The ghat of Haridwar in the middle of the afternoon. Photo by Nicholas C.

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Kanvar Mela: Adventure Holiday – Indian Style

This article was previously published on the author’s blog site ( in June 2014. 


All over India, an interesting phenomenon can be observed. On one hand, materialism is on the rise, and on the other hand, the popularity of rituals and religious festivals is also very much on the rise. Even festivals like the Kanvar Mela, which involves great hardship, attract huge crowds, most of them young men. It indicates that in spite of Indians’ modern life style and Western influence, their ancient bond to the spiritual dimension is strong. The majority of Indians still feel connected with the invisible power behind the visible forms and to the Gods who represent this power.

Sitting in Dehradun where I live, I could have gotten the impression that the Kanvar Mela is mainly about traffic jams and rowdies who want to have a good time. Several of my English-educated, Western-oriented acquaintances talked condescendingly about the Kanvarias, referring to them as big nuisances who take over the highways, creating huge traffic jams.

Yes, among the more than 10 million Kanvarias who come to take Ganga water from Haridwar over the first fortnight of Shravan (July/August), there may be some troublemakers too. Yet from my own experience, the overwhelming majority are amazingly good-natured, and they are actually the ones who have a hard time.

The people of Haridwar of course also have to put up with great inconvenience, especially toward the end of the mela, when most of those who walk the whole distance on foot have left the city and the motorcycles, trucks and loud music move in. Around 50,000 vehicles enter the city on each of the last three days. The number of Kanvarias has exploded over the recent years. This year, 33 million came into a town of some 250,000 inhabitants. The huge crowds everywhere take a toll, but, all the more, the genuine friendliness and cheerfulness of the Kanvarias stand out. The Haridwar citizens bear the teeming crowds rather calmly. They know the reason they come and respect it. And many benefit financially as well.

I went to Haridwar during the early days of the mela and coming in by train, which overlooked some of the city roads, I was presented with a spectacular picture. As my sister called just then from Germany, I gave her a running commentary of the milling crowds, all in orange, and mainly young men. I am sure she could not have pictured it. We simply don’t have an equivalent in the West. Maybe that is the reason why I appreciate and enjoy the atmosphere and my Western-orientated Indian friends don’t. They seem to be irritated and embarrassed by such display of religious fervor. Maybe they feel that it shows India in a poor light. They don’t realize that this living spirituality makes India special in the international community. The Western attitude of ignoring and even denying the invisible power behind the visible has made our lives empty and barren. Natural joy, cheerfulness, and a solid grounding in human values are lacking when we aren’t connected to the spiritual dimension. It is no surprise that mental depression is so rampant in Western societies.

In the West, we try hard to enjoy ourselves and to have a good time during weekends and holidays. There are many options, like going out for meals, visiting a picturesque town, walking around street festivals, going to a lake for a swim, or into the mountains for trekking, and of course, the one thing many people live for—going for the yearly holiday to some far-away dream country. And indeed, we might have a good time, provided nothing gets on our nerves. At the same time, a sense of futility creeps in. Back from a holiday, everyone is likely to say how wonderful it was. But for many, it turns wonderful only in retrospect, while boasting before friends.

In India, celebration and enjoyment are ingrained in the culture and mostly connected with the Divine. Almost all festivals have a religious nature. A beer festival like the Munich Oktoberfest is simply out of place. The “egg-throwing competition,” and competitions about who can eat or drink the most in the shortest time span that happen regularly there, leave a bad taste in India. In India, divine power and sacredness are still taken for real and the tradition of doing tapas (austerities) is still alive. The Kanvar Mela is all in one: enjoyment, bonding with family and friends, adventure, trekking, devotion, and participating in the rather severe tapas (i.e., sacrificing one’s own personal comfort as an offering to the divine). There is a sense of purpose. In the back of one’s mind, there is the link with Shiva. “Bum Bum Bhole” and “Jay Shiv Shankar” reverberate. There is still the acknowledgment, if not a sense of wonder and genuine devotion, regarding the invisible power behind the visible forms.

This attitude makes Indians cultured, even if they come from a very poor background. They have certain guidelines they stick to, and being good-natured and accommodating toward others are two of them. This is not so in the West. Egoism is the main guideline there. I remember a discussion in a psychology class, where the question came up whether it is good to be selfless. No, it is not good, because to express and push through one’s own needs has to be first and foremost to stay psychologically healthy, was the general consensus.

In Haridwar, I watched the unending stream of Kanvarias walking back home, carrying fancily decorated bamboo structures, called kanvars, with Gangajal (Ganga water). Even in pouring rain they continued walking. Several wore bandages around their calf muscles and ankles. One young man, barefoot, was limping. Even one blister would make every step painful. Two handicapped men pedaled along in their decorated wheel chairs. Some middle aged men did not carry the kanvars but had two containers with Gangajal hanging around their neck. Yet, although tired, all smiled easily and waved, while I took photos.

Strangely, twenty-five years ago, there was no Kanvar Mela in Haridwar. Kanvarias have been traditionally associated with Baidyanath Dham in today’s Jharkhand. How did it happen that the Kanvar Mela became such a huge event in Haridwar after the Kumbh Mela, the biggest religious gathering worldwide?

“You know, in Hinduism, we don’t have fixed rules how to worship. Everyone is free to do as he pleases,” an old Haridwar resident answered my question. “During the holy month of Shravan, there were always people coming to Haridwar to take a bath in the Ganga and then they would offer water in the local Shiva temples here or go to Neelkanth Mahadev temple near Rishikesh. At one point, someone must have gotten the idea to carry the Ganga water all the way back to his hometown. And then next year, more people did it and so on. And now there are more than 10 million people who carry Gangajal home to their respective Shiva temples. A new form of worship has been born,” he chuckled.

This flexibility regarding worship in Hinduism allows changes in tune with the times. Nowadays, many pilgrims make use of trucks and vans, yet in an original way. The trucks are only a support system, as it were. It works like this: Relatives or villagers get together and rent a truck for the pilgrimage. Cooking utensils, stoves, provisions, sleeping mats, and so forth are carried in the back of the truck, and a wooden platform above the luggage is packed with passengers. Once the holy water is taken from the Ganga, it is not placed in the truck, but instead reverentially carried on foot by the young men of the group in a relay. At least one man at a time runs behind the truck with a Kanvar over his shoulder and when he is tired, another man takes over. This gives a chance for older people and those who are doubtful as to whether they can walk long distances a chance to be part of the mela.

Undoubtedly, most of the Kanvarias were not used to walking long distances, yet this did not prevent them from making the resolve to go on foot. One group, for example, came from Meerut. They planned to cover the 175 kilometers in three days. There were several women, stoically walking along. Apart from the kanvar, many seemed to carry nothing else. Some carried a small backpack. One group had a cart packed with children pulled by a cycle, while the adults walked.

From where I watched the stream of pilgrims, they had not yet walked ten kilometers. How will they feel after 100 kilometers? It is certainly an arduous journey. Yet along the route, several Hindu organizations and even some individuals offer food and shelter for the Kanvarias as well as stands on which to hang their kanvars.

“Those facilities were not there in the olden days,” a man from Bihar told me. In 1965, as a twenty year old, he had walked the 120 kilometers from Sultangunj, to Baidyanth Dham. “The path through hilly terrain was very rough, often littered with pebbles as sharp as needles and we all walked barefoot. I had blisters as big as cricket balls,” he remembered. “Had he wished for something from Shiva?” I asked. “No, I had gone in thanksgiving. I had promised to do the pilgrimage if a certain thing would happen. It did happen and I fulfilled my vow,” he explained.

Many of the Kanvarias may have come to thank Shiva for fulfilling some desire, others may have come to ask for some favor. For many, it is a special sort of outing, physically demanding, yet ultimately more fulfilling than simply “having a good time,” thanks to the heartfelt connection with their beloved Shiva.

 Background of Kanvar Mela

The Kanvar Mela goes back a long time and was originally connected with two popular Shiva shrines—Baidyanath Dham, also called Deoghar, in today’s Jharkhand and, to a lesser extent, Taraknath in West Bengal. Devotees traditionally worshiped Lord Shiva with bel leaves and water. The tradition to pour water over the Siva lingam is supposed to have its origin in the churning of the milk ocean by the Gods and the demons. Before the kumbh (pitcher) with Amrit emerged, poison wallowed up, which threatened to destroy the world. Lord Shiva came to the rescue, swallowed it, and kept it in his throat. His throat turned blue and the Gods rushed to pour water over him to mitigate the effect of the poison. And to this day, devotees pour water over the Shiva lingam. It can be done any time and with any water, yet Shravan month, which falls in July/August, is devoted to Shiva and Gangajal is said to be especially dear to Shiva. After all, it was He who had cushioned the impact of Ganga’s descent to earth in his matted locks.

During Shravan, devotees traditionally carry Ganga water from the place nearest to those two temples—that is from Sultangunj, which is 120 kilometers from Baidyanath, and from Sheorafuli, which is around 65 kilometers from Taraknath. The pilgrims walk barefoot through difficult terrain carrying kanvars—usually a bamboo pole with containers dangling from both ends. The Shiva devotees are required to maintain utmost cleanliness, austerity and penance. Once the kanvars contain the holy Gangajal, they are not supposed to touch the ground.

Until around 1990, the kanvar mela was a local affair in Bihar and West Bengal and still continues to be extremely popular there. Yet since the 1990s, the mela expanded in a surprising way. Har ki Pauri in Haridwar, where a drop of Amrit had supposedly been spilled during the chase after the churning of the milk ocean, became more and more the focus. Millions of Kanvarias now fetch Ganga water from there, carry it in kanvars to their home towns in northern India, and pour it over the lingam in the local Shiva temple at Shravan Shivaratri, which falls on the night before the new moon.

In recent years, the number of pilgrims has increased exponentially. Last year, more than 25 million pilgrims came to Haridwar over the first fortnight of Shravan.