The Great Pandharpur Pilgrimage
Today, faith, legend, history and tradition come together at Pandharpur
It is estimated that almost 6 lakh pilgrims who have been walking on foot to this sacred town in the Solapur district of Maharashtra, will reach their destination today. The Ashadi Ekadashi- the eleventh day of the Hindu month of Ashada, marks a day of celebration at the Vitthala or Vithoba temple, here. This is the most visited temple in Maharashtra and hundreds of thousands of devotees have been making this oftentimes arduous pilgrimage on foot, for over 800 years now.
The pilgrimage, is in honour of Lord Vitthala or Vithoba, (an incarnation of Krishna/Vishnu), whose temple here is the main shrine for the followers of Vaishnavism in the region. So famous is this pilgrimage made by millions through centuries, that it also lends its name to a whole sect of worshipers.
Called the Varkari Sampradaya or the Pilgrim sect (Vari means pilgrimage) this is the most important Vaishnava sect of Maharashtra.
Lord Vitthal of Pandharpur
The Vitthal temple at Pandharpur, on the banks of River Chandrabhaga is the most sacred shrine of the Vaishnava worshippers in Maharashtra. Lord Vitthal, also called Vithoba or Panduranga is believed to be the reincarnation of Vishnu. There are several theories of the origin of the word ‘Vitthala’ but according to local lore the word comes from vit which means ‘brick’ and thal which means sthal or standing. At Pandharpur, the deity Vitthal is depicted as a dark young boy, with both arms on his waist, standing on a brick.
– Lord Vitthal, also called Vithoba or Panduranga is believed to be the reincarnation of Vishnu
There is also a great story about how Vitthala got here. According to local folklore, there was a man named Pundalik, who lived here. He was a great devotee of Vishnu. One day, Lord Vishnu came to visit him, but Pundalik who was serving food to his parents, couldn't attend to Vishnu. Instead he asked Vishnu to stand on a brick outside his house, so that his feet would not get muddy, as it was the beginning of the monsoons. Later, Pundalik came out and apologized to Lord Vishnu. Impressed by Pundalik’s devotion to his parents, Lord Vishnu decided to stay back on earth, standing on the brick, taking the form of Vithoba.
Over time, a temple was built on the site.
While this is an often repeated legend, the worship of Vitthala probably predates Vaishnavism in the region. Vitthala, probably started off as a local pastoral deity who got incorporated into the Hindu mainstream. According to Richard Maxwell Eaton, author of A Social History of the Deccan, Vithoba was first worshipped as a pastoral god as early as the 6th century CE. Similarly, religious historian R.C. Dhere, winner of the Sahitya Akademi Award for his book Sri Vitthal: Ek Mahasamanvaya, believed Vitthal to be an amalgamation of local heroes. It was only in the 13th century CE with the rise of the Bhakti movement that Vithoba or Vitthal became identified with Vishnu.
– Vithoba was first worshipped as a pastoral god as early as the 6th century CE
The origin of the present temple is not very clear. Historians believe that Pundalik may have been a historical figure who asked the Hoysala King Vishnuvardhana (1108-1152 CE) to build the temple at Pandharpur. Also, there is an inscription in the temple, of a Hoysala king Vira Someshvara dating back to 1237 CE, which grants the temple a village for its upkeep. Many layers were added to the temple over the centuries, so we don't know what the original temple looked like.
Tracing back to the Bhakti Movement
The great Varkari pilgrimage to Pandharpur, where people walk (often barefoot), great distances to get to the temple, owes its origins to the Bhakti movement. Through the 12th and 13th century CE, the subcontinent was witnessing a socio-religious movement that was a reaction to Hindu orthodoxy. Wandering minstrels and Bhakti saints were preaching a simpler faith based on love and devotion that could be followed by the common man. The Bhakti movement made worship of god accessible to people of all castes and creeds.
In Maharastra the great Bhakti saints like Dnyaneshwar (1275-1306 CE), Namdev (1270-1350 CE), and Tukaram (1598-1649 CE) may have been the founders of Varkari tradition. Each of these saints belonged to different castes and represented the grass root movement that had such a great impact on religion and literature at the most local level.
The Bhakti movement was also a reaction to the times. Not only had mainstream Hinduism become orthodox by the 13th century CE, Islamic invaders were making violent inroads into the Deccan. From 1294 CE onwards, Malik Kafur, the General of Alauddin Khilji, the Sultan of Delhi, was on an offensive, conquering one kingdom after the other in the Deccan. Numerous temples was destroyed even as sate patronage to the temples declined.
– The great Varkari pilgrimage to Pandharpur owes its origins to the Bhakti movement
The Varkari movement was a local coming together of people across castes. Devotional songs composed in the form of folk music like abhanga, ovi and bharud became potent tools to spread this new grass roots faith and the use of local languages and folk styles made it easily accessible.
Quite like the Sufi tradition, the Bhakti movement also stressed on ‘love for god’ as the ultimate devotion. While the Sufis often used the parallel of the love for the beloved as the love for god, in the Varkari tradition, God is equated with Mauli or ‘Mother’, and all poetry is centered in the love for the mother.
Even the saints are referred to as Mauli or mother.
The Pilgrimage to Pandharpur
The annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur is one of the most important traditions of the Varkari sampradaya. While the tradition began as a normal spiritual pilgrimage to a scared location, over time, the actual journey or the Vari, became the most important part of it. The Vari or pilgrimage begins at different points of time, depending on their distance from Pandharpur. Some varkaris even walk from parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
People from different castes travel together in groups called dindis and are usually accompanied by a Palkhi or a palanquin of a particular Bhakti saint. The most prominent is the Palkhi of Sant (Saint) Dnyaneshwar, which begins at Alandi, a town near Pune. In earlier times, villages along the way would arrange for food and stay for the pilgrims. Today, a number of NGOs and even the Maharashtra State Government have stepped in to do the same.
There are number of unique, local sub events that take place during the pilgrimage, such as the dance of the horse, associated with the particular saint in the Palkhi. Also, singing called a ringan where the varkaris form a circle and sing in unison is a popular ceremony. This is followed by a dip in the river Chandrabhaga, which is supposed to wash away all sins. The Vari finally culminates on Ashadi Ekadashi when lakhs of pilgrims enter Pandharpur and take darshan (view of the deity) or bow before Lord Vithoba at the Pandharpur temple.
This is so important that on the day of Ashadi Ekadashi, a special mahapuja or grand prayer is performed by the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, on behalf of the state government. Through the day, devotees visit the temple and then begin their journey back home.This marks the end of the great Vari of Pandharpur.
Today, over 800 years after the Vari originally began, it continues to be the biggest cultural and spiritual outpouring in the region. A testimony to living traditions where history, religion and belief come together in a celebration of faith in India.
– LHI TRAVEL GUIDE
The pilgrimage city of Pandharpur lies in the Solapur district of Maharashtra. The city of Pandharpur has its own railway station, at a distance of 2 kms from the Vithoba temple. The nearest airport is Pune airport about 215 kms away.