This year, for the hugely popular Palkhi festival in Maharashtra, I decided to partake in the processions to get an insider’s view into this rare spectacle. My curiosity led me to key check points on their route, right where all the action takes place. What I discovered was nothing short of magical about this festival. A vision that can move even the staunchest atheists into admission- that there is something so powerful about faith in a higher power, that it makes people walk for over 250 km with bare minimum amenities!
Hundreds of thousands of men and women come together, most even barefoot in the blistering heat and unpredictable rains. Their singing, dancing and soulful chanting of hymns and melodious clinking of cymbals and dhols manage to captivate your attention. Their unwavering devotion, warmth and euphoria made me feel thoroughly alleviated. Straight out of a social science class, this peculiar practice has many facets to it.
What is the festival really?
Based on absolute unwavering faith, Wari is undertaken in the Hindu month of Aashaadh (around June-July). Every year, millions of devotees walk along the 250-km route from Aalandi (near Pune, India) to Pandharpur (near Solapur, Southern Maharashtra). There are other groups also walking from southern states of India like Karnataka, Andhara Pradesh etc. They walk with one focus and that is to reach Pandharpur and offer their respects to Lord Vitthal (reincarnation of Hindu God Vishnu).
The warkaris (pilgrims) are mainly agriculturists and the majority of them are poor; most are even sufferers of drought in Maharashtra. A chain of millions of men and women walking for miles with non-stop chants of Gyaanbaa-Tukaaraam on their lips, is an incredible spectacle. After traveling for almost 15-20 days, devotees reach Pandharpur on foot to seek blessings.
Some of them even walk barefoot owing to a spiritual belief, propagating that the path to reach God is chock-a-block, with obstacles and hardships. Devotees of all age groups form what they call a Dindi, and together they celebrate abandoning all tensions and problems. All the worshippers reach their destination; in spiritual terms ‘God’, ‘Happiness’ and ‘Freedom’.
A devout pilgrim shared with me that he hopes after this pilgrimage it will rain abundantly in Latur district, the place he hails from with a beaming hopeful smile.
Organised till the last detail
Over the years, this unique and perhaps the longest pilgrimage on foot in the world, takes place in the most organised fashion. No stampedes and chaos ever so far.
The traffic police in Pune have meetings a month prior to this event. Moving a step forward, one can be an e-warkari with a new app called ‘FacebookDhindi’, which lets you monitor where the procession is headed through your GPS.
Water, tea and biscuits’ stalls can be found throughout the route; people host breakfast, lunch and dinner in bulk for the warkaris. The halt timings and locations are affixed. Like a well-oiled machine, the procession keeps moving forward with no drop in their enthusiasm levels.
A list of closest dispensaries, hospitals, police stations and accommodations with contact details are handed out to organising committees every 2.5 kms.
Based on the spirit of class and gender equality and kindness…
The warkaris have no qualms in resting under trees, although back home many own shops, fields and good homes as they insist that this pilgrimage is about equality and staying humble.
Constable Adinath Pawar shares “Throughout the year, I am a cop. But during Palkhi, I flaunt the warkari tikka too because it is who I am.”. He volunteers every year in setting up the tea and biscuits’ stalls in and around the Shivaji Nagar area for the procession. No matter where you come from or who you are, you will be ushered in with a smile and offered refreshments.
While the female cops make sure that women enjoy the festival without any hassles and danger, Maya Balaji Rao, mother of two, says “We feel pampered and fully taken care of. It is the best time of the year, with our husbands and family we all get on foot for such a beautiful divine journey. We feel no exhaustion as the higher power makes the journey blissful for us.”
Everyone lends a helping hand to anyone in need, completely oblivious of any identities and backgrounds.
Left in the hands of God
On talking to a lot of families, I learnt that they had left behind their children, old parents, cattle and homes for this pilgrimage with nobody back home to look after them! What a petite looking dusky lady told me with a reassuring smile is that “God, takes care of everything. He designs everything in a way that we experience the joy of going to Pandharpur and seeking his blessings. With no harm done to our loved ones and property back home.”
This blind faith may shock most, however the warkaris seem to feel an innate sense of credibility in the power of the divine Lord Vitthal.
The Tale of the Palanquin
In 1685, Naaraayan Baba, the youngest son of Saint Tukaram and a man of innovative spirit, decided to bring about a change in the Wari tradition by introducing the Palkhi. He put the silver paadukaas (footwear) of Saint Tukaram in the Palkhi and proceeded with his dindi to Alandi, where he put the paadukaas of Saint Dnyaaneshwar in the same Palkhi. This tradition of twin Palkhis continued, but further, they formed two separate Palkhis – Tukaram Palkhi from Dehu and the Dnyaneshwar Palkhi from Alandi.
Till date, both the Palkhis meet for a brief halt (like this year at Nana Peth), and then walk together to Pandharpur. Along with times, the popularity of this ancient tradition has soared so much that a total of over 40 Palkhis, including Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram Palkhis, visit Pandharpur every year!
Moreover, there are warkari groups from other states like Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat joining in too. Phew!