Two weeks ago, on a drizzly friday evening, I boarded a bus to Pune from Bombay! I was to participate in Vittala Varakari from Alandi the next day. It has been my heartfelt desire, for many years, to do the Varakari . I read an article on the Varakari tradition in “The Hindu” many years ago and since then been intrigued by the Bhakti Movement in Maharastra. I started taking interest in Abhangs and felt surprised that I enjoyed it more than the popular South Indian Bhajans. My friend, Ashwini, educated me more on the Santvani of Gyaneshwar, Tukaram , Namdev, JanaBai and MuktaBai. After all these years of missed opportunities, Vitthala summoned me this year!
Varakari ( Pilgrim) is a tradition ruling since the 14th Century. The pilgrims are usually farmers and labourers from rural Maharastra and North Karnataka. These Varakaris sow their farmland before the monsoon downpour and leave their hometown to pay their obeisance to the Lord Vittala at Pandharpur. They accompany any one of the Palki of the Sant and each Palki starts their journey on an auspicious day and plan to reach Pandarpur on the day of Ashada Ekadasi.
Today, there are around 40 different Palki weaving their ways towards Pandharpur. Each Palki is preceded and succeeded by lakhs of Varakaris. Most of the Varakaris form groups called the “Dindee”. There are many individual and family groups who make this journey on their own.
There are two major routes to be taken:
One traverses the coastline and the Ghats and the other pierces through Maharastra flatlands. The Varakari sing Abhangs, chant Namavalis, call out to the saints and sing & dance all through the journey. Each route is around 230 to 250 kms and the pilgrims cover this distance over 20 days. The journey is made on foot and the pilgrims carry just the bare essentials. The big Dindees have trucks carrying food and other essentials but most people are dependent on the services offered by the locals as they walk along. Each Dindee carries Ektara, mridangam and cymbals and sing their heart out !! The Rhthym of the mridangam and the cymbals match with the singing and chanting and the entire group walk in unison. The entire journey is organised very well and each Dindee is given an Identity Number. The Dindee organisers take care that none of the members get left out and communicate the plan of action before the start of the day. It’s amazing to see this ocean of people move with an unsaid rhythm! No written rules, No announcements, No obvious markers on the sidelines!
The Varakaris carry idols of the Sant and /or Thulasi plant as an offering to the Lord. Most men are dressed in white with a crisp white topi. Women turn up in colourful Navari sarees. There were a few even without footwear. Each Varakari represents the Lord and hence they touch each other’s feet when they meet and greet. Everytime they get off the road and rejoin the journey, they touch the path as a mark of respect and seek the support of the Mauli to take them all the way to the Lord! There were a few Tribal groups ( tattooed body with kada in their legs) and Koli fisherwomen ( with colourful headwear) joining the Vari. The pilgrim eat a Satvik Diet ( No Meat, No Onion, No Garlic, Less oil and Spices) .The Rain God accompanies them throughout the journey making it enjoyable and challenging at the same time.
Abhangs have been written in Marati by the great Sants who lived in Maharastra. The word “Abhang” means “Non-Ending” signifying the essence of Bhakti and Love. Most abhangs are written on Lord Vittala. The words are in simple Marati language and the tunes are uncomplicated to enable anyone to learn and sing their heart out. Abhangs and Varakari are bonded together and this journey cleanses the soul through sublime music
Gyaneshwar Maharaj Palki leaves from his shrine at Alandi and Tukaram Maharaj Paduka leaves Dehu Road on the same day. Both these towns are near Pune and they reach the first big city after travelling 22-25 kms. The Paduka of the Sant are placed in a palanquin and boarded on to a Bullock cart. The decked up Rath moves slowly and all Pilgrims are allowed to pay their respects along the way. Stately Horses move ahead of the Rath .
We took a 4.30 am bus to Alandi and waited a few kilometres ahead. By 7.00am, thousands of Varakaris have started their journey. The Rath with the Paduka crossed us around 9.00am. The crowds surged for a kilometre after the Rath and we joined the Varakaris by ten O clock. The sun was scorching as the rain Gods decided to meet the pilgrims later in the journey. We stopped often for water breaks and snack breaks. Aai (Ashwini’s mother) had packed a lovely lunch of Ragi Bhakri and Lonchi ( Pickles). We got to pray at the Paduka at Sangewadi . On reaching Pune city, we waited to see Tukaram Maharaj Palki coming through from Dehu Road. The 23 kilometer journey was spent in the constant company of chants of Gyanoba Mauli, cymbal strikes and vibrant singing of Abhangs.What a blessing!
My feelings ranged from bewilderment to peace, joy to contentment, thankfulness to humbleness!! The pure feelings of the simple folk, the upliftment of the spirit with music, energy from the chants were truly awe inspiring. We chatted with the Varakaris and they shared their stories without any inhibitions!
This experience cannot be put into words or captured in a video or photograph. It is to be lived and believed! I wish we could find a way to harvest all the positive energy and the goodwill and spread it among the bereft souls of this world!
Someday, I would like to do the entire journey to Pandharpur ! Someday!!
Thanks Ashwini ! But for you, I would have not experienced this great Joy!
Theerth Vittala! Kshetra Vittala!