram’s father, Dashrath. Shravan-kumar is the ideal son of Hindu mythology, the one who bears the burden of responsibility and serves his parents dutifully, sacrificing his own freedom in the process.
Far away in Tamil Nadu, worshippers of the boy-god, Murugan, son of Shiva, carry Kavadi on their shoulders, a staff much like the Kanwar of the North, decorated with peacock feathers but without the hanging pots. The story goes that after a disagreement with his father, Shiva, Kartikeya went south away from the hills of Mount Kailasa but he missed his home. So his parents sent two mountain peaks to him. These were carried on a Kanwar/Kavadi by a demon called Hidimba with clear instructions not to place it on the ground until it reached Murugan. At one point, the hill became so heavy that Hidimba had to place it on the ground. He saw a boy sitting on one of the hills who had caused the weight to rise so dramatically and recognized him as Murugan. The spot where the hills were placed is now the famous pilgrimage of Palni.
The Kanwar is a symbol of worldly responsibility. Shiva is an ascetic who shuns marriage and is literally forced to be householder by the Goddess. His son, Murugan, is a bachelor in the North but a married man in the South. That both their worship is associated with Kanwar indicates a symbolic submission to worldly life. The Halahal indicates the suffering of man as he carries the burden of social responsibilities. Before they become glamorous social festivals asserting religious identities, these Kanwar yatras were ritual acknowledgment of this very earthy conflict of the youth on the threshold of married life.