Kanwariyas or Varkaries: Romance with God knows no language

August 13, 2015

‘Devotion cannot be used to fulfill any of desires. It in itself is a check on all of them. When all thoughts, all words and deeds are given up unto the Lord the least forgetfulness of God makes one intensely miserable. Then one may say romance with the almighty has begun’…. Swami Vivekananda

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During my stay at national capital New Delhi in the month Shravan the roads had turned to a sea of saffron, thronged with an everlasting chain of orange clad Kanvariyas; the devotees of Lord Shiva on their Kanvad Yatra an annual pilgrimage to shrines like Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand to fetch holy waters of Ganges which would be offered at their native Shiva temples subsequently. The Yatra takes place on auspicious dates of July –August as per guidelines of Hindu calendar. However, those performing in Bihar do it round the year covering a distance of 100 kilometers from (Sutanganj to Devghar in Jharkhand) on foot. Some government estimates state that at least two crore Kanwariyas perform this holy journey nationwide each year.

The Kanvad Yatra used to be a small affair undertaken by a few saints and aged devotees till the 1980s. It gained popularity subsequently and people from far flung areas of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh started participating in it.

Historically the Kanwar yatra can be traced to ‘Saagar Manthan’ the churning of the ocean mentioned in the Hindu Puranas. Following the churn, Lord Shiva had consumed the poison, a by-product of the mammoth exercise performed by Devatas (noble forces) and Asuras (devil forces) together in order to free the world off negative energies surrounding it. Centuries later Lord Shiva’s devotee Ravana had brought the pious water of holy Ganges using a Kanwar and poured it on Shiva temple in Puramahadev, thus freeing Mahesh from jaundiced energy he had accumulated consuming poison.

Interestingly, the Kanwariyas bear a close resemblance with Varkaries of Maharashtra and northern Karnataka which is also a religious movement within the bhakti spiritual tradition of Hinduism at least customarily. Varkaries are worshipers of Vitthal also known as Vithoba form of Lord Krishna, the presiding deity of Pandharpur. They also clad saffron and begin their pilgrimage from forty different cities of Maharashtra and Karnataka covering hundreds of kilometres on foot to reach Saints and Gurus of Bhakti movement associated with the Varkari sect include Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Chokhamela, Eknath, and Tukaram, all of whom are accorded the title of Saint.

This  happens twice a year – one during the Hindu calendar month Ashadh (around July) and second in Kartik (around November). Varkaries start their journey on first new moon ie. (11th day by lunar calendar) and completes it in 15 days to reach Pandharpur on the immediate Ekadashi. Varkaries are part of Varkari Sampraday ie. Varkari Stream.

The Varkari movement teaches a duty-based approach towards life emphasising on morality and strict avoidance of alcohol and tobacco. It also encourages adoption of a strict lacto-vegetarian diet and fasting on Ekadashi day, self-restraint ie. brahmacharya during student life and practising equality irrespective of social and economical status.

Although Wari is is celebrated for centuries but the practice got a major boost in 1990s with no. of varkaries crossing to 7-8 lakhs a year.

The interesting similarities between the two practitioners endorse the view of uniform customaries among Hindus beyond geographical limits. Both the traditions preach universal brotherhood, moral values and disciplined devotion of the almighty.

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