The month of Saawan has begun according to the Hindu calendar. After the blazing months of heat in India, Saawan marks the start of the Monsoon season. Millions of Hindus have a religious reason to revere this season too. It marks the start of a religious pilgrimage tour, the Kaanwar Pilgrimage. The devotees who perform this tour are called the Kaanwariyas. Kaanwar is basically a bamboo stick with small cane baskets at its end. Devotees fetch water from Ganges River, carry it on their shoulders in the cane basket and take it to the major Shiva temples of India. A puja (prayer ritual) is performed by the devotee after reaching Shiva temple with the use of holy water from Ganges.
This pilgrimage is not easy. Kaanwariyas cannot keep the Kaanwar down on the road or floor in their entire journey. Most of them walk barefoot, hundreds of kilometres from the Ganges River to the major Shiva temple.
Some of the major Shiva temples for Kaanwar Pilgrimage are: Baidyanath dhaam (Deoghar, Bihar), Kashi Vishwanath (Varanasi, UP), Neelkhanth (Rishikesh, Uttarakhand) etc.
Behind every Hindu Festival, there is a story. Most of these stories are mentioned in the Puranas. Here goes the story behind Saagar-Manthan (Churning of Ocean), an incident in the divine history, thought to be the reason for the birth of Kaanwar Pilgrimage.
This story takes us back in age of gods and demons. Once upon a time, Indra the king of Heaven was riding his elephant. Thence he came upon to meet a great sage, Durvasa. Indra bowed before Durvasa with respect and humility. In exchange, Durvasa blessed Indra and offered him a garland of luck and prosperity. But fate had written a different story for Indra. As soon as he put the garland over his elephant’s trunk, the mighty beast sneezed. Durvasa took this as an act of contempt. His face turned black with anger, his voice shivered and he cursed an unholy curse on Indra. ‘’You will lose all your power, army and wealth’’, the sage said and vanished in thin air.
Soon the evil demon king Bali attacked the heaven and defeated Indra. Bali became the ruler of the heaven, the hell and the underground. Ashamed of defeat, Indra wept and ran in the refuge of Lord Vishnu, the protector and keeper of all mankind. Vishnu is the God of Love but his methods are mysterious for any mortal to understand. He asked Indra to make an alliance with the demons. Indra was the king of Demi-Gods. Vishnu asked him to make alliance with Demons and agree them to churn the Milky Way .With this churning would come out, great treasures for the welfare of mankind. One of those treasures will be Amrit (Elixir), that Indra should drink. With the immortality and power that Amrit will provide, Indra can easily defeat the demons and recapture Heaven. ‘’But, won’t the demons ask for the Amrit too”, said Indra with folded hands. Vishnu assured them that only the Demi-Gods will have a share of Amrit.
Sagar Manthan (Churning of Milkyway) was a great event in the divine history. Mount Mandarachala was used as the churning rod, and Vasuki, the king of serpents, became the churning rope. Demons and Demi-Gods, both toiled for years in churning the great sea. Soon, the treasures of Milkyway started to emerge forth. From the mouth of the great sea, came many beautiful nymphs and Goddeses, Laxmi (Goddess of Prosperity) and Varuni (Goddess of Alcohol). Many Animals of supernatural qualities also emerged from the ocean. Both Demons and Demi-Gods fought to take these invaluable and beautiful treasures in their possession. But out of a sudden, a dark and thick poison, The Halahal emerged from the Ocean. Every valuable from this great churning was to be used by the Demi-Gods or Demons, else the Halahal would destroy the whole Creation. Nobody wanted to drink that poison, not even Lord Vishnu. So, everyone went to Lord Shiva.
Shiva; he is loved by ghosts and forest dwellers, those who imbibe on intoxicants and perform rituals in graveyards. Shiva is always, always in a state of meditation on the great mountain Kailash. Siva, he is innocent.
Shiva, opened his eyes after a long time. He saw God Vishnu and the other Demi-Gods including Indra, begging before him. Shiva; he cannot see tears in the eyes of his devotees. So he took the great poison and drank it. Shiva’s consort, goddess parvati looking at his impending death, stopped the poison in his throat only. Halahal was so poisonous that it burnt the throat of Shiva. Since then, Siva devotees carry water from River Ganges and worship the Shiva Idol (Shiva Linga) to quench the heat and pain of their God.
The annual Kaanwar Pilgrimage in the Saawan season commemorates that moment of the divine history only.
My Views: I am often amazed to the limits that a devotee would go to please his God. In every religion, be it Hinduism, Islam or Christianity, the devotees have to suffer pain and hunger to satisfy the over-inflated ego of their creator. Why should a God need his creation to worship himself? If he wants to remove their problems, he can easily do it without anyone going through extra suffering and pain.
The Kaanwar Pilgrimage is a billion dollar business for the hotels, restaurants, rest-houses and other industries. It is also a great opportunity for the individual politicians to placate their voters. There are several cities and villages around my hometown that host the pilgrims and act as checkpoints in their path. These cities face various civic problems round the year. But only during this month, these cities are cleaned up and are provided 24 hours electricity. People who had been cursing their government from the last 11 months, start praising their politicians for the facilities provided for the pilgrims. The local MPs would initiate the pilgrimage in many places and people would be ultimately fooled by their religious activities.
Afterall, every religion is illogical. Yet it lives. It lives among the poor and rich alike but mostly it lives among the poor. Karl Marx called Religion the opium of the poor. I think that Religion has been kept alive by the rich people and the politicians in order to fool the gullible and rule over them.
I have been seeing thousands of these pilgrims crowding in railway stations and Bus stops, chanting and walking over the highways. Most of these people are very poor. They walk barefoot and run the risk of getting infected by nematodes. But it is their life and I don’t care how or in what object they seek the meaning of their life. But I am sometimes irritated by the rudeness of many of these pilgrims. Though these people are touring for their personal beliefs, they often capture trains and buses for themselves. Police and administration will not even touch them at this time. I usually try to avoid travelling in this month.
There are many more facets to Hinduism that I will be introducing my readers in the later articles. Till then, I am enjoying the monsoons with my coffee. Let the believers walk in dirt.