Kanwar: Small is also beautiful


Maha Shivaratri

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Tragically, this is the second year in succession that we have had to witness loss of human lives during the Maha Shivaratri pilgrimage, a larger number (6 v/s 2 last year), as a result of a similar incident: the top of too high a Kanwar getting caught in a high voltage electrical transmission line. In addition, several pilgrims have been injured, some seriously so and struggling for their lives in hospital.

Ever since learning about this latest occurrence, I have been hoping and praying hard that on the occasion of this festival next year we will not have to lament jamais deux sans trois…This can only happen if right from now on the Hindu community gives some serious thought to this issue and comes up with strategies to prevent any more pilgrims from becoming victims to what is patently an avoidable mishap.

As was to be expected, the whole debate about these two tragedies pitches protagonists against one another. Some self-congratulate on what they have ‘advised’ in the past and prior to the current pilgrimage; others countering interpretations about their earlier interventions regarding height of the kanwar, adherence to regulations, transporting battery/generator, the possible ways in which the fire ignited, and death occurred – and so on. These positionings no doubt excite curiosity and endless – and fruitless – discussions and confer an aura of public notoriety and seeming authoritativeness even if post-facto, but soon they fizzle out and we are back to square one as far as any viable and enduring solution is concerned.

The reason I have referred to the Hindu community is that, although like last year too, these deaths have shocked and pained all Mauritians, many of whom have empathized and sympathized, resolving this problem is essentially and primarily the responsibility of the Hindu community because obviously it is the one that knows best the religious and cultural aspects of Maha Shivaratri. The solution has therefore to come from within the community, with appropriate inputs from other concerned stakeholders would also be considered.

Thus, the approach to the problem (that shouldn’t have been one in the first place!) is at three levels:

1.The responsibility of the individual;
2.The collective responsibility – of the local group of participants, of the religious heads, of the organizations (so-called socio-cultural) within the community;
3.The role of the state.

As far as the individual is concerned, it should be self-evident that he (or she) need not be told that he should assume his responsibility for his safety – and his life, for at the end of the day, and given these tragic outcomes that we have witnessed, that is what it boils down to. Nothing is more precious than one’s life, isn’t it?

Indeed, this brings to my mind the same conundrum we face in the health field, wherein despite repeated messaging about the harmful effects and high mortality associated with certain food habits and the abuse of addictive substances, a majority of people choose to ignore the advice and carry on regardless.

Where the local group is concerned, to start with one must give them credit for their meticulous preparation which begins well in advance, their collaborative spirit and hard work, their monetary contributions and not least their undertaking of the arduous walk through rain and shine to transport their kanwars to and fro from far-flung corners of the island, their kanwars, crafted with artistic skills over long hours into the night.

But perhaps their zeal and love for Shiva makes them override the safety concern – though, as reasoning adults, they ought to factor this too into their endeavour and objective. It is here that they need the guidance of the religious heads, whose duty it is to impart the proper knowledge about the Kanwar yatra sourced from the origin, namely Bharat where such-mega-sized kanwars are never seen. Like the smaller structures that are carried during Cavadee by the pilgrims, these are the types and sizes of Kanwar’s that are to be seen during the Maha Shivaratri in Bharat. Yatris (pilgrims) walk hundreds and thousands of km carrying these smaller kanwars – as I have seen — on their shoulders as they converge towards Hardiwar to collect the Gangajal and carry it back to their homes and mandirs.

Clearly, there is a gap to be filled here by religious heads, not on a one-off basis shortly before the festival, but as part of a continuing teaching/learning programme. After all, isn’t that why they are trained for, to enlighten the members of the community? And for that matter everyone else too in our plural country where we are curious to expand our mutual knowledge and understanding of our diverse practices.

At this stage the cultural organizations come in. As they have a database of their affiliated mandirs and the respective religious heads, they could liaise with the latter on a regular basis to share concerns and the messages that need to be transmitted. Clearly, a one-off press conference before the festival and to bring to attention an official communiqué from the Police has not proved sufficient to avert danger.

There must be a more effective flow of communication from them to the religious heads to the local groups and individuals, with greater emphasis on safety, drawing from the lessons of the unfortunate incidents that have been witnessed. Repeatedly it has been found by communication specialists that messages delivered face-to-face have better impact than the top-down style ones.

On the other hand, those who run these organizations should not restrict themselves to react to events but to be proactive as thought leaders as well. Because there is a larger issue here, which is about the role of the state in the matter of cultural practices. Specifically, to what extent should the state intervene therein? As Albert Einstein said, if you can’t solve a problem, you should lift yourself to another level out of that framework to find a solution.

And asking that question – about the limit of state intervention – lends itself to that kind of thinking. From this perspective, the fall back is that the community has to self-regulate rather than to depend on the state whose role is to provide a general regulatory framework – like giving ‘general directives’in an Act –, leaving the ‘operational’ details to the wisdom of those who are chosen to lead their community. The latter therefore have to rise to that level of expectation, which is the professional way to fully assume their role and responsibility.

To put this more directly – if perhaps a little crudely: either we put our house in order – or someone else will force us into it. And the last desirable option in such matters should be the state…

We share the pain of the families and friends who have lost their dear ones and wish shubh sadgati to their atma even as we pray for the prompt recovery of those who are under treatment. May Shivji be with them.

Om Namashivaya.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 8 March 2024

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