What to do when 300,000 music-blasting pilgrims flood your city

Kanwarias, devotees of the Hindu God Shiva, carry pots of holy water from the Ganges river as traffic slows to a crawl to make way for the pilgrims.

NEW DELHI, India — Imagine the entire population of Pittsburgh decided to walk barefoot through your city carrying blasting ​boomboxes and hosting night-time dance parties and processions on the streets.

That’s roughly what residents of India’s capital had to deal with last week, as they do every year during the annual Kanwar Yatra pilgrimage undertaken by 20 million devotees of Lord Shiva across the country.  

This year, 300,000 barefoot orange-robed men and women flooded sidewalks across the city on their way back from the Ganges River, after dipping small brass pots into the sacred water. Carrying the vessels on decorated poles over their shoulders, they walk all the way home — as much as 600 miles — to pour the water on Lord Shiva statues in their towns. If they spill any water or set the vessels on the ground, they must do it all over again.


“People from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, from [250 to 600 miles] away, come to collect water,” said Sanjay Beniwal, a joint commissioner of the Delhi police. “Because of the massive flow of people coming in, the government sets up a number of camps to provide them with water and food. It’s on the scale of Mecca.”

To cope with the influx — and the resulting multi-hour traffic delays — authorities in the city of 25 million rolled out a host of measures.

This year, law enforcement and traffic police braced for the massive crush of pilgrims by drawing up traffic diversion plans and installing bomb disposal squads, sniffer dogs and ambulances along the route. Heavy traffic was diverted and separate lanes were assigned to avoid accidents. CCTV and surveillance drones gave live feeds, while helicopters monitored the route to Haridwar, the main destination of the pilgrimage. According to Beniwal, Delhi police deployed over 5,000 personnel to ensure that law and order was maintained.

The security measures were not an overreaction. The Intelligence Bureau issued an alert on the possibility of religious violence, which has even been set off by loud music in the past. In previous years, violence ranging from street fights to riots has broken out when local residents have come in conflict with the pilgrims. Kanwars, as the pilgrims are called, often travel with trucks carrying music systems to play devotional songs. Dance floors are set up in camps. Much to the chagrin of Kanwars and right-wing political parties, the state of Uttar Pradesh banned the use of DJ sets on the pilgrimage, as they led to clashes in “communally sensitive” areas, a term used to refer to cities with a mixed religious population.

The loud music, however, is only one of the complaints Delhi residents have about hosting the pilgrims. “On the highways, there are pilgrims running around and they play such loud music, even in residential areas,” said Aishwarya Malik, a law student living in the National Capital Region. The Delhi police have imposed decibel restrictions (55 decibels by day, 45 decibels at night), but residents contest that it is not enforced on the Kanwars.

Some residents feel that Kanwars misuse the season of the pilgrimage and the protections provided to them. They openly flout the traffic and public decency rules applied in Delhi. Kanwars are seen disregarding stop signs, stepping into traffic, and not wearing helmets while riding bikes. They also drink in public and smoke cannabis.

“It feels like a group of people who have the permission to be rowdy on the road,” said Rohit Sharma, a Delhi-based designer. “Somebody visiting someone in the hospital, or going to the court or the office is not as important as they are.”