The steady drizzle and wet clothes did not stop the march of saffron and black-clad men on State Highway 12 in Shamli, Uttar Pradesh. Many wore flimsy chappals while others walked barefoot. In an effort to stay dry, they covered themselves with tarps made from upcycled Cliff Bars and Spearmint wrappers.
This is the Kanwar Yatra, one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world. Shiva devotees from the North Indian states transverse hundreds of kilometers to gather sacred water from the Ganges headwaters in Gangotri, Gomukh, and Haridwar, Uttrakhand to take back to their local Shiva mandirs.
From observing the Yatra devotees over the course of a few days, I sensed a sharp difference between the young and old, seemingly more serious, pious men. On their backs, both cohorts carried a kanwar, a bamboo pole balanced with two lotas for carrying precious Ganges water on either side. Young mens’ kanwars were intricately built, resembling Delhi’s concrete skeletons of under construction highrises, but made of tinseled fabric and decorated with bells and images of Shiva, Paravati, and trishulas – Shiva’s trident and weapon of choice.
Hindu iconography displayed proudly alongside Indian flags. A majority of the young men were traveling in groups, sharing the burden of carrying heavy and intricately decorated kanwars, singing chats and the Jana Gana Mana. In contrast, the kanwars of the asectics and older men were barren and plain, an undecorated pole holding dented steel lotas. They were often solo travelers or in smaller groups of two or three. Amongst the throngs of men, I noted a few women walking in groups or with their families. Their saffron kurtas covered their legs and dupattas wrapped their heads.
Though Kanwar Yatra is a spiritual practice, there was a sense of rowdy nationalism made it clear that this was a certain type of activity where not all were welcome. Young men,
participating in the excitement but not the pilgrimage, speed in motorbikes four deep waving the Indian tricolors. Intricately decorated lorries blasted a mix of Vedic scripture and pop alongside the pilgrims at all hours of the day.
Policemen stopped vehicles and directed them through circuitous detours, but vehicles of boisterous men waving Indian flags were passed through. Modi and Yogi Adityanath, UP’s Chief Minister, look down encouragingly from the countless billboards planted every few kilometers along the pilgrimage route. Rest camps where pilgrims could rest and find a hot vegetarian meal were adorned with Indian flags. Inside the tents, the faces of sponsored local politicians and businessmen and Parvati bestowed their blessing on sleeping pilgrims.
The young male participants seemed to be living embodiments of Hindutva – mobish, performative, and distinctly, masculine. The Yatra was no longer a pilgrimage, it was a political event where young men seemed to gather to note their existence and value in strengthening Hindutva values and Hindu life.
The only visual separation between the proud and pious seemed to be amongst the male participants themselves; the young men displayed their state-supported Hindu nationalism to onlookers while the old men seemed more focused on the pilgrimage. There were too few women to get a sense of where their allegiances lay.
The Yatra disrupted my sense of safety. My reserved hotel room in Shamli was given to a group of policemen from New Delhi, brought to help keep the peace and security. The apologetic hotel manager explained that the young men got drunk and violent in the evening, and that there wasn’t enough security to keep them from damaging private property. I hastily make last minute arrangements after inquiring room availability in other local hotels.
In the early evening, daades and daadas set up plastic chairs and cots along the dirt shoulders on main road. Children ran alongside lorries where men dressed as Shiva and Parvati danced on makeshift stages on top of the lorry. Women watched the parade from their rooftops. But once the sun set, everyone retreated into their homes, and the streets were free for young men to roam and rampage.