The first time you participate in the Pandharpur wari, it’s a sheer jolt to the senses. Countless saffron flags fluttering in the air; men in colourful turbans and white Gandhi caps, veenas, mridangams and other instruments in hand; women with pots of water or tulsi plants on their heads; truck horns blaring on one side of the road and loud melodious chanting of the pilgrims on the other. Like a mighty river, the procession flows.
The wari pilgrimage is the defining ritual of the Warkari panth (a Maharashtrian Vaishnava religious tradition). At the centre of this tradition is the town of Pandharpur, which is considered the abode of Vitthal.
Even though the wari is undertaken four times a year, in the Hindu months of Chaitra, Magh, Ashadh and Kartik, it is the Ashadh pilgrimage that has come to be the largest and the most prominent one.
The Ashadhi wari, as it is known, originates from the samadhis or commemorative shrines of the tradition’s many sant-kavis (poets-saints) and converges on the temple-town of Pandharpur on the auspicious day of the Ashadhi Ekadashi – the eleventh day of the bright fortnight of Ashadh.
The journey, which spans three weeks on average and is traditionally undertaken entirely on foot, is a way for the Warkaris to affirm their faith and commemorate their saint-poets. The term Warkari means “those who do the wari”.
As a part of the wari, pilgrims carry the padukas (sandals) of the many sant-kavis of the Warkari panth. The literature composed by them is an inextricable part of the pilgrimage and, in the words of the Bhakti scholar Charlotte Vaudeville, “constitutes the real scriptures for all Maharashtrian Vaishnavas”.
The tradition of carrying their padukas commemorates the pilgrimages that they undertook while they were alive, while at the same time serving as a powerful symbol of their continued “living presence” among the Warkaris. It is also telling that the wari formally ends only on the day of the Guru Purnima, when all the padukas are brought to the Vitthal Rukmini Temple at Pandharpur for a final collective veneration, before they make their return journeys to their individual shrines.
This year, in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, this longstanding tradition has come to a halt. Instead of as a part of the usual large procession, the palkhis (palanquins) of the various sant-kavis were taken to Pandharpur in a special vehicle accompanied by only a few attendants and had to return the very next day, not being permitted to stay till the Guru Purnima, which is being observed on July 5.
This situation is not without precedent. Records show that the wari has been curtailed a few times in the past, such as in 1944-’45, perhaps on account of World War II.
Two prominent palkhis
The wari pilgrimage usually comprises several large and small processions dedicated to specific sant-kavis. The oldest, largest and most prominent ones are those dedicated to Dyaneshwar and Tukaram. The former was a thirteenth-century saint who laid the foundation of the panth by writing the Dyaneshwari, a Marathi commentary on the Bhagawad Gita, which has become the core text of the Warkaris.
Tukaram latter lived in the seventeenth century, wrote numerous abhangs (devotional poems) to Vitthal and strongly advocated the use of bhajans and kirtans in the practice of bhakti. It was also Tukaram who started the tradition of carrying the padukas of the poet-saints to Pandharpur.
In the early nineteenth century, Haibatrao Baba Arphalkar, a nobleman from the Satara district, brought about other major changes to the wari. A former soldier, he organised the pilgrimage to resemble a military procession, with fixed timetables and royal accouterments. He also started the practice of placing the padukas on attractively decorated palkhis to be carried on a chariot.
While there are several views on how and why the Warkari pilgrimage to Pandharpur originated, it is thought to be at least seven or eight centuries old. However, specific processions dedicated to the sant-kavis are relatively new, and the wari took on its present shape only after the innovations of Haibatrao Baba.
Several ceremonies are performed along the way on the wari, such as the popular ringan, a race between two horses, one of which does not have a rider. This horse customarily wins the race for it is believed to be ridden by the saint himself.
Apart from the palkhis of Dyaneshwar and Tukaram, several others have joined the wari over the years. The number of pilgrims in each such procession is only growing, being anywhere from a few hundred to a few lakh.
The patron deity of the Warkaris, Vitthal, waits for them at the end of their long and arduous journey. The Vitthal-Rukmini temple in Pandharpur houses a black idol of the deity, which stands on a raised platform resembling a brick, with arms akimbo.
Believed to be a form of Vishnu-Krishna, it is said that a legendary sage named Pundalik brought Vitthal to Pandharpur. He impressed the deity so much with his devotion towards his parents that Vitthal was compelled to appear in person to grant him darshan. However, so busy was Pundalik in fulfilling his filial duties, that he made even Vitthal wait by asking him to stand on a vit (Marathi for “brick”), which gave the deity his unique name and peculiar stance.
Tukaram pretends to be upset with Pundalik for such a display of audacity, and in one of his poems he asks:
“Hey Pundya! Why are you so proud
As to make Vitthal stand there?
Why are you so bold
As to toss a brick to him?…”
Festival of joy
It is telling that the Marathi word that is often used in relation to the wari is sohla, which connotes festival or celebration. For, more than a pilgrimage or a tirth yatra, the wari does play out as a huge festival, where everything – from the palkhi, the chariot, the veenas and tulsi plants carried by the Warkaris, and the images of Vitthal and Rukmini – is adorned to the hilt with flowers and finery. The numerous venues at which the palkhi stops on its way to Pandharpur are elaborately decorated, and fairs often come up at such spots.
Most Warkaris themselves, coming as they do from agrarian backgrounds, are dressed in simple and unostentatious garb. Those who can afford to do so pool in their resources to travel in a group. Many depend on benefactors for their meals and other needs, often sleeping outdoors when dharamshalas or rest houses are full. Neither rain nor lack of means can dampen the zeal of the Warkaris, who are always ready to swing to the beats of the mridangam or spin in abandonment during a game of fugdi, holding on to the hands of their fellow pilgrims.
This article is part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, the digital library for Indian culture. Under its project, “Mapping the Bhakti and Sufi Traditions of India”, Sahapedia sent a team to document the Ashadhi wari of 2019. They travelled with the Dyaneshwar palkhi for the final seven days of its journey to Pandharpur, immersing themselves in the sea of devotees who walk together through day and night, sunshine and rain.