Sunday, August 22, 2010

Kanwariya's - India's version of a "Water Boy"

As an American, the term "Water Boy" brings to mind images of Adam Sandler portraying, Bobby Boucher, the erstwhile "water-boy" turned hero in a comedy movie bearing the same name.

If you lived in or traveled the roads in Delhi earlier this month, you would have surely noticed a stream of people navigating their way through the city, clothed in orange and carrying decorated poles of bamboo from which hangs a cane basket at each end. Inside the baskets are water-pots filled with water from the Ganges River.

Last year, I witnessed the same annual pilgrimage…….literally thousands of people walking for miles carrying the pots of water from the river to their villages dotted all across North India. Last summer, I spent more time in Jaipur than I did in Delhi, and was without Ramesh, who typically serves as my first cultural resource when learning about India.

Many questions remained unanswered from last year, so while Ramesh was serving as my pilot during our morning journey in the car to work, he was also receiving a constant bombardment of questions from me……the entire gamut; Who? What? Where? Why? When?....over and over again……every morning……Ramesh would share his knowledge……or lack of……when he humbly responds with a soft; “I don’t know sir.”

So….who are these people and why are they doing what they are doing? I’ll start with some definitions that will help bring everything together.

Kanwars – These are the either the water-pots inside the little cane baskets or the entire combination of decorated bamboo pole, water pots and baskets………I am not sure (perhaps I could get some additional help from some readers on this)

Kanwariyas – The people, men and women, who are making the journey, are fondly referred to by this name.

Gangajal – water from the Ganga in Haridwar, Gangotri or Gaumukh (the glacier from where the Ganga originates) in Uttaranchal ……….I have seen water trucks around Delhi bearing the words “Delhi Jal Board”……but it wasn’t until Ramesh told me that the people were carrying “Gangajal”, that everything made sense to me.

Shravan – Shravan is the name of a young man in a Hindu story that was accidentally killed by King Dassarath (Ram’s father). More on the story later……Shravan is referred to as a holy time on the Hindu calendar which denotes the monsoon season of July and August…….and in north India, the trees and foliage turn orange(hence the color of the clothing worn) in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Harayana, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Bihar.

Samudra Manthan - Is the story of the “Churning of the Ocean” is one of the most famous episodes in the Puranas and is celebrated in a major way every twelve years in the festival known as Kumbha Mela .

The mission of the Kanwariya is simple; to fetch Gangajal, return to their hometown to consecrate the lingams as a gesture of thanks giving to God Shiva.

One legend has it that at the time of the churning of the sea a pot of ambrosia (amrit) and pot of poison surfaced. While the Gods and Goddesses eagerly tasted the amrit (if consumed was to provide immortality) none of the Gods/Goddesses wanted to have poison. The poison, known as, Halahala or Kalakuta, needed to be dealt with by the Gods, for it was so toxic, that had it may have destroyed all of creation. On the advice of Vishnu, the Gods approached Lord Shiva, for help and protection. Out of compassion for all living beings, Shiva drank the poison and held it in his throat, where it caused tremendous heat in his body and changed the color of his neck. This is why Shiva is sometimes referred to as “Neelkanth” (in Sanskrit “neela” means the color blue and “kanth” means neck) It is to pacify this heat that Gangajal (water from the Ganga) is poured over Shivlingas, a process known as JALABISHEK.

And then there is the story of SHRAVAN……a very touching story of a son and his devotion to his parents.

Shravan’s elderly blind parents wished to visit a holy place before they died, but were too frail to make the journey on foot. Having no other means to transport his parents, Shravan constructed a simple device to make the journey easy; a bamboo pole upon which he attached a basket on each end that his parents could sit in. With this pole draped across his shoulders, he began the journey of many kilometers with his parents comfortably at each end. One evening, after setting the camp for the night, he walked to the river nearby to fetch water. King Dassarath, at that time still a youngster, was hunting at this very place. He heard noise in the river, and in the darkness he thought it was the noise of a deer that had made it to the river to drink. He released his arrow, “the arrow of fate”, and it struck Shravan. (This is where the words fatal, fatally and fatality are derived from). Before dying, he asked the king to bring water to his poor, blind and thirsty parents……..which the king did, but when the parents discovered that it was not Shravan who was serving them, the king confessed to his actions.....he was cursed by the parents that he too would experience a separation from one of his son's.…….and Shravan was left to endure a terrible death worrying about his mother and father.

Whether the tradition or mission of the Kanwariya is inspired by either story…..or both, being chosen or volunteering is considered an honor, privilege and prestigious position among those in the village.

It is an act of devotion and a feat of endurance, for the journey must be made by traveling on foot for thousands of kilometers…….taking only one meal per day and making sure that the water or “Kanwar” is never placed on the ground during the entire trek.

The water is never to touch the ground until it is used in the consecration of the Shivalinga. The Kanwariya must devote his life for a period of 20 days during this period…….his life is completely devoted to the task of traveling to the source of water and returning safely back to his village, chanting and singing and keeping their minds free from evil or wrong doings.

Some travel alone.....most are men, although some women and children volunteer or are chosen by their village to make the journey....

..some travel in groups followed by vehicles that blast music over loud speakers......most carry simple poles......some are elaboratly decorated versions which require the stamina of many devotees to carry the kanwar.....

Unlike the American version of a "water boy", there is nothing comedic for India's Kanwariya' is serious business......incidentally, do you think that it is interesting or coincidental that the color of Adam Sandler's uniform is that same blazing orange that is worn here in may never know!

This post is devoted to the “Water Boys and Girls” of Incredible India!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Blog Therapy - a Birthday Present to Myself!

It's "Monsoon Season" in India..........from "A" to "Z"(pronounced ZED here in India) or, from Abohar to Ziro,(the first and last cities in India as listed alphabetically by Wikipedia)....

Today I am celebrating my second birthday here in India.....49 years young/old........I guess it depends on your perspective..Preston already thought I was turning 50!

I arrived in Delhi this morning, after being on a business trip......up at 4:00am and landed at rain.....

So how does a "Birthday Boy" in India celebrate his birthday on a very wet and rainy day in Delhi, India........while waiting for the rain to stop?

He get's back to the Blog he has been neglecting.......

The monsoon season was greeted with open arms by is the catalyst that provides the populous with a much needed necessity......water in India is tyically in scarce supply.....

Taken from a moving train just outside of Jaipur India

Some curse monsoon season, here in Delhi, the local government is under heavy scrutiny and criticism......the streets are flooding, traffic comes to a seems the "upgrades" that have been undertaken by the government to beautify the city have caused troubles......

The onset of Monsoon Season also means somewhat cooler temperatures......the rain also washes away the dust that coats everything everything a good clean/dirty look.....

In Jaipur, the Aravali Mountains are lush and green.......a nice change from the's amazing how a few drops of moisture from the sky can transform a desolate looking gray and dull rock formation into lush and green flora and fauna.

While the rains bring also see how the rains have an adverse affect on those less fortunate.....those who live without a roof overhead literally live in the rain......

I have captured some amazing sights with my camera lens......if you live in India for any length of time, you will witness firsthand some of the most heart wrenching sights......that unlike a photograph......cannot be deleted from your memory.

My words will not adequately describe what I witnessed on Thursday August 19, 2010;shortly after departing my train to Jaipur and awaiting my taxi, I saw one of the most poignant scenes since arriving in India.

I was greeted at the train station with a very hard downpour......I was also greeted by a uniformed driver with an umbrella who gave me instructions to wait at the curb while he retrieved the car from a remote lot......not wanting to get soaked, I heeded his instructions and joined the hundreds of other passengers who had just arrived who were taking cover under the overhang just outside.

I decided it would be best to move away from the exit door and made my way down to an opening I could see over the crowd....just a few meters from the exit doors.

With umbrella in hand, I ventured into the heavy rain under it's protection....doing my best to stay as dry as possible, as the crowd would not allow me to make my way under the protection of the roof of the building. The umbrella was no match for mother wool dress slacks were getting pelted by the driving rain...from my knees down I could see the rain drops leaving their marks on the dry leather dress shoes.....with the near perfect shine getting ruined as I made my way through the half inch deep accumulation of water.....

As I made my way to the place where the crowd was less thick......the opening I could see at the eyes were focused on the "puddles"....and I suddenly began the internal "cursing" and "damning" one does when mother nature does her thing.......

As I made my way to the eyes were taking an assessment of the "damage" mother nature had dealt me......I was taking stock of my situation......internally shoes would have to be "cared for properly" when I reached the hotel.....I would have to change into a "dry pair of pressed slacks" for my meeting.....socks.....yes the spare pair I had packed could be put to more thing to change which would cause a delay to my "precious minutes".....delaying my meeting.....and by the way....where is the "damn driver".....doesn't he know that I am waiting in the rain....what's taking him so long.....and he took my briefcase...."hell he better be protecting my computer as he walks to God knows where to reach the car"....I found myself glancing at my watch several times......and staring at the endless stream of cars slowly passing causing a jam.

I was so "wrapped up" in my world.....then I looked around......that's when India brought me back to reality.

The "reason" the crowd had thinned where I had chosen to stand was right behind me...

India slapped me in the face with the realness of what many struggle with daily......India had humbled me once again.

Laying in a puddle of water at least 2 inches deep..... was a man.....on his side...covered in flies....his newspaper bed had been overtaken as the rainwater made its way into the depression in the pavement....his clothing was drenched......he had no socks.....and he must not have been able to walk...his head was in the deepest part of the water.....his nose barely above the surface of the dirty water.....riddled with trash and God knows what....his hand instinctively pushing the water away from his nose....he just lay there no one helping him......when his body would rock every once in a while, the flies that had made there way back to cover his clothing, would suddenly take flight until he became still enough for them to return.

When witnessing something so pitiful, you do not have the decency as a human being to even consider capturing such a scene with your lens. Yet, it was the camera was never truly needed anyway......the image will never leave my memory.....

Writing about it seems more humane than sharing spoken words......I am not sure if this makes any sense......sharing the experience in spoken word seems to be more demeaning and less sensitive.....while writing and sharing it brings more meaning to the situation many face here in India.....the poverty becomes so real when you are inches from a man having to live in such conditions.......when the poverty is "speeding" by you as you drive through the city doesn't have the same meaning as when you are "so close" to it.

My wet slacks....the ruined shine on my wet leather shoes my soaking wet precious minutes.......moments before seemed like such a huge inconvenience......

On the way to the the air conditioned cabin of the dry vehicle I was riding in...I felt a chill......and adjusted the vents from blowing on me........was the chill of the conditioned air or the chill of reality setting in......all I could think about was that nameless man......without anyone to take care of him.....thinking about how his "fate" had delivered such sad circumstances to his life....if you could call his existence a "life"....why do such things have to exist in our world.....?

It's my birthday.....I am surrounded by those that love me....I received a phone call from my mother and sister wishing me well..........Linda baked a "Cheese Cake" favorite....I have received several well wishes from colleagues in the United States on my "fancy and expensive" calls on the same Blackberry from those who I work with... "confiscated" by Linda who has insisted that I do something other than work on my "special" day.....

I am so grateful......for everything that God has given 49th Birthday wish is for those less fortunate in our thankful for what God has blessed you with and be humble, helpful and generous to those in the world less fortunate.

Happy Birthday!