In a secular country, honoring everyone’s faith is a given. Your faith is as valuable as mine. Therefore, no one should reasonably have any quarrel with a bunch — or several bunches for that matter — of people reiterating their faith by carrying water on their shoulder, and walking a long distance with the single-minded aim to pour water on a Shivling to (presumably) calm the Divine Destroyer. This ritual is one of the most important acts of faith for Shaivites.
### The Story Goes…
The practice traces its origin to the Puranas, specifically to the story of the Kurma avatar, and the churning of the Ocean of Milk (Kshirsagar) to bring forth amrit (ambrosia) to ensure eternal youth and immortality of the gods, the Suras. This story is called Amritmanthan in the Puranas. Several days of churning brought forth untold treasures which were distributed among the various gods with Vishnu being the chief beneficiary, since He received the Siamantak mani, a blue sapphire of unparalleled purity and incandescence, and His Consort Ma Lakshmi, who arose from the Kshirsagar, bringing several kinds of treasures with Her.
### Poisonous Fumes and an Overpowering Poison
Several days of churning caused noxious fumes to envelop all creation, with a venom called halahal spreading through the universe. At this stage, Lord Shiva stepped in to rescue all living creatures, including the gods, from a ghastly extinction by imbibing the halahal. Though He restricted the poison from descending below His throat, it caused Him agony by way of insufferable heat in the Treta Yug.
The myth is that Ravan, the demon King of Lanka, was a great Shiva bhakt (devotee). He carried waters from the Ganga in a kaavad to pour on the Shivling at Pura Mahadev to release Lord Shiva from His suffering. This act of extreme devotion is commemorated every year in Shravan (mid-July to mid-August), which is supposed to be Lord Shiva’s birth month. The timing should be between the eleventh day of the waning moon in Shravan till the new moon, which is the Shravani Shiv Ratri. (The Phaguni Shiv Ratri commemorates Shiva’s marriage to goddess Parvati.)
### Modern Day Devotees and Their Practice
Typically, devotees bring water from the Ganga in earthen pots, tied at both ends to a bamboo rod — the entire contraption being called a kaavad — to pour on the Shivling at their local temple or at some major temple. In north India, devotees walk barefoot to Haridwar, Rishikesh, Allahabad, even Gangotri, Gaumukh, and other pilgrimage spots where access to the waters of the Ganga is easy, and one can get permission to fill the kaavads. This journey is called Kaavad Yatra.
In Bengal, people either draw the waters of the Adi Ganga near Kalighat temple, or at other points like Sheoraphuli, and carry the kaavads to Tarapith or Tarakeshwar to pour it on Shib Thakur (as the Bengalis say); take a dip in the Ganga, and return to their homes cleansed of all sins.
### When Normal Civilian Life Begins to be Disrupted
Support to the devotees is an excellent thing to do. There are many NGOs and semi-religious organizations who make a point of providing support by way of food, water, even medical assistance when required, to the devotees. Some organizations have been set up specially to cater to the needs of the kaavadiyas (as the devotees are called).
What becomes troublesome for the people living in Delhi and the national capital region (NCR) is that many arterial routes are jammed as a separate corridor is created for the kaavadiyas to walk en route to Gadh Ganga, Haridwar, and other such places. The general public begin to resent it when it means that an important meeting is missed or delayed because the participants were held up on the road; when a train or plane connection can’t be caught; and especially when a loved one’s life is put in jeopardy because access routes to the doctor or hospital are blocked.
### Confusing Consideration for Right of Way
Push comes to shove when the kaavadiyas begin to confuse the consideration accorded them to be their right of way. It isn’t. Remember, till it was popularized and commercialized from the eighties onwards, this was a pilgrimage undertaken primarily by the monks of diverse sects. However, the aggressiveness of some kaavadiyas is giving the practice a bad reputation; so much so that many dread the few days when the kaavad yatra is at its peak.
**Let saner counsel prevail: **Leaders from within the faithful should emerge to tone down such aggression, which unfortunately makes even the genuinely religious doubt the bonafide of the ritual and of the kaavadiyas. Re-stating the origin of the practice might be a good place to begin as most people are aware of Ravan’s sticky end. “Ati darpay hataa Lanka” meaning excessive arrogance killed Ravan would be an apposite/befitting reminder.
### Civic Administration Must Assert Their Authority
The civic authorities in Delhi and the NCR should also ensure that ambulances and vehicles carrying the seriously ill are given right of way, even if it means making the kaavadiyas walk single file. They should be made to stick to the footpath during peak office hours. There is no rule which decrees that they must take the highway. If a band of kaavadiyas are going on a truck or via some similar vehicle, there is no need to give them right of way as the yatra should be undertaken on foot. Normal civilian life must not be disrupted under any circumstances. A little foresight and organization would be able to create a win-win situation.
### Religion Isn’t Permitted to Impinge on Civilian Life in Bengal
The kaavad yatra receives significant state support in West Bengal, but traffic disruption caused by them is almost unheard of. They walk single file when they’re on any arterial road, and must obey traffic signals when they need to cross. Many people who go on that pilgrimage every year speak glowingly of the arrangements made for their safe travel covering a long distance (Kolkata to Tarapith is over 220 km); nourishment by way of glasses of milk (they aren’t supposed to eat or drink water once they’ve drawn the water till it is poured on Bhole Baba); secure arrangements for their ritual dip in the Ganga; and for their night halt.
**Conclusion:** All in all, people must be allowed to voice their concerns over the abuses of religious practice without being targeted by a section of trollers and busybodies. It is time the state governments woke up to the inconvenience caused by giving kaavadiyas right of way on major roads, and took appropriate action.
**Author **:-Kalopna Moitra
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