This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.
VARANASI, India (RNS) — As the number of young people affiliated with a religion shows a sharp decline in the United States, religious fervor, supported and aided by India’s right-wing Modi government, is on the rise among some blocs of millennials in India.
I recently visited the northern Indian holy city of Varanasi during Kanwar Yatra, an annual pilgrimage that occurs in July and August. The number of pilgrims has been increasing rapidly for the last few years, and I watched as hundreds of pilgrims from nearly every part of India poured into the city despite blistering heat.
Several major highways were closed to traffic for days as pilgrims, often barefooted, walked for long stretches along scorching roads.
Their goal was the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, a shrine to Shiva on the bank of the Ganges in Varanasi, where the Hindu god is believed to have appeared as a column of light. For many Hindus, a visit to Kashi Vishwanath alone is enough to attain salvation. As they approached the temple, the saffron-clad pilgrims, some 1.5 million as a low estimate, packed Varanasi’s ancient, narrow lanes.
To keep the crowds somewhat organized, streets leading to the temple were temporarily divided into several lanes with jute ropes tied to bamboo poles. Incoming and outgoing devotees walked in either side carrying kanwars — water pots on two ends of a pole across their shoulders — and chanting the many names of Lord Shiva.
Named after their water pots, the kanwarias carry the water of the River Ganges as an offering to Lord Shiva.
Not so long ago, only a few Shiva devotees ever undertook this pilgrimage, but in recent years with the support of the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the rite at Varanasi has grown into what several media outlets in India have called the country’s largest annual religious gathering. About 20 million pilgrims were estimated to have visited another popular holy city, Haridwar, in northern India, in 2016. The numbers of annual visitors have only grown since then.
Under Modi, several state governments, too, have actively promoted the Kanwar Yatra pilgrimage. Last year, the government in Uttar Pradesh, which includes Varanasi, and whose chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, is a Hindu monk, showered flower petals on the pilgrims from state helicopters with the apparent aid of police officials.
A video of one senior police official giving foot massages to the devotees went viral on social media this year. The official later reportedly described it as a “symbolic service to the pilgrims.”
A majority of the pilgrims are from lower economic classes and do not have much education. In speaking to a number of pilgrims, I met 32-year-old Sohanlal and his two older brothers, who had traveled from their village in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. Their feet were sore from the walking, Sohanlal said.
Many of those on the pilgrimage are India’s unemployed youth. The support of the state, along with free food and a place to stay, helps give this often socially excluded class a new identity.
Support from the state has been instrumental in increasing the number of pilgrims and also making it more organized, according to Ravi Nandan Singh, a sociologist at Delhi University, but it has also changed the nature of the pilgrimage. Not only has it grown much larger, but there are always fears among city dwellers that it can turn aggressive. Reports of violence and aggression are indeed reported from time to time.
The changing character of the pilgrimage is just one expression of the new environment of Hindu religious revivalism under the Modi government. Back in 1990, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party started to expand its base with a chest-thumping slogan, “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain” (Say with pride that we are Hindus). Today, the spirit of this slogan is evident in the display of Hindu religion in the public square. In vast crowds of young men, I spotted barely a handful of women.
T.S. Shandilya, a scholar at Banaras Hindu University who has been going on the pilgrimage for 22 years, agreed the pilgrimage draws a crowd that is much larger and younger. One reason, he explained, is improved infrastructure, such as better and safer roads. The government has also ensured a police presence on major pilgrimage routes through occasionally unfriendly terrain, and religious organizations provide food and other facilities to pilgrims during their journey.
But others comment on a new generation of pilgrims who demonstrate an aggressive form of religiosity. As I traveled through parts of northern India, I came across young men, dressed in saffron, sitting atop trucks and raising the chant of Lord Shiva. They can become combative at the slightest provocation. In 2018, a group of kanwarias smashed a car with sticks and iron rods after it brushed against them. The couple in the car managed to escape by taking shelter in a store nearby.
Shobhit Mahajan, an astrophysicist at the University of Delhi , wrote in a newspaper in July 2016: “It is a bizarre sight to see hundreds of saffron-clad youngsters swinging a baseball bat as they strut down the road. They just walk wherever they feel like, cross roads where it suits their fancy leading frequently to accidents.”
At this time of the year, most people avoid the routes that the kanwarias are likely to travel on and stay away from the crowded temples.
This new religiosity was vastly different from the past experience of pilgrims who are both on an inward and outward journey. Under Modi, a new muscular religiosity seems to be on display.
(Kalpana Jain is a U.S.-based religion journalist who worked for many years at India’s leading national daily, The Times of India. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2009. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)