Kanvar Yatra – A Holy Pilgrimage Dedicated To Lord Shiva

With utmost dedication and piety, they carry pitchers with the holy water of the Ganges on their shoulders to pour it over the Shivalingas or the Jyotirlingas.

Kanvar Yatra – A Holy Pilgrimage Dedicated To Lord Shiva

Photo of ‘Murudeshwara’ by AK’s Images under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Time of the Year

The Kanwar Yatra is held mostly during the month of Monsoons, “Saavan” in Indian colloquial language. It festival occurs between the months of July and August.

The Mythology

There are two schools of thought in Hindu mythology when it comes to the origination of Kanwar Yatra.

The first one proclaims that the story dates back to the time when the Gods performed the epic event of “Samudra Manthan”. As narrated in the Puranas and the Mahabharata the churning of the ocean milk was performed by the Gods and demons together. Mount Mandara was the churning rod and Vasuki was the churning rope. The purpose of Samudra Mantha was to emit Amrit, the nectar for immortality. But the ocean started spitting out poison which was burning the world with its intense heat. Lord Shiva came to the rescue by engulfing the poison and placing it on his throat. His throat transformed into a blue colour owing to the poison, the reason for the attribution of the title “Neelkanth”.  The Gods poured the Holy water of the Ganges on Lord Shiva to relieve him of the burning sensation from the poison.

The second one mentions the demon king Ravana, a fervent devotee of Lord Shiva. It is said that he first bought the holy water of the Ganges in a pitcher and poured over Shiva in Puramahadev temple, relieving Lord Shiva from the negative effects of the poison. Since Ravana had performed the activity in the month of Saavan, it became a ritual among the devotees of Lord Shiva to pour the holy water during the monsoons.

The History

The Kanwar Yatra was originally performed by few saints since 1960 typically during the month of Dussehra. In the late 1980s, it started gaining popularity and it became an annual religious festival with participation of millions of people throughout the country. The key destinations initially were Haridwar, Gangotri, and Gaumukh. But now it has turned into a massive event with both men and women devotees gathering in huge numbers at the banks of the river Ganges in almost all the states of India.

The Pilgrimage

The devotees of Lord Shiva are known as the Kanvaris or Bhole. After a holy dip into the river Ganges, the Kanvaris fill-up the pitchers with the pure water.

The name of the yatra is derived from the word kanvar which means a single-pole balanced at opposite ends with identical weights. The devotees balance the filled up pitchers of water at the two ends of a bamboo pole. They then carry the bamboo pole on their shoulders to the temples to pour the water as an offering to Lord Shiva. Nowadays some people carry the pitchers directly on their shoulders, without attaching to the bamboo pole.

The Shiv Bhaktas or the kanvars dress up in saffron robes and walk barefoot usually in groups to offer the holy water. As they march towards the pilgrimage sites which are hundreds of kilometers far, they chant “Bol Bham” in remembrance of Lord Shiva. The chanting instills in them energy and power to complete the long and tiring journey in barefoot.

The mandate is to pour the holy waters in Swayambhu Shivlingas or 12 Jyotirlingas. However, since the festival has been spreading across the whole over India, people offer their prayers at one of the prestigious temples of their region as a mark of their dedication and worship. The tradition is to bathe the Shivalingam on the Maha Shivratri day.

The famous Shiva shrines where pilgrims flock in large quantities are Kashi Vishwanath, Baidyanath, Deoghar, Rishikesh, Meerut. Due to the huge response and participation in the Kanwar Yatra, many organizations in India in affiliation with the temples arrange camps for the devotees to rest and refresh themselves. Medical aids, food, shelter and stands for the poles are maintained at each of the pilgrimage sites to assist the Kanvaris. Along with the holy water, people offer bel-patra, bhang, dhatura flower, panchamrut (a mixture of milk, sugar, ghee, honey, curd) to Lord Shiva to seek his blessings.

“ Fire is His head, the sun and the moon His eyes, space His ears, the Vedas His speech, the wind His breath, the universe His heart. From His feet, the Earth has originated. Verily, He is the inner self of all beings.”

— translated from the Upanishads.

Om Namah Shivaay

Featured Photo pf ‘Kanwar Yatra’ by MsAnthea under CC BY-ND 2.0

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