At first, I thought they were part of the famous Shiva temple, collecting water from the nearby stream for daily prayers. Then I saw another group, and then yet another. They were way past the stream, making their way uphill hurriedly. Each person had two water containers suspended from a bamboo stick, which they carried on their shoulder.
They definitely didn’t belong to the temple. I wondered where were they were coming from. They were in such a hurry to reach their destination that I thought they may not stop to talk. I kept walking away from them, towards the forest, and they took the other path that leads to the temple.
We were at Bhimashankar, about 200 kilometers from Mumbai, where the temple of Shiva is an ancient one, and is considered to be one of the 12 most sacred shrines of the Lord, known as the Jyotirlingams. We had arrived at the temple early morning. After performing our prayers, had decided to take a walk and visit another ancient shrine hidden inside the dense forest surrounding the temple.
The shrine turned out to be a tiny lingam (a rock representing the idol of Lord Shiva) situated picturesquely under a small waterfall. Sated with our experience of spiritualism in the heart of nature, we turned our steps back to civilization, and were half way through when I spotted a middle aged man walking slowly, step-by-step, wearing saffron clothes and carrying on his shoulder, a pole, from either end of which were hanging gaily decorated pots containing water. We were headed in the same direction, and I, in spite of not carrying any load, could only walk at his speed, so we began talking.
He was from a village on the foothills situated on the banks of the Bhima River, which originates in these hills. He was an educated man, working in a nearby factory. He helped the people of his village with prayers for the local deities in his spare time. Twice a year, however, he donned his saffron robes, took a few days off from work and headed on a pilgrimage.
This was the second of the two pilgrimages for the year, since it was the holy day of Tripurari Purnima, the full moon night in the lunar month of Karthik (November/December), and he had brought water from the Bhima to offer it to Lord Shiva at Bhimashankar. He started his journey before dawn, around 5 am, and it was nearing noon when we met. He had to reach the temple before noon, because that was when the water he and the others had brought would be offered to the Lord.
Water is brought and offered every day to Lord Shiva. He is known as ‘Abhisheka Priya’ – he who likes to be bathed – and people take the term literally, bathing him with water, milk, curds, sandal paste, rose water, honey, and myriad other items, all believed to cool Him. We ourselves had offered all these to the Lord early in the morning.
What made these men and their offering special was the fact that they carried the water in urns or pots from their homes, walking barefoot on the rough and rocky forest floor, not once placing the pots on the floor. Most of them wore saffron clothes – saffron is the colour of spirituality in India – but there were younger ones who wore jeans and T shirts with saffron scarves tied around their heads or on their waists.
The concept of walking to a temple is not an odd one in the country. In every state and region, there are temples which draw thousands of pilgrims who believe that walking to the temple from their home, no matter how far away, will make their wishes come true. There are many such pilgrims who routinely walk over a week to reach temples, especially during certain festivals.
Carrying water to the temple isn’t a new idea either. In the northern parts of India, there are people who carry water from the Ganges river to their home. They are called Kanwariyas – a name which comes from the word for pole – kanwar – which they carry with a covered water pot hanging from each end. This balanced system for carrying the water ensures that the pot does not fall or break, and also makes it easier to carry. The men we saw were Kanwariyas too, albeit slightly different, since the Ganges is too far away. They carry water from the nearby river, to the ancient temples in the area.
The Bhima river itself is a sacred one – it is the main tributary of the Krishna, one of the biggest rivers in the area, as well as among the holy ones in India – and it has many temples on its banks. Besides, the river originates in these hills, and the Lord himself takes his name from that of the river. Hence, bathing the lingam of Shiva at Bhimashankar with the water of the Bhima is considered even more sacred, especially when the water is brought to the temple in such a manner.
As we walked, he told me about his other pilgrimage – an even more arduous one, culminating on the day of Kojagiri Purnima – the full moon day in the lunar month of Ashvin (September / October), during which he walked for over a week to reach the temple of the goddess Saptashrungi, once again carrying the pots of water on his shoulder.
In this day and age, when the world has shrunk thanks to the speed of communication, and we fly from one country to another in the space of a few hours, one would think that such archaic methods of worship would die out or change to a speedier and more efficient system. However, all we need to do is see these kanwariyas, especially the younger ones, even teenagers, happily participating in the pilgrimage, to realize that faith and belief are not dead… Times have changed of course, and with it, the journey too. Most of the walk is now along the roads, and only a section through the forest. I wondered if this made the journey easier, but apparently, it is easier to walk barefoot on the rocky trail of the forest than the scorching tar of the road.
Earlier, they used to sing songs and chant the name of the Lord, but today, cell phones have replaced the singers, and we could hear the sounds of the popular religious songs being played at a distance. For me, it was distracting, to say the least, but for him, hearing the sudden sound meant a reassurance – that the others in his group were not too far away. So much has changed, but so much still remains the same, especially the fervor which accompanies the pilgrimage.
We had set out for the temple in the morning after breakfast, but these men had been fasting, and it was a bunch of weary and hungry men who arrived at the temple at noon, just in time for the holy water to be offered to the Lord. We stayed outside while the men went in, willing them their time alone with the Lord, and as we rested in the shade, cries rang out from the temple –Har Har Mahadev! Their journey had been completed successfully!