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Hardwar pilgrimage

Trekkers on a Holy Mission

In the rain-cooled months of July-August, thousands of pilgrims, barefoot and dressed in red shorts or loin cloth, carrying kanwars (balancing poles) on their shoulders, march in picturesque columns from far and wide to the holy city of Hardwar in northern India where the Ganga leaves its mountain abode and enters the plains.

The idea is to earn religious merit by undertaking the arduous journey — which can be hundreds of miles long — to collect Ganga water and bring it back for the ritual bath of God Shiva on an appointed day.

The kanwariyas, as the pilgrims are called after the colourfully decorated kanwars they carry to support the water vessels, are held in high esteem by the people. As the pilgrimage gets going, hundreds of resting places offering free food and bed spring up all along the pilgrim route.

The pilgrims, all on the same mission, develop a strong sense of camaraderie. The psychological and moral support they silently receive from fellow trekkers, who are otherwise utter strangers, goes a long way in mitigating the rigours of travel. There is no need to exchange names or addresses. The convention is to address each other as “Bhole”, one of the names of Lord Shiva, and that is all the introduction one needs. Differences of caste, creed or social status are all swept aside.

And moral and psychological support one certainly needs, especially in the case of those kanwariyas who deliberately make a trek a gruelling feat by tough self-imposed conditions. Some are bound by their promise to themselves not to lay down their water -laden kanwars before completing the trip. How can this be done when the pilgrim must rest at night, answer the call of nature and attend to his blistered feet? This is where the brotherly spirit comes to the rescue. Volunteers spring up to hold the kanwars, sometimes in night-long vigils. It is a fine example of the human heart moved by selfless love.

The spectacle of the kanwariyas is a 15-day wonder which is soon overtaken by other fairs and festivals.

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