A Journey of Faith and Realization
Shiva is one of the most popular gods in the Hindu pantheon. One can find a Shiva temple or at least a Shiva Chabutra (platform) in almost every village of India.
According to legend, when gods churned the ocean, alongside many good things, Garal or poison also appeared. This started to cause widespread destruction. To save the earth, Shiva consumed the poison, thereby earning the name Neelkanth ( the Blue throated god).
As a child, I had seen the multitudes of saffron clad Kanwarias at the Patna Junction railway station. I had read about it in the popular Hindi magazine Dharamyug during my school days in 70’s. But beyond that, it was a world quite different from my world.
I belong to a typical Indian middle class family. The stress during school days was on studies and other intellectual pursuits like elocution and debates. I was above average in studies. As if to make that up, I was consistently below average in all forms of sports with the possible exception of Chess. I tried to pay some attention to sports while doing engineering, but a nagging back problem put paid to all such plans. Now, at a forty plus age and employed in a software company, I lead a fairly sedentary life. So to think of taking up the physically demanding Kanwar yatra is not exactly routine for me.
My school friend Sanjay Sinha, a native of Bhagalpur, had been writing about his annual Kanwar pilgrimage. What struck me was his description of the simplicity of life and the quiet divinity of the environment and I decided to experience it for myself. To be honest, I did not even check the Internet to find about the hardships. I did not do any preparation by way of physical conditioning or buying special provisions. I just decided to undertake this journey and landed up at Patna from Mumbai.
Mine or my family’s familiarity with things Kanwaria was so meager that it took quite a bit of search to locate a shop selling the saffron clothes needed for the journey: given the popularity of Kanwars in Bihar, it should not have been. I, in fact, decided not to buy the Kanwar, the bamboo stick used to carry the water at Patna but rather to buy it under advice from Kanwar mates at Sultangunj.
Road Journey to Sultangunj
Thus it was that I started my journey – Kanwar Yatra – semi prepared. The 240 odd km road journey from Patna to Sultangunj took about six hours by a highway and gave me a good glimpse of the changing face of rural Bihar. Now these roads are just called highways, but are not highways in the sense that they have multiple lanes or even road dividers for the bidirectional traffic.
Vast stretches of land were inundated with flood water even as routine life went on in other parts. In about an hour and a half, I was in the town of Bakhtiyarpur. For some strange reason, there is no by pass to this crowded town and one has to pass through the entire stretch of this town through what is its narrow, main street. It was an irritating half an hour made more irritating by the odd name of the town.
Bakhtiyar Khilji was a marauder of late 12th century who destroyed the world famous Nalanda University. This university was spread over 20 square kilometers and then housed ten thousand students. It is said that its library burnt for over six months when set on fire by the looters. By a strange coincidence, just as the barbarian Bakhtiyar Khilji was destroying this ancient seat of learning in the year 1198, Oxford University was coming up in England!
Naming a town after Bhakhtiyar Khilji is like calling a place Devilshire. I wondered why it can’t be named after say Dara Shikoh, the scholarly son of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan who represented the best of the syncretic Indian culture, the intermingling of the Islamic Sufi tradition with those of Hinduism. Or it could be named after Makhdum Shah Maneri, the most celebrated Sufi saint from Bihar. Or one of the Bihari leaders of pre independence India – Abdul Bari, Moinul Haque, Ali Imam or Hasan Imam. Somehow, we continue to call the town Bakhtiyarpur. I fervently hope it is some other Bakhtiyar and not the destroyer of Nalanda.
As you leave the Ranchi highway and proceed east from Bakhtiyarpur, the large under construction structure of the Barh power plant becomes visible. Once complete, it is expected to ameliorate the acute power shortage of Bihar. As one proceeds further, one sees the Mokameh taal to the south of Mokameh town. It is a vast body of water where one has to strain one’s eyes to locate the other side. It stretched for almost 10 odd kilometres. This vast water body acts as a buffer which sucks in water from the neighbourhood and keeps that flood free. I thought to myself if such buffers are the solution to the perennial flood problem of Bihar. The embankment based solution has utterly failed to offer any succour in the sixty years since independence, in fact trebling the flood prone area from what it was before the embankments! Even the duration of floods, which used to be one week or less now lasts more than two weeks and sometimes a month.
Further east of Mokameh, the landscape turns visibly rural. Traffic reduces and the pace of life becomes unhurried. One thing that struck my eyes was the huge number of school going girls in smart uniform riding bicycles. There is a government scheme under which school going girls are given bicycles for commuting. In the social milieu of rural Bihar, this is nothing short of a revolution. Not only will it result in improved education of the girl child, it will also result in giving them independence. The freedom to commute independently for the girl child is indeed a great change. Girl child emancipation is at least one area where Bihar seemed ahead of the so called developed states where female foeticide is practiced.
For some strange reason, the road deteriorated very badly as we crossed a steel bridge and entered Bhagalpur district. The last section of the journey was bone rattling, perhaps a reminder of the lost 15 years when the whole of Bihar had poor roads. Thankfully, it was a short 10 odd kilometres and soon I was in Sultangunj – the town of Uttaramukhi Ganga.
The Town of Sultangunj
The other members of my small Kanwaria toli (group), my school friend Sanjay Sinha and his relatives were to reach Sultangunj from Bhagalpur some four hours later. So I took this time to roam around and get a feel of this “one traffic light” town.
The entire town was full of Saffron clad Kanwarias. A chain of loudspeakers was making continuous announcement about public utilities such as “lost and found” and phone numbers of important officials and so on. There was a mela (fair) like atmosphere. I learnt that the officer in charge of the Mela, a gazetted officer of the government of Bihar, is called Mela Dandadhikari (literally Fair punishment officer). Why could he not be called a Seva Adhikari (a service officer)? It is perhaps a literal translation of the British time post of Mela Magistrate. Strange that an officer in a democracy is called a punishment officer! I could not suppress a chuckle at this funny designation.
Anyhow, the administration had done a pretty decent job of maintaining cleanliness. There were ‘no entry’ signs for vehicular traffic on streets where Kanwarias were walking. What is more, they were being enforced strictly. There were some VIP pass holders who were taking their vehicles in those narrow streets. I could not help wonder how these VIPs would make their foot journey to Deoghar.
Khaki clad policemen were enthusiastically directing traffic, both vehicular as well as Kanwarias. Temporary stalls selling items associated with the pilgrimage were pretty much all over the town. There was a tax on these temporary structures and the loudspeakers were announcing the rates of this tax continuously.
By 5:30 pm or so, other members of my team had arrived. I quickly changed into my saffron clothes. My friend’s uncle, a veteran of several kanwars, took me to a stall to buy my Kanwar. This is when I first got initiated into the various components of the Kanwar: the bells, the plastic snakes, the statues, the small stand for incense sticks, the ropes and of course the water containers. There are basically three containers: one for Baba Vaidyanath at Devghar, one for Baba Vasukinath and a small one called “Pavitri” (literally purifier). One sprinkles pavitri water whenever one gets up after taking rest or answering nature’s call and the like.
Having armed myself with all the accessories for the Yatra, I put my foot wear away and was ready to start. The walk for the pilgrimage is performed bare foot. The distance from the no entry sign to the ghat where one collects Gangajal is about 2 kms. This being a town area, the road is normal tar type. This short journey gave me a hint of the perils of the long barefoot walk ahead.
At the Ghat
The normal flow of Ganga is from the North West to South East. However, at Sultangunj, the river meanders to the north and is called “Uttaramukhi” or north bound. Along its long journey from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, there are very few places where Ganga is north bound and these places are considered especially holy.
The scene at the ghat in the fading evening light was awesome. There was the temple of Baba Ajgaibinath on a small hillock in the distance. There were the stone steps of the ghats taking you down to the river. There were the wooden platforms or the chowkies at the shallow end of the river. There was an ancient yellow structure on the bank as the backdrop to the ghat. There were scores of busy saffron clad Kanwarias – young and old, ladies and gents, able bodied and physically challenged, all taking bath, filling water, preparing their kanwar for the long journey ahead, doing puja, performing arti of their kanwar and other rituals. Above all was the vast presence of Ganga – more sea than river in this monsoon time.
One thing that particularly struck me was the rather small number of pandas or priests at the Ghat. Even the few that were there were pretty much content to let the Kanwarias alone. We took the services of one, the village panda of my friend. It is quite surprising how a Panda linked to a particular village gets located so easily in this sea of humanity. A sum of Rs 50 was enough to satisfy him for administering our sankalp (loosely, the pledge to undertake the journey). After a ritual bath, we collected water in our containers. Thereafter, the containers were sealed with mud and tied with a rope to the Kanwar. This tying is a delicate exercise since the containers should balance on both sides of one’s shoulder. I was lucky to have veterans in my party who did this task expertly for me.
By sheer good luck, we were still at the ghat at 7:00 pm when the Ganga arti started. It was a most overwhelming scene – the synchronised movement of the priests with the huge and heavy lamps in their hands and its image in the water. A beautiful Maithili bhajan was being sung by an artiste. I could not catch the words but the sound was very melodious.
I felt a strange sensation in my whole body – ‘kampan’ - which filled me with energy. I picked up my Kanwar amidst chanting of “Bol Bam” and was all set to undertake my journey.
By 9 pm, we had reached Masoomgunj, a small town, and decided to call it a day. We spent the night in a serai sleeping on the floor.
We were up early the next day, at 2:30 am. The toilet was the Indian style pot that you can use only in a squatting position. Thanks to my nagging back problem, I have not used this style of a toilet for several years and it was quite a chore using it. Brushing of teeth was by neem twigs – something I was using after ages. The bath was a shower under a rather innovative contraption. A 5 hp irrigation diesel pump was pumping water from a bore well into a thick rubber pipe which had several shower like outlets. It thus enabled several people to take a shower simultaneously. I must say I rather enjoyed the open air shower which was most refreshing. By 3 am, we were ready to hit the road.
One covers distance very rapidly in the early morning. By noon, in spite of the break for breakfast and a few other short breaks, we were at Rampur. The importance of Rampur is that the motor able road and the footpath (see we do have functioning foot paths even in India) for the Kanwarias separates at this point. As we turned left into the footpath, the journey became extremely painful. A concrete canal has been built for irrigation purposes. The chipped concrete of the canal started to hurt the feet. I saw several people with damaged feet. Veteran Kanwarias told me, in the olden days this was one of the most comfortable stretch while Suia Pahad (literally the needle hill) was the most difficult. Man has intervened to reverse the order! I hope and pray that someone from the Govt of Bihar reads my travelogue and builds a kutcha or sandy path parallel to this concrete monstrosity. Whoever does it will earn a lot of goodwill from the Kanwarias.
This is not a pilgrimage undertaken by superhuman ascetics. It is a pilgrimage of ordinary household individuals who undertake it in very large numbers. The official website of the temple (www.babadham.org) estimates the number of pilgrims at 5 million plus during the 30 days of Shravan making an average of 175 thousands per day!
It is the pilgrimage of “Bhole Nath”, the simple god. There are no restrictions of caste or creed or even religion for joining as a Kanwaria. There is fair number of ladies too. My own guess based on my visual observation is that around 20% could be females. Everyone is welcome to join as long as he has faith. One just has to follow the do’s and the don’ts. While the don’ts are observed fairly meticulously, minor transgressions are overlooked.
The atmosphere is one of a rural fair, with a lot of mirth and gaiety. There are jokes and there is merriment. There is a lot of communication between the Kanwarias. Some of the lingo is quite hilarious. For example, since I was the slowest in my group, I was promptly named the “Guard Bam”. Guard bogie is the last one in an Indian railway train! The fastest one was named “Engine Bam”. People moving with their wives were called “Family Bam”. People whose feet were damaged and had anklets were called “Damage Bam”.
In my group, it was decided that only the Engine Bam will have the privilege to stop. Others will keep moving till they saw him sitting at a stall. I as the Guard Bam had the privilege to walk slowly, but not the privilege to stop. To the credit of the Engine Bam, I always found him waiting whenever I felt like resting except for maybe one or two occasions.
Now these are harsh conditions. But there was an almost total lack of angst in the surroundings. Almost everyone appeared content.
The chants help to keep on going. The most popular chant is of course ‘Bol Bam’ followed by ‘Om Namah Shivaya’. Others are longer and more descriptive:
“Baba Nagariya Door Hai, Jaana Jaroor Hai”
(The abode of the lord is afar, but I have to reach there)
“Bol Bam ka nara hai, Baba ek sahara hai”
(My slogan is Bol Bam, Lord is the only support)
After a fairly tiring day, we spent the night at a Dharamshala at Jalebia. The hilly region starts just after this.
We were a bit late in getting up and could start only by 5 am. The sharp ascent and descent in the hill made walking quite tough. My speed was down to a crawl. The stretch is also rather picturesque with several rivulets and other water bodies. I somehow trundled to Tageshwarnath for breakfast and a second bath. Breakfast was Chura and Dahi, something that I do not particularly like. However, it seemed the safest choice as the alternative was deep fried Puri Sabzi.
Around 10, the sun, normally behind a thick cover of monsoon clouds, was out fairly strong. My group had moved ahead and I was left behind, barely able to crawl. At one stage, I could go no longer. So breaking the convention of my group, I put my Kanwar on a stand and stopped at a roadside stall. All road side stalls have chowkis or wooden platforms where pilgrims can take rest. At night, one has to pay money (typically Rs 25) for a chowki, but during daytime, anyone is free to take rest.
This stall was owned by a particularly poor woman and had no other visitor when I went in. I ordered lemon sherbet (all of Rs 3 per glass). I saw a fleeting glimpse of disappointment on her face at the prospect of a very small order by the lone customer. I increased my order to two glasses and was promptly rewarded with a lota (metal container) which was not less than five glasses.
I would have rested in her shop for about half an hour. I went into deep thought, trancelike. Most people undertake this journey to ask for a boon. I had not thought of any. I suddenly started to recall, one after the other, the various turns of my life. I could have been, to put it mildly, much less successful if any of those had turned out differently. I looked at the poverty of the shopkeeper as her two half naked children played in the shade. I could not help feel how privileged my life had been.
I must say I have never felt closer to divinity than in those thirty odd minutes I spent in her shop. How we keep running after more and more and make ourselves so unhappy! Smug satisfaction leading to not making an effort to improve one’s lot can’t be a solution. Is then the Geeta teaching which exhorts one to work without bothering about results the right path?
I got up from the chowki fairly refreshed. I gave her a ten rupee note. She wanted to return me four rupees! With some persuasion, I managed to make her take keep it. I must have walked pretty fast from there as soon, I had caught up with my group for lunch.
I must describe the lunch in some detail. It was five pieces of bread (Bihari style rotis or phulkas), two vegetables, dal, two varieties of pickle and a little bit of green salad too! All for the princely sum of Rs 15. Since all food is cooked fresh, it tasted very good. Perhaps it was also the extreme physical tiredness which made it taste so good!
My lunch and dinner was costing Rs 15 each. The breakfast was for Rs 10. The chowki for the night was Rs 25. The cost of all the sherbets during the day was Rs 20 or so. Thus I was surviving at Rs 85 per day or less than USD 2, the official line of poverty in less developed countries like India. My clothing consisted of two pairs of saffron shorts and T shirts ( the set cost less than Rs 100 each) and a gamcha (or towel) worth Rs 80 – in all Rs 280 or about USD 6. I did not have a footwear, nor shaving kit or even a toothbrush. I was brushing my teeth with Neem twigs. I did not miss anything. I did not need anything more. I felt quite content with whatever I had. Such is the power of spiritualism!
Sometime after lunch, we entered the Suia Pahar (the needle hill). The infamous needle shaped stone chips are gone, swept away by the volunteers over the years. This makes the journey for the bare foot pilgrims much less painful. However, the undulating terrain which required one to keep going up and down hill was rather strenuous slowing one down to a mere crawl.
We decided to take an early break and called it a day by 6 pm. There was a grand looking dharamshala (pilgrim’s inn) which was reputedly built by a single volunteer over a period of forty years. In his honour, it is called Kanwaria dharamshala. It was chock a block with pilgrims. We got a place next to it in a serai. We had early dinner and went to bed.
When I got up at 2 am in the morning, I did not even have the strength to go to the toilet. With great difficulty, I answered nature’s call and took bath. By 2:30 am, I was ready but highly apprehensive. I lay down on a chowki waiting for others to get ready. We started at 3 am. We still had 35 kms to go. I was moving very slowly. Within ten minutes, my legs opened up and I started to move at a fairly quick pace. By noon, we were at Godiari, having covered a distance of 20 odd kilometres. The remaining distance of 15 km now felt within reach.
We took a refreshing bath in the Godiari River. Having regained energy, we started again. The sun became strong. The sandy path started to burn. The temperature must have been between 35 and 40 degree Celsius. But somehow we continued our journey till we crossed into the state of Jharkhand. On the way, I heard this conversation between a child of about 8 years of age and an ice cream vendor.
Ee Ice Cream, aath anna ice cream ache?
Na, ek taka, du taka, panch taka.
(O ice cream vendor, do you have any ice cream worth US cent 1?
No I don’t. I have worth 2 cents, four cents and 10 cents.)
Our little girl was not going to have her treat that day for 2 cents was too expensive for her!
It is heart wrenching to see such poverty. But what was worse was the sight of small children, barely five, begging for alms. What dignity would these children have if they start to beg so early? I realise their parents must be very poor to send them begging like this, but surely they can do better. Parents of so many children can’t be all physically challenged. If they are able bodied, they can at least earn enough to feed their children. Minimum wage is not so low and there are schemes like NREGA. Surely, this has to change, but how?
As we entered Jharkhand, the scene visibly changed for the better. There was lighting arrangements and there was a mobile hospital. Artificial streams of cold water were poured on our legs to cool it down. Now this misplaced act of kindness by some pious soul had a rather adverse effect on me. My legs, which must have been quite hot with fast blood circulation and the hot sun suddenly felt weak. I just could not walk. One of my group members took me to a medical camp. I lay on the ground on a durrie as there were no wooden chowkies at the camp. I lay there for half an hour or so. Finally, I felt better, decided against seeing the paramedic and continued on my journey.
As we neared Vaidyanath Dham, the shops became more numerous. Our stops also started to become more frequent. Distance has never felt longer. As one Kanwaria put it, the Kilometre in Jharkhand is longer than anywhere else in the world! A point called Bhooth Bangla would just not come by. The redeeming feature was the smooth path made of fine sand and soil which was very easy on the sole. Finally we crossed the Bhooth Bangla point. A little later, we crossed a bridge to enter the town of Baba Vaidyanath. The sandy path turned into a tar road. A thousand needles seemed to prick the sole. We kept on our journey. We crossed “Darshaniya”, the point from which the temple shikhar (spire) can be seen. We increased our pace. We deposited our Kanwar which you are allowed once you are beyond Darshaniya carrying only one pot of the holy gangajal. Alas, it was now 7:30 pm and the temple door had closed! Normally, it closes at 9:00 pm. There was a rush the previous day and the door had remained open till late in the night. So on our day, to give some respite to the temple staff and the police, it had been closed at 7 pm itself. Now we had to get into the queue for the darshan the next day morning.
I somehow had a premonition that we would have the darshan early in the morning. I was wondering how it could be morning for we were slated to reach in the evening. I had made a silent prayer that if indeed we are delayed, we should get a resting place along the path so that we don’t have to walk additional distance. As good luck would have it, we got a room in a Panda’s house right next to the point where we were in the queue. We managed to get some rest and also the use of toilet and bath. I felt a glow of HIS kindness on this happy happenstance.
Day Five, the Day of Darshan:
By three in the morning, we had taken our bath and were ready for Darshan. With pot in our hand, we were all set to offer the cooling Gangajal to Lord Shiva. The constable on duty informed us that the queue now extended five KMs from the temple - the temple door had been now closed for 8 odd hours while the Kanwarias had kept arriving. We of course were ahead in the queue, having taken our place at 7:30 pm the previous day.
After several false starts, the queue finally started to move at 5 am. Though the actual distance was short, we must have covered a distance of some two kilometres as we were made to go round a serpentine way for reasons of crowd control. I was tired to the bone, but suddenly felt a rush of energy in my legs and started to run. We entered the temple complex and moved into a waiting hall with more serpentine queues. There was a fast tempo drum beat in the hall and I started to dance. From the waiting hall, I saw the Shikhar of the main temple in the clear early morning light. I felt completely overwhelmed. I also noticed the threads tying the shikhar of the main temple with that of another temple. As the queue slowed down near the entrance to the main temple, I enquired about it. I was told it ties Shiva with Parvati as in a marriage ceremony. Couples who have their wish fulfilled get those threads tied. I can’t tell you how beautiful, actually romantic, it felt. Is this from where the institution of marriage derives its strength in Bihar, the fragile thread which cements the emotional bond? Is this why Bihar is blessed with the lowest rate of divorce? At that moment, if felt like that to me.
Minutes later, I was in the sanctum sanctorum. Like most Hindu temples, it is a small place with a single door to enter as well as exit. The police were doing a fantastic job of managing the queue. They would let about a hundred or so enter and then stop the ingress. This 100 would have a minute to offer their jal to the lord and would be pushed out. I could pour the jal directly on the Shivalinga and save a little for the parvati temple too. The Shivlinga was inundated in water completely and I could not see it. One is considered blessed if one is able to touch the Shivalinga, but I dare not squat to touch in that milieu. Just about a minute later, I was out. I glanced back to see the sevaks clearing the place of left over pots in the ten seconds of break before the next batch would enter. And this would go on continuously for all the thirty days of Shravan.
I soon got moving with the crowd on to the Parvati temple to pour the remaining Jal. As we came out of the Parvati temple, we found a place to sit in a temple verandah. The water outlet from the main temple was just below. Now if I were to tell that a hundred thousand litres of water flows there everyday, that would be a cold statistic. But what I saw was a continuous flow of water, gushing like a stream, made from water carried over people’s shoulders walking barefoot over a distance of more than 100 km. I kept staring at the stream. I was totally overwhelmed. I felt extremely close to the lord.
Half an hour later, it was time to go. I took one last glimpse of the shikhar and moved out, literally carried on the shoulders of a local relative of my school friend. Somehow, I made it to a cycle rickshaw and then to the taxi. My taxi driver somehow bundled me into the car from the rickshaw – I had absolutely no strength left in my legs.
The journey after that was one of relative comfort. Our local friend took us to his house. I had had the use of a water closet and a proper shower after almost five days. They appeared luxurious.
What was now left was the pilgrimage to Vasukinath, the Faujdari Baba. Local legend has it that while Baba Vaidyanath temple is like the civil court where it takes time to get your appeal attended to, Baba Vasukinath temple is like a criminal court where one’s appeal is immediately listened to and the wish fulfilled. One is allowed to do this journey by motorised transport. There are some who do this stretch of another 45 km also on foot! Since very few do this walking, the facilities are rather inadequate. But such is the faith that some people do this additional gruelling stretch also on foot.
A similar routine of pouring water at the Shiva and Parrvati temples followed at Vasukinath. By noon, I was ready to go back.
As the car headed towards Patna, I saw some people walking along the road. My eyes immediately went towards their feet and found them barefoot. I could almost sense their discomfort. I then knew that I would not be the same again. My journey was now not just a journey of faith but also of self realization.