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!


a reason to write said...

what great pictures - once again!

Kris Thompson said...

Another great post! The pictures are fantastic.

K said...

AFAIK, King Dasaratha did not refuse to take water to Shravan's parents. He did and told them what he had done. They cursed him and died. The curse was that he too will be separated from his son and will die as a result of it.

Years later Dasaratha dies after seeing his eldest son, Rama, being denied the crown and sent to the forest for fourteen years.

Lloyd said...

K.......when i was doing research, perhaps i did not read the information correctly. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction..............

K said...

You are welcome. Perhaps there are different versions of this story. I have read only the one that I mentioned.

Globalseek said...

Hi, I found you through expat-blog and have enjoyed reading your posts.

The boy Shravan and the month Shraavan are different from each other. They are not related.

(Note the elongated "a" in the second one. These are two different words.)

Saffron is symbolic of asceticism, pilgrimage and holy rites.

You can get the story of Meera here -

Of course, just as the biography of any saint, Meera's story is also replete with magical incidents, which were added later.

Anuj said...

Excellant information and I shall share it with kids who are asking queries about Kanwariyas.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. This was enlightening.