Tag Archives: Shravan Mela

Road to Salvation: Shravan Mela Kanwar Yatra


ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY join the saffron tide as they march 105km with kanwariyas from Sultanganj to Deoghar during the annual Shravan Mela  

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‘Why this, why this, why this Bholagiri ji’, the Kolaveri Di parody blared out of tinny loudspeakers. Every few steps, the cacophony changed to ‘Daraibher sainyan’ (Darling driver-take me to Deoghar)’, ‘I love you Gaura’ or ‘Roje-Roj Ganja Bhang’. As global musical trends go, Cher’s Believe may be a thing of the past, but in Bhojpuri music the Auto-tune pitch correct was the next big thing after Jhankar Beats.

Adding to the spiritual soundtrack were tinkling bells, the low hum of a moving crowd and loud chants rending the air. ‘Bol bam ka nara hai, Baba ek sahara hai, Bol bam, Badhe kadam, Bol bam, Doori kam, Baba nagariya door hai, jana zaroor hai (Bol Bam is the chant, Baba is our support, Bol bam, onward feet, Bol bam, distance less, Baba Dham is far away, We must go there).

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From singsong chants of pilgrims to pots bobbing on either ends of the pole, walking was a rhythm. As veterans of religious and rustic fairs from the Baul Mela at Kenduli, Baithurappa Festival at Iritty to the Maha Kumbh at Allahabad, we had experienced our share of processions, but the Shravan Mela was something else. It was the ultimate budget trip, a spiritual marathon comparable to the Santiago de Compostela (St James Way) in Spain, a medieval pilgrimage route to the cathedral of St James where the Apostle’s remains are enshrined. The pilgrims foot the distance without any trappings of comfort.

In India, during the monsoon month of shravan (July-Aug), saffron-clad men carry pots of holy water on kanwars (decorative slings) and pour it over a Shiva linga at the nearest important shrine. In this case, the 105km journey started from the uttar-vahini Ganga (north-flowing, hence holy) at Sultanganj in Bihar to Baba Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar, Jharkhand, one of the twelve jyotirlingas in India. People trudge over hills, across rivers and places with evocative names like Suiyya Pahad (Needle Mountain), Jalebiya Mod (Twisty Turns), Bhutbangla (Haunted House) and Bhulbhulaiya Nadi (Labyrinthine River) – realms akin to the Tolkeinian route to Mordor. As it turned out, it was rather scenic.

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The pilgrims hike 20-25km each day, stopping at makeshift seva-shivirs (camps) for food, rest or sleep. The journey takes about 4-5 days. One class of pilgrims doesn’t stop at any camp but grabs water, food and medicines on the go. These are dak bams, who must complete the journey within a day (usually 15-17 hrs), which earns them privileged access to the Shiva shrine at Deoghar, unlike ordinary pilgrims who must queue up for miles.

We found ourselves in this spiritual obstacle course courtesy Albela Dak Bam Seva Samiti, Telco Colony, Tatanagar – a bunch of friends and acquaintances who left their jobs for a month to run a free, voluntary camp for dak bams near Suiyya, the most treacherous part of the journey. Their daily schedule ran round-the-clock – from rest and sleep arrangements for pilgrims, dispensing water, handing out painkillers, massages with pain balms, making prasad, chopping fruits, morning puja, evening arti and kanwariya songs… By evening, the speakers would crank up and crowds would break into frenzied dancing in a religious rave.

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Nearly 70,000 pilgrims walk to Deoghar each day with numbers touching 3-4 lakh on Mondays, a day sacred to Shiva. Even after Shravan Mela (July 13-Aug 25 this year) people do it through the year till Magh (Jan-Feb). Some arrive directly at Deoghar by vehicles. We met a group that had cycled all the way from Kolkata. Old men, women, children, even those differently abled, all formed part of this motley cavalcade.

And thus, after a customary visit to the Shiva temple of Ajgaibnath, our journey, like that of a thousand others, started at the ghats of Sultanganj. Streets were lined with shops selling custom-built kanwars and religious paraphernalia. Makeshift stalls on the ghats hawked pots, sacred threads and lumps of clay for sealing pots after collecting holy water. In the dark watery theatre of oil lamps and incense smoke, priests chanted appropriate mantras and prayed for a safe journey and good darshan. And we were off…

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Over slushy banks, through busy streets, dodging traffic, past music stalls blaring the latest tunes and videos of kanwariya songs that looked like a mish mash of different art forms – Bhojpuri stage shows, tacky theatre and bad Photoshop. Standing out in this strange flotilla were the two of us – with backpacks and cameras instead of kanwars, shoes instead of bare feet – sticking out like sore thumbs in a sea of saffron.

Some threw taunts at us ‘Aye Jutta bam’, ‘Japan bam’, ‘English bam’ or simply chuckled while inquisitive ones struck up a conversation. One man walked up to us and after a moment’s scrutiny, affirmed to the rest ‘Belgium’, with the confident authority of a head surgeon confirming the gender of a newborn child. Soon, we got used to it. And they got used to us. We walked mile after mile, braving winds and a steady drizzle. When it didn’t rain, we rested by day and walked at nights, stopping at teashops for milky concoctions or rest at wibbly-wobbly benches in dharamsalas and inns. With practically nonexistent sanitary conditions, we watched people run to the fields or behind rocks and trees as we plodded towards the next makeshift loo and bathed near village wells or took community showers.

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Wooden stands were placed at regular intervals where pilgrims could rest their kanwars or water pots, as rules forbade it from touching the ground from the moment it was carried. It was odd to see kanwariyas hold their ears and do utthak-baithak (squats) in penitence for any oversight in protocol before resuming the journey. There were other restrictions too – vegetarianism, celibacy, truthfulness and purity of speech and thought. Using oil, soap, shoes and articles of leather was not permitted. Each addressed the other respectfully as ‘bam ji’ or appended ‘bam’ to one’s name; which did amuse us initially! Grappling with the outdoors on an unfamiliar road to transcendence, we had unwittingly become characters of Kerouac’s ‘The Dharma Bums’.

The path was well laid out with diversions and underpasses that skirted all vehicular traffic. Not too long ago, the tracts were wilder with little or no illumination at night. People often had to fend against wild animals and robbers. Today, they had to deal with beggars, kids dressed up as gods and hastily built roadside shrines. No one knew how long people had been walking this route, but as per tradition Lord Rama was one of the first to undertake this yatra. There was also a reason why this took place in shravan.

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Legend has it that during the samudra manthan or churning of the cosmic ocean, many divine things emerged, including the poison halahala. As Lord Shiva consumed it, Parvati grabbed his neck to prevent the toxic brew from being swallowed, turning his throat blue, hence his name Neelkanth. Yet, the poison inflamed Shiva’s body. To decrease the effect of the poison, the practice of offering water to Shiva started. Hence, his associations with all things cool – the crescent moon, the Ganga and water continuously dripping on the linga. It is said the samudra manthan took place during the month of shravan, characterized by rains and the act of libation was thus a great service to Shiva.

As a form of hatha yoga, some covered the distance by dand-baithak (full body prostrations), taking weeks to reach their destination. They too carried a kanwar, but walked a mile, left the kanwar on a stand, walked back, crawled up to it and repeated the process. For them, it was three times the journey! We were fortunate to meet veteran dak bam Ram Sagar, who was doing the yatra for the thirteenth time that month (he had vowed to do it 15 times).

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We wondered what motivated them to take on this arduous journey that was riddled with masochistic hardship and austerity? A wish unfulfilled, welfare of loved ones, an unbroken oath, problems in life or just out of service or devotion; each pilgrim had a reason. We heard stories of Krishna dak bam, the pious lady from Muzaffarpur who was a regular for the last 35 years! She walked only on Sundays, four times a month, in time for the holy darshan on Mondays. Sumit bam explained “She is considered a divine being and walks in a retinue of 100-150 people with villagers flocking to see her. The police too escort her, blowing whistles and fanning her with towels, as she blazes forth. It’s near impossible to walk with her. Seeing her, even a spectator is energized.”

While there was no competition to reach first, the fastest time achieved was 9 hours, a brother-sister duo from Nepal. Legend has it they died after pouring water. Shwet bam explained “The system is such that till the last minute you are not sure whether you’ll be able to complete the task. Whether the water falls on someone’s back, on the ground, or the linga is hard to tell”. We met a guy who had walked for three days, stood in the line and yet, declined to enter just meters before the temple gate, daunted by overwhelming crowd. But such is life, the next year he went twice. Jha ji chuckled “It is like clearing your backlog.”

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The crowd comes to a stop miles before Deoghar with a waiting period of several hours before one can even reach the temple complex. The sanctum sanctorum has just one entrance, so managing the crowds is near impossible. Temple priests and policemen whirl towels and beat pilgrims with frayed cane sticks goading them on like cattle. JP bam, the most experienced in the group, explained the strategy to us like the team leader of a crack commando unit going over a hostage evacuation exercise… “Once you enter the inner shrine, don’t try to pour the jal immediately or you’ll be crushed. Stick to the walls. Wait for the initial rush to subside. Then dart forward and do the deed. But don’t pour everything on the linga. Save some for Parvati and Ganesha shrines nearby. Watch where you step… The stone floors will be wet. Don’t slip. Don’t fall. One more thing… Keep a tenner handy. Hand it to the priest and he will allow you to bend down and touch the linga.”

The rest followed like a slow-mo war scene. With the crush of a thousand bodies around us, the strange stench of sweat and flowers recycled by the air-conditioning, the crack of cane sticks, trampled toes, shouts and screams, curses and invocations… We have no idea how we made it in and out of the Baba Baidyanath temple, shuffled to Mata Tripurasundari’s shrine and picked out the Ganesha shrine out of the 22 temples in the complex. As we stumbled out, we caught a mixture of emotions on people’s faces – elation, daze, relief, fatigue and an emotional vacuum that comes after achieving an objective at the end of a trek or after scaling a peak.

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To make this endgame a little more humane, the Deoghar temple authorities has made special arrangements this year. As per the new arghya-vyawastha, devotees would be given a bar-coded wristband and a suwidha pass with the time slot and the serial number printed on it. Instead of entering the shrine, they can pour the water outside on a brass alley that directly leads to the jyotirlinga, thus assuring them complete satisfaction, minus the anxiety of a stampede.

Tired and thrilled to have completed the penance, we trawled the narrow streets of Deoghar for its legendary pedas. The best place to buy was Shree Bhagirath Sah Peda Bhandar. A poster warned against imitations and insisted that one should ‘buy only after seeing the photo of its founder’. Pilgrims looked around for souvenirs, devotional CDs, lac bangles, some memento to take home that said ‘I was there. And I survived…’

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Baba Baidyanath Temple, Deoghar, Jharkhand
Tel 91 6432 232295 http://www.babadham.org

Getting there
The 105 km journey starts from Sultanganj, near Bhagalpur in Bihar to Deoghar in Jharkhand. The nearest railway station is Jasidih with many special trains during the Shravan month.

Sultanganj-Kamrai 6km, Kamrai-Asarganj 7km, Asarganj-Tarapur 8km, Tarapur-Rampur 7km, Rampur-Kumarsar 8km, Kumarsar-Chandan Nagar 10km, Chandan Nagar-Jalebiya More 8km, Jalebiya More-Suiya 8km, Suiya-Abrakhia 8km, Abrakhia-Katoria 8km, Katoria-Lakshman Jhula 8km, Lakshman Jhula-Inaravaran 8km, Inaravaran-Bhulbhulaiya 3km, Bhulbhulaiya-Goryari 5km, Goryari-Kalakatia Dharamsala 3km, Kalakatia-Bhutbangla 5km, Bhutbangla-Darshaniya 1km, Darshaniya-Baba Baidyanath Temple 1km

What to carry
Kanwar, two water pots, match box, agarbatti (incense sticks), candles, torch, cloth bag, plastic sheet, thin blanket, saffron clothing (two pairs), towel, money

Mass Effect: India’s great gatherings


In the world’s second most populous country, ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY showcase unusual gatherings besides the Maha Kumbh Mela – bizarre festivals, wildlife spectacles, wedding marts, sporting jamborees, tribal meets and more


Kodava Family Hockey Festival
According to a local saying a Coorg boy is born with a gun in one hand and a hockey stick in the other. Like Punjab, this tiny region in Karnataka has given the country many brave generals and excellent hockey players. Little wonder that Coorg hosts the world’s largest hockey tournament. Recognized by the Limca Book of Records, the month-long ‘Family’ festival in April-May sees hundreds of far-flung Kodava families converging to represent their clan. Into its 17th edition, the annual festival is named after the maneypeda (clan name) of the organizing family, with cultural programs, feasting and matchmaking on the sidelines.
When: 14 April-12 May, 2013


Kabini elephant congregation 
Come the hot summer days of May when the river Kabini shrinks down to a trickle, massive herds of elephants gather by the dry riverbank. Groups of up to 500 Asian elephants that would otherwise be scattered in the dense forests of Nagarahole, Wayanad, Bandipur and Mudumalai, congregate to graze and bathe here in their quest for water in the dry season. Visitors speak of walking in fields of elephant dung! Base yourself at Kabini’s excellent wildlife resorts to witness the summer spectacle.
When: May-June

Saurath Mela
Every year, the tiny village of Saurath in North Bihar’s Mithila region hosts a mass marriage mart. A unique congregation of Maithil Brahmans, Saurath Sabha Gachchhi is held in a 22-bigha orchard donated by the Darbhanga Maharaj. Participating villages are allotted a dera (sitting place) where fathers scout for suitable grooms for their daughters aided by ghataks (middlemen). Marriages are fixed in a transparent manner after matching horoscopes by panjikars (registrars), who issue a certificate of non-relationship based on panji, genealogical records dating back to 14th century. The only catch, no ladies here!
When: 20-29 June, 2013


Shravan Mela 
In the month of shravan, lakhs of kanwariyas collect holy water from the Ganga at Sultanganj, carry it in pots on a kanwar (sling) and walk 105km across hills and rivers to offer libations on the jyotirlinga at Baidyanath Dham in Deoghar. Saffron-clothed devotees traverse the path from Bihar to Jharkhand, which becomes an unending sea of orange with chants of ‘Bol bam’ in the air. On Mondays, a day holy to Shiva, traffic rises up to 4 lakh pilgrims. Some do it on foot, some measure the length with their bodies, while another class of devotees called dak bams complete the spiritual marathon in 15-17 hours, without stopping for a single moment.
When: 21 July-21 August, 2013


Snake boat races of Kerala
Though Kerala is famous for epic festivals like Thrissur Pooram where temple deities are paraded on caparisoned elephants and Bharani mahotsavam at Kodungallor where devotees hurl abuses to awaken the goddess, the snake boat races are something else. The chundan valloms are 100-foot long crafts with a prow like the raised hood of a snake and require synchronized paddling by hundreds of oarsmen, making it the largest team sport in the world. Champakulam, the oldest boat race, kickstarts the racing season followed by the prestigious Nehru Trophy, Payippad, Kumarakom and Aranmula races.
When: August-September


Pushkar Camel Fair 
Bihar’s month-long Sonepur cattle fair and UP’s Bateshwar Mela are well known, but Rajasthan’s Pushkar Mela has evolved into a carnival. Rajasthani women in dazzling veils, men in fluorescent turbans, camel races, cultural programs, moustache competitions, tug-of-war between locals and visitors; there’s a lot going on. Besides trading in camels, horses and elephants, eye-catching stalls sell colourful stirrups to agricultural implements. Get a birds’ eye view from a giant wheel, explore the fair in a leisurely camel cart ride, try Israeli or Indian cuisine at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the lake or visit the only Brahma temple in India with active worship.
When: 9-17 November, 2013


Hornbill Festival
Held at Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, a permanent site 12km from the capital Kohima, the Hornbill Festival is the best place to catch all of Nagaland’s 16 tribes in one place. Ringing the arena are morungs (communal huts) of each tribe, where young boys learnt stories on culture and folklore from elders of the host family who sat around a fireplace and sipped thutse (rice beer). On showcase are traditional song and dances, archery, Naga wrestling, indigenous games and local delicacies like smoked pork. Buy Konyak beads and necklaces, Wancho wood-carvings, Phom black pottery or vibrant warrior shawls of the Angami, Yimchunger and other tribes. Besides rock concerts, motor rallies and fashion shows, there are also competitions to eat the dreaded Raja chilli (also called Nagahari or Tezpur chilli)!
When: 1-7 December

Winter migratories
Every winter, migratory birds flock to India by the thousands at various lakes and wetlands across the country. From Nal Sarovar and Little Rann of Kutch in Gujarat to India’s largest coastal lagoon Chilika Lake in Orissa, India becomes a large wintering ground for geese, pelicans, ducks, cranes and other aquatic avifauna. Spot painted storks at the tiny village of Kokarebellur near Mysore or flamingoes at Mumbai’s mudflats, Chennai’s Pallikaranai marsh and Sambhar, India’s largest inland saline lake. But the most amazing spectacle is the congregation of demoiselle cranes at Khichan, a tiny hamlet near Jodhpur. Being staunch vegetarians, the village community of Jain Marwaris idolizes the kurja (crane) for its vegetarian diet and monogamous nature. As part of a systematic feeding program, chugga ghars (feeding enclosures) on the village outskirts host these cranes with two feeding sessions daily (each 90 minutes) as the birds hop across from the dunes and the sky turns black with their wings!
When: Jan-February


Joydeb Baul Mela, Kenduli 
If songs of love and freedom, poor sanitation and three days of camping defined Woodstock; the Joydeb Mela is rural India’s answer to it. Held around Sankranti on the last day of Poush to the second day of Magh to celebrate the birth anniversary of  poet saint Jaydev, the festival draws baul singers, kirtanias and wandering minstrels of Bengal. Hundreds of pandals or temporary shelters on the banks of the Ajoy River resonate with songs of the divine and philosophical musings of Vaishnava saints. Nightlong dramas and dance ballets bring stories of mythology alive as visitors ramble about the terracotta temple of Radhabinod checking out stalls selling household goods, toys, stoneware and crafts.
When: Mid-February


Kila Raipur Sports Festival
What started off in the 1930s as a local village festival has transformed into an iconic event hailed as India’s Rural Olympics. The brainchild of Sardar Inder Singh Grewal, founder father of Grewal Sports Association, the bizarre sports meet at Kila Raipur near Ludhiana aimed to galvanize local youth of Punjab’s Doaba belt into sports. Expect tug-of-war, tent-pegging, freestyle kabaddi and races for camels, elephants, bullock-carts, khachhars (mules), tractors and even 80-year-olds! Locals showcase their unique talents – twirling gas cylinders, motorcycle daredevilry and towing vehicles with their teeth, hair, ear or beards. Adding colour to the proceedings, are Bhangra dancers, troupes of Malwai gidda, nihangs (blue-clad warrior Sikhs) performing stunts on horseback and running commentary by maraasis (traditional stand-up comedians).
When: First weekend of February

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 15 May 2013 in Conde Nast Traveller online.