It’s hard to miss hordes of saffron-clad Shiva devotees, walking barefoot, this time of the year, often accompanied with blaring music in praise of the Hindu deity.The kanvadias, as they are called, usually carry two pitchers of holy water from river Ganga (gangajal) on either side of a pole balanced on the shoulder. The pole, heavily decorated, has traditionally been called kanwar. That earns the annual pilgrimage – kanwar yatra – its name. The yatra falls during shravana (or saavan), the fifth month of the Hindu calendar.The water is gathered from Haridwar, Gaumukh and Gangotri in Uttarakhand and Sultanganj in Bihar. Once the pilgrims return to their hometowns, the gangajal is used to anoint ‘Shivalinga’ on the amavasya (new moon) day, popularly known as Maha Shivratri.This year, saavan falls between 27 July and 26 August. The yatra is expected to end on 9 August.Bhole Baba Jukebox: Bollywood Songs To Mark The Kanwar YatraTwo mythological stories explain the origins of the kanwar yatra.The first is related to the origin of amrit – or the nectar of immortality. As narrated in the Bhagavata Purana, the divine beings emerged from samudra manthan (or the churning of the ocean of milk). But a highly lethal poison, too, emerged from the ocean – the remedy of which was sought by Lord Shiva. If legend is to be believed, Lord Shiva consumed the poison to protect the living world, but his wife Parvati held him by the neck to prevent the effect of the poison from destroying the worlds inside him. The practice of giving water to Shiva began henceforth, in an attempt to reduce the negative effects of the poison.The other origin story is of Lord Parshuram, the renowned devotee of Shiva, who was believed to be the first to undertake the kanwar yatra. He laid the foundation of the Shiva temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Pura, and fetched gangajal every Monday in the month of saavan for Shiva's worship.Over the years, the kanwar yatra has grown to phenomenal proportions. With over 20 million kanvadias having gone to pilgrimage in 2016, the group has become the bane of traffic policemen and law and order situation as devotees flock the highways, and their committees set up tents along the road for replenishment. This year, a snarl alert has been issued by authorities, and arrangements have been made to divert traffic accordingly.The demographic of the group has mostly been male, with only a small proportion of women and the elderly. Kanvadias are predominantly from poor, working class backgrounds, according to Vikash Singh, author of the book, Uprising of the Fools: Pilgrimage as Moral Protest in Contemporary India, in an interview with Scroll.in.The yatris come from all parts of the country, but participants from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are the most common.How does the kanwar yatra assume such vital importance in a devotee's life? Vikash Singh says the answer lies in the outgrowth of a global society, which intensifies the need to consume but gives little or no opportunities to achieve these needs.The kanwar, I believe, gives them an alternate world, an arena, to cultivate self-respect in their own eyes and prove their sincerity and moral worth to their loved ones, with Siva, the Generous Mendicant, their witness and guardian. At the same time, these factors are influenced by, and involved in, the growing profile of Hindu nationalism in Indian society and politics.Vikash SinghSingh, for the purpose of the ethnography, walked among the kanvadias in 2016. He reiterates:Urban middle class often has contempt for them. But they are mostly young men seeking respect and relief from humiliating social conditions. Vikash SinghIn pilgrimage, the devotees find recognition – social and spiritual. It continuously transcends boundaries, not only of personhood and group, but of time itself. What unites the group is the continuous chanting of "Bol Bam" and "Jai Shiv Shankar", a mark of deep devotion to Lord Shiva. Any one who identifies as a kanvadia is one, says author Vikash Singh.This year, the political undertones of the yatra are hard to miss. Volunteers of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have decided to introduce a bamboo kanwar that will carry the model of the proposed Ram temple at Ayodhya through Western Uttar Pradesh.Meerut-based Bajrang Dal leader Milan Som told Hindustan Times, “Along with highlighting the cause of the Ram temple, we also plan to raise the issue of smuggling and killing of bovines, the issue of love jihad where Muslims often trap Hindu girls into a relationship. We are getting pamphlets published and these will be distributed along the yatra route.” We'll get through this! Meanwhile, here's all you need to know about the Coronavirus outbreak to keep yourself safe, informed, and updated. The Quint is now available on Telegram & WhatsApp too, Click here to join.