The Kanwar Yatra didn’t take place in July and August this year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Gone were the lakhs of Shiva worshippers pouring into Haridwar and then making their way home along with the water of the Ganga river in pots balanced on decorated bamboo poles slung over their shoulders. There were no television reports about ecstatic Kanwariyas trudging tirelessly for hundreds of kilometres, no stories of how they were contributing to traffic jams, no debates about whether the surging popularity of the annual trek is a nuisance or a sign of a socio-political churning.
The silence across Haridwar must have been deafening even as the economic losses are immeasurable. As Kunal Vohra’s documentary Longen Folk To Go On Pilgrimage reveals, the Kanwar Yatra is immensely lucrative for Haridwar. Numerous stalls pop up to sell kanwars, as the bamboo poles are known, as well as memorabilia ranging from trinkets to t-shirts. Hotels and boarding houses can barely accommodate the visitors, the eateries are busy and tattoo artists are buzzing with work. Faith complements commerce as surely as the Ganga meets the Yamuna.
Vohra’s unreleased film captures the thrum and throb of the pilgrimage, which began in a small way in the 1980s and has since exploded into an annual assembly of lakhs of mostly male pilgrims from acrossNorth India. As Vohra hunts for clues about the pilgrimage’s burgeoning popularity, he quotes from American sociologist Vikash Singh’s study Uprising of the Fools: Pilgrimage as Moral Protest in Contemporary India. “The Yatra offers a departure from the chores, struggles, banality, temptation and humiliations of everyday life,” Singh wrote.
Some pilgrims have been visiting Haridwar for years to fill pots with Ganga water and return to their towns, villages and cities to deposit the receptacles at the local Shiva shrine, they tell Vohra. The journey home is made on foot and involves balancing the kanwar on shoulders all the way (a recent update to the practice involves a relay, where Kanwariyas pass on the pots from one to another).
I will keep coming until I get the home of my dreams, one follower tells the 55-year-old filmmaker. Another hopes his paralysed brother will be healed.
Many pilgrims are there to express gratitude for the good things that have happened to them. Others seem to have come along for the ride – one commentator describes it to Vohra as a “male picnic”. Although the throngs are mostly men, Vohra, who also shot the film, did spot some women in the crowd.
Vohra began filming the Yatra during a visit to Haridwar in 2014. He had been making corporate films and was keen on exploring Indian realities through the documentary form. As a resident of Delhi, where the Kanwar Yatra has become a flashpoint between pilgrims who demand right of way on the roads and residents who push back against what they regard as aggressive behaviour, Vohra was curious about the social forces behind the flood of bodies. In 2018, videos of a group of Kanwariyas vandalising a car that had brushed past one of them on a road in Delhi went viral.
“The average Delhi person’s perception is that they are thugs and have a sense of entitlement, but a lot of them simply walk with their heads down,” Vohra observed. “The initial impression wasn’t good”, but as he spoke to some of the Kanwariyas, he learnt of their deep devotion and the sense of community and solidarity that was generated during the pilgrimage.
When Vohra first visited Haridwar in 2014, taking along a camera and accompanied only by sound recordist and editor Ramdass Saini, the filmmaker thought he would return with a 30-minute documentary. Instead, he kept returning to Haridwar for the next five years, picking up fresh insights each time. Vohra’s camera captures the Kanwar Yatra’s turn towards gaudy spectacle and its recently acquired raucous and open-air rock concert-quality. The film also examines the role played by Hindutva organisations in co-opting the festival and adding their own spin to age-old beliefs.
Right-wing appropriation has been growing over the years, pilgrims and shopkeepers in Haridwar tell Vohra. The trademark saffron t-shirt-and-shorts uniforms of the Kanwariyas assumes an added layer of significance in the light of attempts by Hindutva organisations to claim the pilgrimage as yet another example of the resurgence of Hindu nationalism.
In 2017, the pollution of the Ganga because of the swelling numbers of visitors became a big source of discussion. “Every year I went, I found something new about the Yatra – new issues and new things to talk about,” Vohra said.
Despite not being particularly religious himself, Vohra says he forged his own connections with the irrepressible Kanwariyas, many of them working-class and lower-caste young men revelling in a rare opportunity to be free of their troubles and participate in an event bigger than themselves. “I could view the Yatra dispassionately – sometimes, looking through a camera can help you can put distance between yourself and the event,” Vohra said.
He is currently looking at distribution options for the documentary, whose title derives from a passage from Geoffrey Chaucher’s The Canterbury Tales. The fourteenth-century collection of stories traces another arduous pilgrimage from London to Canterbury – a journey of faith whose ultimate meaning eludes both the follower as well as the observer.
Interview: Kanwariyas need to be seen beyond being merely a cause of traffic snarls and disruptions