The Wari of Pandharpur

I am going to start this journey with a pilgrimage. I’m going to write about the Wari of Pandharpur because it is happening right at this moment, in the Indian state of Maharashtra where I live. It is one of  the many Indian traditions that was started  long, long ago, somewhere in the ancient past. Some  say it was started about 800 years ago, others say it was about 500 years ago. In any case, it’s been around for longer than the USA!

I happened to pass the procession on Friday and was mesmerized by the spirit of the people! It was a beautiful, cloudy day and the Warkaris(We’ll get to who they are in a short while) looked so serene and at peace with what they were doing. The beauty of that morning made me want to write about it, and here I am!

The Hindu religion has its own calendar. Ours is a lunar year, with months following the waxing and waning of the moon.  Every year on the eleventh day of the  waxing moon in the Hindu month of Aashaadh, several thousands of devotees of the Warkari clan, singing and dancing to the beat of cymbals and the Mrudunga (a traditional Indian drum), reach the temple town of Pandharpur, to pay homage to the Hindu deity Lord Vitthal. The clan, which had only a handful of followers about half a century ago, today boasts of four to five hundred thousand pilgrims or warkaris as they are known. Songs are sung, stories told, strangers become companions and friends. It’s a scene straight out of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and it happens every year.

The Warkaris in the ghats

The warkaris walk to Pandharpur for about 20 days every year with intermittent stops at different places. The local people at these stops make arrangements to lodge and feed the warkaris. The pilgrims sing, dance and chant bhajans (devotional songs that praise the Lord, kind of like psalms). Reaching Pandharpur in the hundreds of thousands, the warkaris represent an enigmatic unbroken tradition, which has cut across centuries and barriers of caste and creed, despite the austerity and hardships involved. In this procession, a wide variety of people from all social and economic backgrounds join the sea of Warkaris and worship with same fervour & devotion. Professors, doctors, businessmen and administrators rub shoulders with poor farmers, labourers and artisans. For those 20 days at least, there are no differences between the pilgrims.

This pilgrimage has loads of positive effects, quite apart from the spiritual satisfaction of doing it. People get to know about diverse regions, social variety and change. They also try to bring about a social change by banning narcotics, like alcohol and tobacco. Most importantly, this helps people to realize how to live life on just the bare necessities. People who have experienced  a lot of sorrow in their lives can achieve a sort of detachment from everyday life and  get at least a temporary relief from it. This detachment from the material world and concentration on the spiritual world is central to the Indian concept of Moksha, the state of mind that leads to Nirvana, or heaven. In their own small way, the pilgrims aim to reach heaven, at least during the Wari.

The Warkaris sacrifice all pleasures and comforts while on their way Pandharpur. They uphold a strict vegetarian diet throughout and observe fasts during the pilgrimage. Warkaris wake up early in the morning, take a quick bath and get ready for the day’s journey. Women rise earlier than men to complete other chores. A Tutari or wind instrument is blown thrice to signal the start of that day’s pilgrimage. Warkaris divide themselves into small groups called Dindis.  Each Dindi is lead by a flag bearer, followed by women carrying sacred Basil plants and pots of water for the pilgrims on their heads. Each Dindi prepares food for itself, erects tents and has its own water tankers. People who gather along the road to witness the procession offer fruits, vegetables and other essentials to the Dindis. A true sense of brotherhood grows among complete strangers, reflecting the true spirit of Wari.

According to the Warkari ideology, the soul is the essence of every being’s life. God is a part of this essence. So, the sole objective of a Warkari in life is to ensure that the divine remains a part of the living experience. The warkaris have always worked  for social causes like women’s rights and liberation, or fighting against alcoholism. Lately, they have tried to tackle more modern problems like AIDS through awareness.The pilgrimage ends when the Warkaris reach Pandharpur and bathe in the Chandrabhaga River. They then proceed to worship Lord Vitthal, thus completing their magical journey.


Photo Courtesy: Shalvika P and Google Images