The march of kanwariyas: The great Indian budget road trip

The march of kanwariyas: The great Indian budget road trip
A light float at the 'Paint the Night' parade in Hong Kong Disneyland. The show runs from October to December.

During the monsoon month of shravana (July-Aug), saffron-clad men carry pots of holy water on kanwars and pour it over a Shiva linga

Anurag Mallick
October 01 , 2014
11 Min Read

Why this, why this, why this Bholagiri ji?’, the ‘Kolaveri Di’ parody blared out of tinny loud­speakers. Every few steps, the cacophony changed to ‘Daraibher sainyan’ (Darling driver — take me to Deoghar)’, ‘I love you Gaura’ or ‘Roje-Roj Ganja Bhang’. As global musical trends go, Cher’s ‘Believe’ may be a thing of the past, but in Bhojpuri music the Auto-tune pitch correct was the next big thing after Jhankar Beats.

Adding to the spiritual soundtrack were tinkling bells, the low hum of a moving crowd and loud chants rending the air. ‘Bol bam ka nara hai, Baba ek sa­hara hai, Bol bam, Badhe kadam, Bol bam, Doori kam, Baba nagariya door hai, jana zaroor hai (Bol Bam is the chant, Baba is our support, Bol bam, onward feet, Bol bam, distance less, Baba Dham is far away, We must go there).

From singsong chants of pilgrims to pots bobbing on either ends of the pole, walking was a rhythm. As veterans of religious and rustic fairs from the Baul Mela at Kenduli, Baithurappa Festival at Iritty to the Maha Kumbh at Allahabad, we had experienced our share of proces­sions, but the Shravan Mela was some­thing else. It was the ultimate budget trip, a spiritual marathon. The pilgrims walked the distance without any trap­pings of comfort.

In India, during the monsoon month of shravana (July-Aug), saffron-clad men carry pots of holy water on kanwars (dec­orative slings) and pour it over a Shiva linga at the nearest important shrine. In this case, the 105km journey started from the uttar-vahini Ganga (north-flowing, hence holy) at Sultanganj in Bihar to Baba Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar, Jharkhand, one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India. People trudge over hills, across rivers and places with evocative names like Suiyya Pahar (Needle Mountain), Jalebiya More (Twisty Turns), Bhutban­gla (Haunted House) and Bhulbhulaiya Nadi (Labyrinthine River) — realms akin to the Tolkienesque route to Mordor. As it turned out, it was rather scenic.

The pilgrims hike 20-25km each day, stopping at makeshift seva-shivirs (camps) for food, rest or sleep. The journey takes about 4-5 days. One class of pilgrims doesn’t stop at any camp but grabs water, food and medicines on the go. These are dak bams, who must complete the journey within a day (usually 15-17 hours), which earns them privileged access to the Shiva shrine at Deoghar, unlike ordinary pilgrims who must queue up for miles.

We found ourselves in this spiritual obstacle course courtesy Albela Dak Bam Seva Samiti, Telco Colony, Tatanagar — a bunch of friends and acquaintances who left their jobs for a month to run a free, voluntary camp for dak bams near Suiyya, the most treacherous part of the journey. Their daily schedule ran round-the-clock — from rest and sleep arrangements for pilgrims, dispensing water, hand­ing out painkillers, massages with pain balms, making prasad, chopping fruits, morning puja, evening arti and kan­wariya songs… By evening, the speakers would crank up and crowds would break into frenzied dancing in a religious rave.

Nearly 70,000 pilgrims walk to De­oghar each day with numbers touching 3-4 lakh on Mondays, a day sacred to Shi­va. Even after Shravan Mela (July 13-Au­gust 25 this year) people do it through the year till Magha (Jan-Feb). Some arrive directly at Deoghar by vehicles. We met a group that had cycled all the way from Kolkata. Old men, women, children, even those differently-abled, all formed part of this motley cavalcade.

And thus, after a customary visit to the Shiva temple of Ajgaibnath, our journey, like that of a thousand others, started at the ghats of Sultanganj. Streets were lined with shops selling custom-built kanwars and religious paraphernalia. Makeshift stalls on the ghats hawked pots, sacred threads and lumps of clay for sealing pots after collecting holy water. In the dark watery theatre of oil lamps and incense smoke, priests chanted appropriate mantras and prayed for a safe journey and good darshan. And we were off…

Over slushy banks, through busy streets, dodging traffic, past music stalls blaring the latest tunes and videos of kanwariya songs that looked like a mish mash of different art forms — Bhojpuri stage shows, tacky theatre and bad Pho­toshop. Standing out in this strange flo­tilla were the two of us — with backpacks and cameras instead of kanwars, shoes instead of bare feet — sticking out like sore thumbs in a sea of saffron.

Some threw taunts at us ‘Aye Jutta bam’, ‘Japan bam’, ‘English bam’ or simply chuckled while inquisitive ones struck up a conversation. One man walked up to us and after a moment’s scrutiny, affirmed to the rest ‘Belgium’, with the confident authority of a head surgeon confirming the gender of a new­born child. Soon, we got used to it. And they got used to us. We walked mile after mile, braving winds and a steady drizzle. When it didn’t rain, we rested by day and walked at nights, stopping at teashops for milky concoctions or rest at wibbly-wobbly benches in dharamsalas and inns. With practically nonexistent sanitary conditions, we watched people run to the fields or behind rocks and trees as we plodded towards the next makeshift loo and bathed near village wells or took community showers.

Wooden stands were placed at regular intervals where pilgrims could rest their kanwars or water pots, as rules forbade it from touching the ground from the moment it was carried. It was odd to see kanwariyas hold their ears and do utthak-baithak (squats) in penitence for any oversight in protocol before resuming the journey. There were other restrictions too — vegetarianism, celi­bacy, truthfulness and purity of speech and thought. Using oil, soap, shoes and articles of leather was not permitted. Each addressed the other respectfully as ‘bam ji’ or appended ‘bam’ to one’s name; which did amuse us initially! Grappling with the outdoors on an unfamiliar road to transcendence, we had unwittingly become characters out of Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

The path was well laid out with diver­sions and underpasses that skirted all vehicular traffic. Not too long ago, the tracts were wilder, with little or no il­lumination at night. People often had to fend against wild animals and robbers. Today, they have to deal with beggars, kids dressed up as gods and hastily built roadside shrines. No one knew how long people had been walking this route, but according to tradition Lord Rama was one of the first to undertake this yatra. There was also a reason why this took place in shravana.

Legend has it that during the samu­dra manthan or churning of the cosmic ocean, many divine things emerged, including halahala (poison). As Lord Shiva consumed it, Parvati grabbed his neck to prevent the toxic brew from be­ing swallowed, turning his throat blue, hence his name Neelkantha. Yet, the poi­son inflamed Shiva’s body. To decrease the effect of the poison, the practice of offering water to Shiva started. Hence, his associations with all things cool — the crescent moon, the Ganga and water continuously dripping on the linga. It is said the churning took place during the month of shravana, characterised by rains, and the act of libation was thus a great service to Shiva.

As a form of hatha yoga, some covered the distance by dand-baithak (full body prostrations), taking weeks to reach their destination. They too carried a kanwar, but walked a mile, left the kanwar on a stand, walked back, crawled up to it and repeated the process. For them, the journey was three times the distance! We were fortunate to meet veteran dak bam Ram Sagar, who was doing the yatra for the 13th time that month (he had vowed to do it 15 times).

We wondered what motivated them to take on this arduous journey that was riddled with masochistic hardship and austerity? A wish unfulfilled, welfare of loved ones, an unbroken oath, problems in life or just out of service or devotion; each pilgrim had a reason. We heard stories of Krishna dak bam, the pious lady from Muzaffarpur who was a regular for the last 35 years! She walked only on Sundays, four times a month, in time for the holy darshan on Mondays. Sumit bam explained, “She is considered a divine being and walks in a retinue of 100-150 people, and villagers flock to see her. The police too escort her, blowing whistles and fanning her with towels, as she blazes forth. It’s near impossible to walk with her. Seeing her, even a spectator is energised.”

While there was no competition to reach first, the fastest time achieved was 9 hours, a brother-sister duo from Nepal. Legend has it they died the night after the poured water on the linga. Shwet bam explained, “The system is such that till the last minute you are not sure whether you’ll be able to complete the task. Whether the water falls on someone’s back, on the ground, or the linga is hard to tell.” We met a guy who had walked for three days, stood in the line and yet, declined to enter just meters before the temple gate, daunted by the overwhelm­ing crowd. But such is life, the next year he went twice. Jha ji chuckled: “It is like clearing your backlog.”

The crowd comes to a stop miles before Deoghar with a waiting period of several hours before one can even reach the temple complex. The sanctum sanc­torum has just one entrance, so managing the crowds is near impossible. Temple priests and policemen whirl towels and beat pilgrims with frayed cane sticks goading them on like cattle. JP bam, the most experienced in the group, explained the strategy to us like the team leader of a crack commando unit going over a hostage evacuation exercise. “Once you enter the inner shrine, don’t try to pour the jal immediately or you’ll be crushed. Stick to the walls. Wait for the initial rush to subside. Then dart forward and do the deed. But don’t pour everything on the linga. Save some for Parvati and Gane­sha shrines nearby. Watch where you step…The stone floors will be wet. Don’t slip. Don’t fall. One more thing… Keep a tenner handy. Hand it to the priest and he will allow you to bend down and touch the linga.”

The rest followed like a slow-mo war scene. With the crush of a thousand bodies around us, the strange stench of sweat and flowers recycled by the air-conditioning, the crack of cane sticks, trampled toes, shouts and screams, curses and invocations… we have no idea how we made it in and out of the Baba Baidyanath temple, shuffled to Mata Tripurasundari’s shrine and picked out the Ganesha shrine out of the 22 temples in the complex. As we stumbled out, we caught a mixture of emotions on people’s faces — elation, daze, relief, fatigue and an emotional vacuum that comes after achieving an objective at the end of a trek or after scaling a peak.

To make this endgame a little more humane, the Deoghar temple authori­ties have made special arrangements this year. As per the new arghya-vyawastha, devotees would be given a bar-coded wristband and a suwidha pass with the time slot and the serial number printed on it. Instead of entering the shrine, they can pour the water outside on a brass alley that directly leads to the jyotirlinga, thus assuring them complete satisfac­tion, minus the anxiety of a stampede.

Tired and thrilled to have completed the penance, we trawled the narrow streets of Deoghar for its legendary pedas. The best place to buy was Shree Bhagirath Sah Peda Bhandar. A poster warned against imitations and insisted that one should ‘buy only after seeing the photo of its founder’. Pilgrims looked around for souvenirs, devotional CDs, lac bangles, some memento to take home that said, ‘I was there. And I survived…

The information

Getting there
The 105-km journey starts from Sultanganj, near Bhagalpur in Bihar to Deoghar in Jharkhand. The nearest railway station is Jasidih with many special trains during the shravana month (July-August).

Sultanganj-Kamrai 6km, Kamrai-Asarganj 7km, Asarganj-Tarapur 8km, Tarapur-Rampur 7km, Rampur-Kumarsar 8km, Kumarsar-Chandan Nagar 10km, Chandan Nagar-Jalebiya More 8km, Jale­biya More-Suiyya 8km, Suiyya-Abrakhia 8km, Abrakhia-Katoria 8km, Katoria-Lakshman Jhula 8km, Lakshman Jhula-Inaravaran 8km, Inaravaran-Bhulbhulaiya 3km, Bhulbhulaiya-Goryari 5km, Goryari-Kalakatia Dharamsala 3km, Kalaka­tia-Bhutbangla 5km, Bhutbangla-Darshaniya 1km, Darshaniya-Baba Baidyanath Temple 1km

What to carry
Kanwar, two water pots, match box, agarbatti (incense sticks), candles, torch, cloth bag, plastic sheet, thin blanket, saffron clothing (two pairs), towel, money.

Baba Baidyanath Temple, Deoghar, Jharkhand
Tel 91-6432-232295,

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