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Walking with Pilgrims (The Kanwar Pilgrimage of Bihar, Jharkhand and the Terai of Nepal)

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Item Code: NAZ235
Author: Ruma Bose
Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors
Language: English
Edition: 2019
ISBN: 9789388540315
Pages: 426 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Other Details 9.00 X 6.00 inch
Weight 660 gm
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Book Description


Although pilgrimage is an ancient rite seen in most parts of the world, the immense variety of its forms suggest that the physical, symbolic and the social in the everyday world of the pilgrim is germane to its enduring vitality. This vital relation-ship between pilgrimage and the societal context is explored in this book via a focus on a specific pilgrimage-the ever popular Kanwar pilgrimage of Bihar, Jharkhand and Nepal. Travelling today along the Gangetic plains of north India during the monsoon month of Shravan (July-August), you are likely to come across groups of men and women in orange hurrying towards or returning from Haridwar, the holy city where the river Ganga meets the plains. They are seen walking or riding trucks, motorbikes, cycles and are accompanied by loudspeakers blasting popular songs dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The pilgrims, who are called the Kanwariyas, come from distant places to collect the water of the sacred river as an offering for the Shiva of their village shrine. The recent explosion of this pilgrimage in north India is widely reported in the press and lately has begun to draw the attention of scholars. But unbeknown to many, a bigger, older and complex form of the Kanwar pilgrimage has been quietly occurring in Bihar and the north-east regions for centuries.

This is the Kanwar tirtha (pilgrimage) of the Indian states of Bihar, Jharkhand and the eastern Terai of Nepal, and is thought to be the oldest pilgrimage of its kind. The Kanwar pilgrimage of Bihar first surfaced in the British writings of the 1770s, and was possibly extant even as early as the fourteenth-sixteenth century. Although little known outside Bihar and the adjacent regions, millions of people undertake this pilgrimage today in annual, calendric cycles, carrying water from Sultanganj (Bihar) where the river Ganga bends north, to Shiva at the Vaidyanath temple in Devghar (Jharkhand). The Ganga water is carried in two pots suspended from the ends of a bamboo pole (kanwar) slung across the shoulder. Pilgrims walk a distance of 105 kms bare foot, observe austere practices and strict rules of purity. Some run all the way without stopping, whilst others reach the temple by prostrating themselves every inch of the way. The pilgrimage is a popular religious event of great importance to millions of ordinary people, a fact that calls for serious attention in its own right. I use the term popular religion to refer to religious practice that lay people observe and often simply describe as 'our tradition', as opposed to that predominantly shaped by textual or institutional authority.

Although popular religion receives little formal attention in India, it is all around. Arguably, its profound attraction for so many must reflect its intimate relation with the everyday life and concerns of the people. The book arose from a project that I had started as a research student at King's College London. My initial interest lay in the Kanwar pilgrimage of the north Indian Gangetic plains, but when I discovered its historical roots in Bihar, my attention turned here. The long history of the pilgrimage in Bihar and its continuing popularity centuries later, presented a unique opportunity to understand how old rites that had flourished under very different social and ideological circumstances, are interpreted today. The arduous quality of the rites was a compelling point from which to start exploring the pilgrimage. What moves millions of ordinary men and women to undertake such a difficult journey in the heat of the Indian sun? For today's pilgrims who invest so much in a long, expensive and arduous pilgrimage, how does their ritual labour translate into the real fruits with which they seek to enhance their lives?

more rich and rewarding than I had first imagined. The history provided a glimpse into the rich past of Bihar and the impact of the arrival of the East India Company on pilgrimage in the surrounding regions. Then there were the mythic stories, individual narratives, complex rites and temple rituals, which evoked another set of compelling questions. How- are the complex rites and mythic stories to be understood, as they are also means through which critical ideas are expressed, reflected upon and negotiated? As I came to know the pilgrimage I realized that its rhythms, far from being arbitrary, reflected the deeper economic, environmental and social conditions of life. This necessitated several carefully planned visits to India and south-east Nepal over 2015-18. I stayed with pilgrim families, had extensive discussions with those connected with the pilgrimage, and finally undertook the pilgrimage myself in September 2016. My search for the meaning of the pilgrimage took me beyond the journey, into history, the geography, agricultural cycles, Hindu temple worship and encounters with hundreds of people. The nine chapters are a reflection of the richness of the pilgrimage. All photographs presented in the book have been taken by me. Writing the book has been a journey of a thousand steps, as I had to traverse domains far beyond my fatniliar ground. This in itself was rewarding, but greater still was the reward of discovering how a pilgrimage in a small far off place, says so much about larger issues, of both yesterday and today. This I earnestly hope to share with the reader.

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