800-year-old tradition, 15 lakh pilgrims, 21 days, 1 pilgrimage.
After all, it was happening after two long years. It was time to bridge that feeling of incompleteness that troubled them all. Yes! We are talking about the Warkaris and Pandharpur!
Every year, in the Ashadh month of the Hindu calendar, lakhs of devotees from across Maharashtra (and a few other states like Goa, Gujarat, etc) undertake a pilgrimage over 21 days on foot to the Vithoba temple in Pandharpur. The procession is called the Wari and the devotees, the Warkaris (literally 'those who do the wari'). The Wari takes place four times during the year in the months of Chaitra (March-April), Ashadh (June-July), Kartik (October-November) and Magh (January-February). Of all the four times, the one which happens in Ashadh (June-July) is the most popular.
Villagers, primarily farmers, awaiting the onset of the monsoon, walk for three weeks from Alandi/Dehu to Pandharpur. They have finished ploughing and sowing in their fields and now they can only wait for the crops to come up. So they leave their daily grind and take a break to be in a meditative state of faith and prayer of Lord Vithal. Through the rain, the cold, the heat, the mud, and away from their families, they walk solely by trusting their faith. With smiles on their faces, they accomplish this mentally and physically exhausting task, with the sheer hope of getting the darshan of Lord Vithal at Pandharpur. On the way, they sing abhangs, and play games like kabaddi, fugdi, etc. In the earlier days, in the absence of television, social media, etc. it is the Wari that gave them a break, and more importantly hope. It was a means of social interaction, where people could focus on the spiritual aspects of life.
The Wari starts on the prasthan of the two main palkhis (palanquins) – Sant Tukaram Maharaj’s palkhi starting from Dehu and Sant Dnyaneshwar Maharaj’s palkhi from Alandi. Several palkhis and dindis join them on the way. Events such as Ringan are held during the pilgrimage. During the Ringan, an unmounted sacred horse believed to be Maulincha Ashva (Horse of Mauli), who is believed to be the soul of the Sant, runs through the rows of pilgrims, who then later pick up the soil where his hooves touch and smear it to their forehead as well as take the same back home for their farms.
The Warkaris see God in each and every person they meet during the Wari and address each other as Mauli. As per the dictionary, the word ‘Mauli’ means ‘mother’. But, there is a very interesting difference between the word ‘Mauli’ and ‘mother’ that I heard during a Hari Paath. If two boys are playing outdoors, and it starts raining, then a mother is the one who says, ‘Listen, son! I don’t want you catching a cold. So please come inside. The other boy can do whatever he wants. But, you need to come inside’. But it is the ‘Mauli’ alone who says, ‘I want both of you to come inside. Neither of you must catch a cold’. And such is Vithoba that he is lovingly called Mauli. Interestingly, so is Sant Dnyaneshwar.
It’s been a few years now that I have wanted to experience this pilgrimage. Family commitments and work makes it difficult to take out twenty-one days for the Wari. Further, undertaking the Wari requires one to be not only extremely physically fit but also one has to live without any comforts. So I decided that if not for the whole stretch, I would at least experience the Wari for the number of days possible. I witnessed the Prasthan at Alandi, the Ringan at Wakhri and the final two days at Pandharpur. The experience was amazing. I fall short of words to convey the same. However, here is a brief excerpt of my experience of the Ringan at Wakhri and of what I learned in the Wari.
I had tears in my eyes.
And I wasn’t the only one who had them. I could see my tall sturdy fellow photographers with handkerchiefs wiping their tears too. The gajar of the taals had just got over. The whole environment was such that we could feel Vithal there, right beside us, within us. It felt pure. Life felt complete.
During the last ten minutes of the Ringan, I didn’t even feel like capturing a single photograph. Just felt like being there and immersing myself in the vibe, the music and the faith.
If five days in the Wari are this fulfilling, I wonder how peaceful the people who undertake the entire Wari must be feeling. Now, I know what gives them the immense energy and determination to walk for twenty-one days facing hardships to ultimately seek His darshan at Pandharpur.
Experiencing Bhakti was bliss. After coming back to Mumbai, for days, I had to control myself not to address the people around me as ‘Mauli’. This is what just five days in the Wari taught me:
1. Life is as easy or difficult as we make it. Food, water, shelter and sanitation is all we need. From being on poha and chai for an entire day, to staying in a room which had the space for one mat, it was tough to let go of the conveniences or rather the notion of life.
2. Serve people without any expectations but don’t let people take you for granted.
3. If you really want something, the whole world will see to it that you get it. In our group of 8-10 photographers, I was the only woman photographer. Hence, finding accommodation for a single person (and that, too, a woman) in Pandharpur during Ekadashi was tough. But, magically, and with the effort of my fellow photographers, I got it.
4. Goodness does exist in the world. You need to be good to see it. I met so many amazing people with such beautiful stories. A policewoman from Thane who had been stationed in Alandi on duty, and whose life motto is to work hard. She believes that one is unstoppable if one works hard. An old lady from Bhiwandi who showered me with love because I looked like her grand-daughter. A flower vendor and mother of two, who sold flowers on the ghats of river Indrayani at Alandi, believed that education is very important and was determined to provide good education to her children. I also stayed with this amazing family in their ancient wada. They had hosted several warkaris from all over Maharashtra. The list and experience of meeting such kind souls is endless.
5. The destination keeps us going but all our learnings and experiences reside in the journey. Yes, the darshan of Vithal at the end was the end-objective. But, it was the sharing of food, the barefoot walk in the rain, the local games like fugdi and kabaddi, the chanting of abhangs and bhajans… and seeing Mauli in each person that made the journey special.
Like my friend says, ‘वारी जगायला शिकवते/wari jagaayla shikvate’ (meaning ‘the Wari teaches us how to live life’) and it does. It is something we all must experience at least once in our life.