The holy month of Shravan is here. Kanwariyas from all over the country will be flocking together, carrying holy water on their shoulders, to make long journeys and offer it to Mahadev in various famous Shivalayas in India. As it happens with any Hindu festival and religious practice, there is a certain section of so-called ‘intellectuals’ who rush demonise the Kanwar Yatras.
For them, the Kanwar Yatras spread plastic pollution, create a nuisance and promote hooliganism. It happens every year. The Kanwar Yatris are termed as jobless, hooligans, Hindutva terrorists and whatnot. The self-proclaimed intelligentsia pretends that the Kanwar Yatris are the sole reason behind all their traffic woes and are responsible for all the pollution and law and order situations in their cities.
This year, there are some news ideas floating on social media. Apparently, some self-proclaimed intellectuals in Odisha have arrived at the conclusion that the Kanwar Yatras are an alien phenomenon that has been introduced by ‘Northern tradesmen’ and have nothing to do with Odisha’s Hindu culture.
Former Lok Sabha MP from BJD Tathagatha Satpathy has shared a tweet stating that the onset of Shravan is the “Start of another season of filth, dirt and road fights”. He claims further that the Kanwar Yatras have never been a part of ‘his state’s’ Hindoo culture and have picked up only in the last 15-18 years when ‘Northen tradesmen’ started selling plastic Kamandals and sticks.
Satpathy is not alone to have this argument either. There are many who share his views. Thankfully, an overwhelming number of Odias neither endorse this view nor consider that certain people have the monopoly over what can be called as ‘Odia culture’.
I am a native of Odisha too. And I believe that in calling the Shravan festivities and Kanwar Yatra as alien to ‘Odia culture’, Satpathy and others like him seem to forget that Odisha is a state with 30 districts and maybe a million flavours of Hinduism, just like the rest of India.
First of all, half of the argument against Kanwar Yatra seems to be on the lines of the anti-Diwali, anti-Holi liberal view. The claims of plastic pollution, traffic woes and law and order situations are administrative and law and order issues that are present all throughout the year. These issues require stronger state machinery to enforce laws and organise smooth traffic movements. It has nothing to do with faith.
Uttar Pradesh organised a Kumbh Mela where over 22 crore people took dips in the Ganga over a period of 49 days. The state machinery ensured that there are smooth traffic movements, effective cleanliness measures and no violence or law and order issue.
The western part of Odisha speaks a different language, celebrates some festivals that are unique to the western region and that does not make them any less Odia than Sathpathy and others who think like him.
I belong to this part of Odisha that worships hill-gods, forest-gods and tree-gods. We worship the first grains of the harvest on Nuakhai, and we organise the wedding of Lord Mahadev and Maa Parvati as per Vedic rituals every year on Shital Shasthi. We dance on Lord Mahadev’s Baraat and we weep when Maa Parvati is sent on her ‘Bidai’ with all the jewellery, silk sarees and adornments meant for a Hindu bride. Nuakhai is a festival of western Odisha. A large part of Odisha does not celebrate Shital Shasthi either. Does that mean that these festivals are not a part of this so-called ‘Odia culture’?
People from western Odisha have been following the strict abstinence of the Shravan month and taking on long, arduous journies to Baba Baidyanath Dham in Jharkhand for generations. Many of us who do not go on a Kanwar Yatra still follow the Shravan rituals anyway. Every Monday throughout the month of Shravan, every single Shivalaya is thronged by thousands of shiv bhakts who keep a day’s fast and walk to the temple to offer water to their lord.
Economically affluent people all throughout small towns and villages open ‘annachhatras’ and ‘jalachhatras’ where they attempt to share some of the Punya of the Kanwariyas by offering them free food and shelter. I have seen family members, neighbours, friends, irrespective of caste, class and social status don the Bhagwa and carry the Kanwar of holy water from all over to Babadham in Jharkhand, chanting “Bhola baba paar karega, Bol Bam”. How can someone claim that these thousands of people who have been working, living and earning and spending in Odisha for generations are not a part of ‘Odia culture’?
India and the Sanatan dharma have evolved through a massive churning of diverse ideas and hundreds of paths, sects, and practices that represent our civilisational journey. Just because some people claim that a certain practice was not a part of their local ‘culture’ in a 100km or so radius does not make the faiths and beliefs of thousands suddenly alien to a state.
A considerable number of Odias follow the Mahima sect. They believe in a ‘Nirakaar Brahma’ and shun idol worship. Will these self-proclaimed custodians of ‘Odia culture’ declare that Santha Kabi Bhima Bhoi is not a part of their version of Odisha’s culture?
In the famous Dhanu Yatra festival in Bargarh, that is regarded as the world’s largest ‘open theatre’, an entire village becomes Nanda Raja’s Gopapura. The Jeera river becomes the Yamuna and Bargarh city becomes Maharaj Kansa’s Mathura. Throughout the time the festivities last, the local administrators and even the collector of the district come to pay homage to ‘Kansa Maharaj’.
After the festival is over, when the young Krishna finally ‘kills’ Kansa, the actor who plays Kansa goes to Puri, takes a dip in the Bay of Bengal and goes to the Jagannath temple to seek ‘forgiveness’ from god, because, while playing the role of Kansa he had to speak dialogues that insulted Lord Krisha and this, as per the simple, pure faith of the people of my state, amounts to ‘Adharma’.
The point behind giving these examples is, Hinduism has always been a celebration of simple, pure faithfulness regardless of narrow confines of regionalism. Thousands of Odias travel to Tirupati each year. Thousands go to Vaishno Devi, and thousands go to visit the 12 Jyotirlingas of India. So, how can some individuals with a tunnel vision are going to decide what is the Odia identity and what is not?
That being said, even if one argues that the wide popularisation of Kanwar Yatra all over Odisha has been a rather ‘recent’ phenomenon, who are we to dictate the time period threshold that makes a certain practice Odia and alienates certain others as ‘imported’ from other states?
The entire Odisha is full of ancient Buddhist sites. Odisha’s emperor Kharabela, who established the mighty Kalinga empire defeating the Satavhanas in the South and conquered Magadh in the north, was a follower of Jainism. Are these so-called custodians of ‘Odia culture’ lamenting the absence of Jainism as the mainstream faith of Odia people now? If not, what is the exact definition and acceptable time frame for a ritual or practice to be called as ‘Odia culture’ as per them?
Confining the vast, diverse and multifaceted hues of the Hindu dharma and Indic civilisation to narrow fiefdoms of imaginary zones is the greatest disrespect of our millennia-old civilisational identity. I have used the word ‘churning’ earlier, borrowed from Sanjeev Sanyal’s book The Ocean Of Churn. In the same book, Sanyal recollects an incident when he had met a person from a small Hindu community in Vietnam, which believes that when their people die, the great spirit of the Nandi bull comes and guides their souls to the land of river Ganga in India, their spiritual homeland.
The Hindus of south-eastern Asian nations trace their lineage back to the sea voyagers from the Bay of Bengal. So why should the natives of the spiritual homeland of Hindus think that their faith has to be confined inside petty walls of regionalism?
It is perhaps a sad irony that the myopic, politically inspired views of some individuals in India claim that Ram is alien to Bengal, Kanwar Yatra is alien to Odisha and Tamil Nadu does not recognise ‘Hindi gods’. Thousands of Hindus, from Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashtra had marched to Pandharpur recently to celebrate the Ashadhi Ekadashi. Thousands of Hindus from all over the nation had taken the holy dip at Prayagraj during Kumbh. They have never let their faith of thousands of years to be limited by post-1947 administrative divisions called states.
Hindus have never been confined to narrow regional identities and they never will be. So Bengal will keep saying Jai Shriram and Odias will keep on going to Vaidyanath Dham during Shravan, whether some individuals with acute civilisational amnesia accept it or not. Bol Bam.