Padyatra, Kanwar Yatra or Ratha Yatra?

March 7, 2016

There has been much controversy regarding the size, color, type and definition of Kanwar (कांवड़) during the past few days as we celebrate the great night of Lord Shiva, Maha Shivratri, on 7 March 2016.

In ancient times, people used to carry their belongings in cloth bags tied to the end of a wooden stick. Then when pilgrims would set on the journey to holy places, they would use a similar wooden stick attaching at both ends cloth bags to carry their belongings and prayer items.

In Mauritius we inherited much from the Indian cultures and Kanwar Yatra (कांवड़ यात्रा), meaning pilgrimage carrying the wooden structure on the shoulders, is one among them.

As mentioned earlier, the past few days I saw people reacting at the different types of Kanwars seen on the way to Ganga Talao (गंगा तालाव), the sacred lake in Mauritius. While some people were quick to judge and even criticize why the Kanwars are so big, why they play music in it, and particularly this year why that one Kanwar in the form of a military tank; my observation was mostly whether we should still call the structure a Kanwar or not. For privacy reasons I am not posting Kanwar images taken in Mauritius but rather I am using images of Kanwars that were published in India.

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In my humble opinion, and as per the word’s definition, a Kanwar is carried on the shoulders. While it used to be one Kanwar per person, over time we’ve seen people making bigger & bigger ones which needed to be carried by more than one person.

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Kanwar or Ratha?

Since several years and as life got a modern touch, we’ve seen pilgrims building structures on wheels, powered by electricity, containing light bulbs, music systems and all. I had only one line to describe the structures, “if it’s on wheels, then it’s a ratha”. The tradition of Ratha Yatra got prominence in Odisha with the honoring of Lord Jagannath. In Sanskrit the word Ratha means Chariot and yes, that’s what a wooden structure on wheels would be.

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My observation of the Maha Shivratree celebration in Mauritius sums up with three types of pilgrims;

  1. Those doing Padyatra (पद्यात्रा), that is, pilgrimage on foot.
  2. Those doing Kanwar Yatra (कांवड़ यात्रा), that is, pilgrims (also called Kanwariya “कांवड़िया”) carrying a Kanwar on their shoulder.
  3. Those doing Ratha Yatra (रथ यात्रा), that is, pilgrims pulling a chariot.