As we weaved our way through them I could sense the fear. Our driver was overtly overly cautious. I wondered whether it was their overwhelming numbers or the unrestrained ebullient kinesics. Some prodding and the driver blurted how a car had been trashed and upturned earlier in the day because it had touched one of them. He further recounted a similar incident in his own company the previous year. Having suffered the loss of a car his employer had kept his taxis off the road, this being the first time he had let them out after a fortnight. A calculated risk to keep the wolf from the door.
Let me first stop those of you who have conjured up images of us traveling through some God forsaken land with unruly mobs on the streets. We were in Devbhoomi, the land of Gods, returning from a trek to the Valley of flowers and our cause of concern were the hordes of holy pilgrims. Decades ago I would silently admire the fortitude and devotion of those who believed that bringing holy Ganga water to bathe the Linga of their local shrine made them a truer Shiv Bhakt. Over the years as they have increased in numbers and notoriety my adulation has slowly turned from dismay and disapproval to plain dread.
Back then, I found the fact that they were idolised and revered, their feet washed by the village elders uncalled for, a little over the top. But it was understandable as a way of social recognition for the marginalised, a time for them to step out of their exclusionary, often humiliating life and claim centre stage. Establishing proximity with the absolute was a bonus. Now as rose petals are showered from choppers, politicians make a beeline to honour them, state administration strives to facilitate their Yatra and the police ignore their unruly behaviour I wonder where this is heading.
Religion is messy and politics makes it messier. As I rode past the chaos, a trail of plastic on the roadside, the stench of human excreta near the shivirs I noticed that the traditional Kanwariya was missing. The word “Kaavad” stems from Sanskrit which means a pole on the ends of which pots are hung. The undernourished, impoverished, saffron clad, barefoot man walking on the roadside, with urns tied to a decorated bamboo on his shoulders is a rare sight. In his place were these fighting fit boisterous men, bare chested or wearing matching tshirts, riding recklessly on motorbikes, jeeps and tractor trolleys, loud music blaring from their vehicles, claiming the road and other open spaces, a sense of entitlement in their demeanour.
Another noticeable development was the use of the Tricolour instead of the traditional saffron flag for decoration. Can and should the National flag be used in a religious function in a country as diverse as India? Is it, as some perceive a way to establish that all Hindu rituals are cultural and national while minority practices are alien and a nuisance to public order? An issue worth pondering, because when Shiva Bhakti is not enough and some Desh Bhakti has to be thrown in, when devotees sing praise of political leaders instead of the divine, when chants are replaced by loud digital music and when the Kanwariyas are neither Bhole nor bear kaavads, one should be wary, even scared of what is claimed to be sacred and sacrosanct .
( published in the Tribune on 18/8/2018)