Save for one year, I have been doing the annual yatra to Ganga Talao on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri regularly since 1982. And last Sunday too I took the road early in the morning to reach there in a little over three hours, meeting some loved ones on the way who joined me in the walk and kept me company until we did the puja together. I stayed back to do sewa at the Ramayana Centre bookstall before setting off on the return journey to reach Curepipe at exactly five o’clock. I expected to feel muscle ache and body stiffness, but early to bed, a good night’s rest and a couple of rounds at Trou-O-Cerfs the next morning took care of the discomfort and braced me up for the rest of the day. I joked with friends that the remedy was similar to that of those with a hangover: taking a fresh swill the morning after to get rid of it!
Over the years I have been witness to a lot of changes taking place in relation to the yatra, alas not all of them good. A positive one is the presence of youth in large numbers. There can be no doubt about the fervour and enthusiasm that they are so obviously imbued with, and which is contagious. Where youngsters make up the bulk of a crowd there is bound to be much clamour and gaiety, which is perfectly acceptable in this context too because Vedic Sanatana Dharma – shortened to Hinduism — is about the joy of living, about celebrating the now moment, less about austerity and anxiety. There is also some boisterousness which, however, disturbs when it exceeds certain limits. We can look at these developments in terms of what I would call hardware and software. While the hardware has mostly improved, the software needs much refinement and fine-tuning.
Thus, from the narrow and weed-laden bare-earth, uneven roads which wrecked car suspensions we have now progressed to ones which are wider and paved walkways along with parking spaces that still overfill at peak times. These have been accompanied by equivalent works at the waterfront of the lake and its surroundings to facilitate the puja there.
Given that this pilgrimage is the largest one in the country every year, involving the displacement of almost well over one third of the island’s population, and coming from all over the country, inevitably the national authorities have had to step in to take responsibility for constant improvements in the infrastructure. Among other things, this has helped to cope with transport security and logistics, water supply and environmental issues arising from such a mass movement and that impacts the life of the country as a whole for several days.
The only other comparable event is the pilgrimage to the Pere Laval Shrine, which though it is of much shorter duration and with less numbers of pilgrims, poses similar security and logistical problems and is equally deserving of the attention given by the national authorities.
While, therefore, the latter take their part of the responsibility, functioning through a Task Force, it goes without saying that the rest is up to the individual pilgrims and all those associated with them in the performance of the yatra – namely the religious heads and guides, the organizations under which the latter are grouped, the various civil society entities such as youth associations and so on. What I refer to as software is the mindset of the individual as s/he embarks on the journey, as well as the associated organizational and operational aspects, and which eventually influence on the hardware aspects too. This will become clearer in what follows.
And what follows is a self-critical look at what happens during the several days that this event lasts.
We are a country of many cultures and faiths, and generally speaking it is fair to say that we have always desired to and have actually lived in peace among ourselves, mostly. If we are to continue doing so, then we must at all times behave in such a way as not to inconvenience others, especially with respect to our customs and practices. This is where ‘sensitive thinkers’ – to use a term from Jawaharlal Nehru – in each community must from time to time engage in auto-criticism and suggest adjustments/accommodations as the need arises to achieve greater social harmony.
It is in this spirit that the following observations are made, and they are directed primarily at those participating in one way or the other in the festival. It goes without saying too, that a greater understanding is solicited from all citizens during this period so that the pilgrimage can proceed without hitch – which is usually the case.
Kanwars on the roads
This is part of what Diana Eck, a specialist in Indian Studies and Professor at Harvard University, has to say on the subject in her book India: A Sacred Geography: ‘…pilgrims converge on the temple carrying pots of Ganga water on either end of a shoulder pole. These people, called kanwarias, “pole-bearers,” have made a vow, perhaps for the health or well-being of a spouse or child, and have walked the distance from the Ganga at Sultanganj sixty-five miles away. For a month, the road is a steady stream of saffron-clad figures, both men and women, undertaking a pilgrim’s discipline that most try to accomplish within the course of twenty-four hours.’ (italics added)
I have seen many kanwarias on the road to and from Hardwar at the foothills of the Himalayas, who are mostly barefooted and, I have learnt, cover hundreds of miles from their place of residence.
But here, the whole concept and culture of kanwars has been transformed into something uniquely Mauritian, if we may say so. They greatly vary in size and design, being in many cases small raths (chariots) rather than kanwars in the original sense. So be it, and I will not go further into the issue of their sizes which has been talked about enough.
Accepting that fact (of their sizes), let’s move on to the larger issue of interference with traffic flow. Clearly the police have a large role to play here, but also, the kanwarias must display a sense of greater civic responsibility by following the police instructions, and not stopping – when they have to — anywhere but well by the wayside or at a lay-by.
Further, they must keep away from the centre of the road as they rest and refresh when they have stopped. It will be seen that these are very simple things to be followed, and that this will be better for traffic and commuters overall. Awareness and sensitization are key here, especially as it’s mostly the young who are involved.
There were cleaners and cleaning teams, along with waste carrying lorries, present regularly 24/7 along the access route leading to Ganga Talao and at the lake site too. However, here again the responsibility of pilgrims must come to the fore: use of the bins which are to be found all along the way by the roadside.
Sadly, the practice of just dumping plastic cups on the roadsides has not stopped – although they were being picked up as pointed out. Still, they are certainly not a pleasant sight while awaiting to be collected, and it is only the individual pilgrim/organisation that can make a difference – not the police, not the Minister of Environment, not the Task Force.
For example, one youth association that was serving drinks at Ganga Talao had placed a bin in one corner. But when it was full and the cups started to topple over and pile up on the road instead, none of the group seemed to think that the bin should be emptied and a new bin bag put in! We can multiply this example several-fold because it repeats at many locations. Again, just a little forethought can make all the difference.
Noise and other pollution
On last Friday night I was awakened abruptly by the sound of loud drum beats. When I looked at the time, it was 2.30 a.m. Some kanwarias were passing by and playing loud music. I can appreciate that they need something to keep them awake but surely they can listen to a softer bhajan when going though residential areas. They must therefore be advised accordingly. This is something that has to be looked into, and it isn’t a matter of law. It is only sensitization and understanding, and that is the role of the religious people and other civil society organizations.
At Ganga Talao too, there is a need to rationalize the diffusion of music. Practically all the organizations present there, especially the purely religious ones, had music playing on loudspeakers in their individual spaces. These were separated by only a thin sheet partition, so that there was a profusion of sounds heard, and one did not know which was which — since all the sounds together became noise that drowned the soulful single tunes. Clearly, this conflation, which is compounded by the loudness, is not desirable.
The Ramayana Centre stall was next to the University of Mauritius cubicle. I’d reached there at about 10 am, and after a few minutes I could no longer stand the decibels, which was, besides, forcing us and the pilgrims who had stopped by to raise our voices as hearing each other was difficult. So I walked over to a student participant and explained to him that there was no need to play the music so loudly, requesting that it be toned down. This was done immediately, and for the rest of their stay there the UOM team kept it that way.
On the other hand, there was a religious group a little away which was clearly not amenable to any reasoning. Besides, they had a large hawan kund which they kept going with the mix of simagri that is thrown into the fire, which was being done continuously as it was being distributed to pilgrims. The burning generated a lot of smoke, which had only one outlet: the road. Towards which it went on drifting. Several people had smarting of the eyes, and that was the least concern of that group. As was also the too loudly played non-stop Maha Mrityunjaya mantra.
This is something that needs to be looked into, and one suggestion has been that no group should be allowed to use a loudspeaker in the individual cubicles. After all, those who stop by can hear at normal volume as they stand there, and listen to the other music at a next stall if they so wish. There are other ideas and options that may be considered, and some serious thinking has to be done for clarity to emerge, and accordingly measures recommended and adopted in the future.
A lady tourist who was walking up from the waterfront was heard admonishing a few youngsters sitting on the steps and puffing away: ‘This is a place to pray, not to smoke!’ She clearly had a better sense of what spiritual meant, which equally clearly these misbehaved fellows didn’t have. What a shame. I hope that all those who are wont to show such disrespect realise that they are disrespecting themselves, and make their mea culpa so that they don’t indulge henceforth.
As usual, there were many volunteer groups doing food sewa, with a concentration near and at Ganga Talao. I thought that there was one too many at the Ganga Talao site itself, a feeling shared by a senior and elderly member of the Hindu Maha Sabha whom I talked too there. I had the opportunity to discuss this matter with Swami Pranavananda, Spiritual head of the Chinmaya Mission, when he graciously accorded me some time last week.
The broad view is that a rethink is needed about the location and number of food service points at Ganga Talao, and allowance must be made for the fact that many people, whether they have come in their own cars or have walked, invariably carry something to be consumed after they are done with the puja, since they would have been fasting before coming there.
Of course there are those who have come from further afield, and their needs must be catered for. However, this aspect can be considered as part of the overall set-up that requires redesigning, and the space allocations and utilization more deeply thought through, keeping in mind particularly the spiritual dimension of the yatra. Here’s work cut out for the socio-cultural organisations that are in charge of the preparations for the yatra.
These are a few personal observations, and there may be more points that others may have noted and that equally need to be articulated – so that the thinking about next year’s yatra can start early, and the set of measures/actions/advice to pilgrims begun well in advance, and not wait to be done only a couple of weeks before. The whole thrust must be on the pilgrim’s discipline – vide the quote from Diana Eck’s book above. That would certainly be a great service to both the pilgrims and to the country at large.
* Published in print edition on 20 February 2015
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