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Sometime in 2012-2013, I was travelling to the Howrah station in a yellow taxi in Calcutta. I asked the taxi-driver his name, and that friendly middle-aged man obliged. In minutes, my innocuous question turned into a serious conversation as we began discussing where we were from and much more.
“Jamshedpur,” I fibbed. The taxi driver, however, was more forthcoming. He told me that he came from Bihar, “Arrah jilla”, and that he had been living in Kolkata since the time the city was called Calcutta, doing odd jobs and then driving a taxi. He also told me about his change of fortunes in the city; he was now earning enough to look after his extended family. “Sab Babaji ki kripa hai (All this is because of Babaji’s blessings),” he said. Which Babaji? I wondered, assuming that he must be a follower of some religious or spiritual guru. I was quite surprised when he told me who he was referring to. It is something I vividly remember even to this day: “You people took away your Jharkhand,” he said, all of a sudden, his friendly tone turning a little accusatory. “That was still fine. But you also took Babaji away with you. That was not fine.” Then it dawned on me. The guru he had been talking about was the Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar—Lord Shiva, or simply Baba, as he is fondly called.
“I go to Deoghar every year, without fail, in the month of Shrawan,” he said. “I walk all the way from Sultanganj, carrying water from Ganga-ji, and offer it to Baba at Deoghar. Whatever I have, whatever I am, is all because of his blessings.”
I noticed a Sikh pilgrim treating the blisters on the soles of a Santhal woman daak-bum, and heard rumours that there were Muslim kaanwariyas too.
I do not remember that taxi-driver’s name anymore. I just know that he is an avid bhakt of the Babaji. The Baba of Baidyanath Dham Deoghar, has such a strong emotional hold on so many people! My taxi-driver friend from Bihar was okay with Jharkhand being separated, but he was not okay with Deoghar being taken away from the state. When I was younger, and Jharkhand was still a part of Bihar, many of my mother’s patients went on the pilgrimage to Deoghar during the month of Shravan, the rainy month on the Indian calendar, roughly corresponding with mid-July to mid-August of the Gregorian calendar. When they returned, they brought for us the prasad: the famous peda of Deoghar, chuda, tiny beads of crushed sugar that Bengalis call nakuldana and Biharis call elaichi-dana, and—what fascinated me most—shiny yellow malas with a soft, pink cottony fibre as the pendant.
In the 1990s, religion was still mostly a private affair. We heard loudspeakers only during Durga Puja. The Shravani Mela, despite so much faith attached to it, drew my attention only when my mother brought bundles of those shiny, yellow malas. As a child, I did not understand what the big deal was about the pilgrimage to Baidyanath Dham.
This August, as a part of the medical team deputed to the Shravani Mela, I made my maiden visit to the festival and came to know what the Shravani Mela actually is. It is a month-long Hindu festival, but, more than that, I felt that the Shravani Mela was more about people’s faith and willpower than just being a religious affair—I saw the blistered soles of the pilgrims, fatigued by travel after having walked 105 km barefoot, severely dehydrated but refusing even a drop of ORS solution as that would sully their fast of not taking anna and lavan (rice and salt).
According to a legend, Ravana, the king of Lanka and an ardent devotee of Shiva, wanted to take Shiva away from Kailasa (the god’s abode in the Himalayas) to Lanka. Shiva, impressed by Ravana’s tapasya, gave him a shivling form that Ravana could take to Lanka. But there was a catch: Ravana couldn’t place that shivling on the ground during his journey to Lanka, else Shiva would return to Kailasa. Lord Vishnu, alarmed at Ravana taking Shiva with him, ordered the river Ganga to enter Ravana’s bladder, disguised himself as a cowherd, and with the Ganga inside his bladder, Ravana had a strong urge to urinate, but he couldn’t as he was holding the shivling, which he was not to place on the ground. He saw the cowherd and asked him to hold the shivling as he relieved himself. The Ganga kept flowing out of Ravana’s bladder and the cowherd, tired of waiting, placed the shivling on the ground and disappeared. The place where the shivling stayed is now known as Baidyanath Dham. This naming, too, has a story behind it. Several centuries later, the shivling was discovered by a cowherd named Baiju, most probably a Santhal, as Deoghar is in the Santhal Pargana area. After Baiju, the place came to be known as Baijnath and, alternately, as Shiva was the ultimate medicine-man—Baidyanath.
Young kaanwariyas being checked while entering a mall. Not all are pilgrims these days.
Shravan is supposed to be the month of Lord Shiva, while Monday is supposed to be his day. All through Shravan, pilgrims, known either as kaanwariyas or ‘bums’, fill water at the Ganga in Sahebganj, which is in Bhagalpur district in Bihar, and walk bare feet for nearly 105 km to Deoghar to offer the gangajal, which they carry in pots slung on their shoulders by a long strip of bamboo known as kaanwar. There are certain codes they have to follow during the pilgrimage. One: during their walk, the kaanwars address each other as “bum”. I learnt this when, on the bus from Pakur to Deoghar, a saffron-clad kaanwariya asked me, “Bum-ji, what is the time?”, though I was wearing a Flying Machine shirt and Pepe Jeans. I then realised that every person a kaanwariya meets on his pilgrimage is a “bum”. Two: all pilgrims have to practice brahmacharya or abstinence. Three: no non-vegetarian food. Although fasting is not advised—a kaanwariya may have proper vegetarian meals of rice or roti on his journey—the kaanwariyas prefer to survive only on bare essentials such as fruits or fruit juices and avoid even rice and salt to add that extra penance to their already difficult pilgrimage. Four: the containers of gangajal should not touch the ground, or else the gangajal will be rendered unfit for Baba. There are racks of wood or bamboo and even platforms made of cement all along the pilgrimage route for the kaanwariyas to place their kaanwars upon. Five: the kaanwar should be placed at a distance while the kaanwariya does his ablutions—no soap and oil allowed—takes his meals etc. And after all that is done, the kaanwariya should pray and apologise to the kaanwar before picking it up and placing it on his shoulders again to proceed with the journey.
These are just the basics. There are several other codes kaanwariyas are meant to follow. I was told that their saffron outfits are not exactly necessary. It’s just meant to bring a feeling of asceticism to the journey. Also, the loud cries of “Bol Bum” the kaanwariyas make on their walk is more like a morale-boosting cheer in the long and tiring pilgrimage.
It was annoying to see saffron-clad, Ray Ban wearing kaanwariyas, who had come riding their Bullets as if it was the MTV Roadies!
Kaanwariyas are of two types. There are the regular, saffron-clad ones, who walk from Sultanganj to Deoghar and complete their pilgrimage in about two days. Then there are the daak-bum. The daak-bum run all the way from Sultanganj to Deoghar so that they may offer the gangajal to Baba within 24 hours of having filled it. They differ from regular bums in their outfit as well. They wear all-white—male daak-bum wearing white shirts and shorts, female daak-bum wearing white salwar-kameez—with their names, address, telephone numbers and the person to call in case of an emergency, written clearly on their backs. The daak-bums tie a belt of ghungroos around their waist to alert other kaanwariyas. They usually sling a flashlight around their torso, a whistle around their neck and hold a strong stick in their hands to lean on it when tired. They sling their containers of gangajal in backpacks strapped securely to their back.
Some daak-bum are so hardy and intrepid, they offer gangajal to Baba every Monday of Shravan. One Tuesday, while returning to our hotel after our shift, my colleague and I took a cycle-rickshaw. I recoiled in horror on seeing that our cycle-rickshaw puller—a man in his fifties—was wearing a daak-bum shirt with his name and address written on the back. I felt terribly contrite and curious. I asked him about his shirt and he confirmed that he was, indeed, a daak-bum, and that he had offered gangajal to Baba just the previous day. That meant that he ran 105 km within 24 hours, and, just 12 hours later, he was back to pulling his rickshaw!
If, in the 1990s, the Shravani Mela was a quiet affair, in 2016, it is like a brand. The daily footfall at the Baidyanath Dham temple was nearly a lakh. On Mondays, this number doubled. There are kaanwariyas who come solely out of faith, irrespective of the religions they identify with. I noticed a Sikh kaanwariya treating the blisters on the soles of a Santhal woman daak-bum, and heard rumours that there were Muslim kaanwariyas too who had walked 105 kilometres. However, it was annoying to see burly, saffron-clad, Ray Ban wearing kaanwariyas who had come to show their devotion to Baba riding their Bullets and Bajaj Avengers, as if it wasn’t a pilgrimage but MTV Roadies!
The Baidyanath Dham temple has spawned a peda economy, with the alleys leading to the temple redolent with the aroma of pedas, the fragrance of incense and the odour of the sweat of the pilgrims. Maaza, a fruit juice brand, has a Shravani Mela-themed ad campaign. In a few years, maybe we’ll see the Amul girl walking those 105 kilometres wearing a saffron pinafore, a kaanwar on her shoulders.
There were sights and sounds that made me laugh—for instance, the crowd of kaanwariyas at liquor stores. Most kaanwariyas come from Bihar, a state where alcohol is prohibited. No wonder, in Shravan, liquor stores in Deoghar see a steep hike in sales. Then, an artiste singing a devotional song dedicated to Shiva set to the tune of Amir Khusro’s ‘Chhap tilak’ suddenly switched to the original version of ‘Lal meri pat...dumadum mast kalandar!’
Maybe my Kolkata taxi-driver was here this year too—I don’t remember his face. And though I saw many things on my first visit to the mela, I could not find those shiny, yellow malas with pink, cottony pendants that I still remember from my childhood. Perhaps, another time.
(The author is a doctor who tended to pilgrims at the Shravan Mela in Deoghar.)
Just like the kaanwar pilgrimage to Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar is the Neelkanth kaanwar pilgrimage in Uttarakhand. Devotees from neighbouring states come in huge numbers to collect gangajal, ideally from Gangotri-Gaumukh—the source of the river—and offer it to the Neelkanth temple near Rishikesh. According to Hindu mythology, the temple is situated where Shiva consumed poison yielded during samudra manthan.