On the 20th of July, a striking temple on the banks of a crescent-shaped river in a small town in southern Maharashtra saw an interesting event play out.
The Chief Minister of the state (along with his wife) did the ritual puja at the temple to mark a special occasion.
In a normal year, this temple would see several hundred-thousand devotees (4-500,000 as per an old estimate) make an arduous 250-km, 21-day journey on foot to visit it on this auspicious day to pray to their favourite God. But this year, because of Covid restrictions, only a handful were allowed to be present.
The temple: The Vitthal Rukmini temple on the banks of the Chandrabhaga river in the town of Pandharpur (around 220 kms south-east of Pune).
And the occasion: Aashadi Ekadashi - for the Pandharpur Wari - a fascinating tradition that dates back to 800+ years.
Now most of you might be scratching your head thinking - what is this 'Wari' thing? How did it start? And what makes it so special?
I definitely don't have all the answers ... But I do have five stories. And some lessons...
1. A Story of Service
According to legend, a youth by the name of Pundalik lived in present-day Maharashtra (time unknown).
In the initial part of the story, Pundalik is identified by one defining characteristic: he isn't nice to his parents... (making him the perfect candidate for a villain in a Karan Johar tearjerker).
Due to an encounter at a wise sage's ashram, Pundalik has an epiphany and realises his folly. From that moment on, it's as if a switch has been turned on - he becomes the ideal son, making sure his parents have no cause for complaint.
Now the next part of the story involves the Lord (Vishnu/Krishna, depending on different sources) encountering Pundalik - and this part of the story has several versions.
In one version, the God takes suo-moto cognisance of Pundalik's exemplary parental devotion and decides to pay him a surprise visit.
In another version, the Lord's consort, Rukmini is miffed that he is paying undue attention to Radha. She leaves the house in a huff, and takes refuge in a forest near Pundalik's house.
The Lord manages to find and pacify her, and (presumably because he's so close to the house of a devotee who's acquired quite the reputation in the field of parental-devotion) decides to pay Pundalik a surprise visit, in the form of the child Krishna.
The surprise nature of the visit is crucial. Because when Krishna reaches Pundalik's house, the latter is busy - you guessed it - taking care of his parents.
Now Pundalik is a smart chap, and realises that he has an unusually important visitor at the door. But what to do - parental care calls - and so he continues to serve them.
He doesn't entirely ignore the little Krishna though. The ground outside (where the deity awaits) is muddy, and to prevent the Lord's lotus feet from getting soiled, Pundalik throws - and this part took me by surprise - a brick, for Krishna to stand on.
(Interesting side note - since the Lord is waiting for Pundalik, he is said to be standing in the arms akimbo pose)
Image source: Redtigerxyz, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Once relieved of his household obligations, Pundalik turns to serve Krishna, half expecting censure... when, instead, he finds that the Lord is mighty pleased with his actions.
The brick has served its noble purpose and Krishna is suitably impressed with the young man's devotion - towards his parents.
He asks Pundalik for the customary boon, and Pundalik responds: Please stay here with your consort and bless all those who come to seek your favour.
That place came to be named Pandharpur (after Pundalik), and the deity took the name of Vitthal (from 'Vit' - Marathi for brick [similar to 'eenth' in Hindi], and Sthal - place in Sanskrit).
Essentially the story's message is: Do your duty with utmost devotion - that's all the prayer and hospitality God needs.
2. A Story of Inclusion
One of the seminal events in the long history of Hinduism was the Bhakti movement. A movement that originated in South India (through poet-saints called Alwars and Nayanars who worshipped Vishnu and Shiva, respectively), it spread throughout the country.
While this post doesn't aim to get into any detail into this fascinating phenomenon, here are some of its key features:
In Maharashtra, some of the main adherents of the Bhakti movement were saints like Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Namdev and Eknath.
The story of Dnyaneshwar (13th century) is especially striking. A prodigy, he wrote the text 'Dnyaneshwari' (a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita) at the tender age of 16. As mentioned above, he wrote it in the common language of Marathi, instead of the priestly Sanskrit, making it accessible to more people.
He was also an ardent devotee of Vitthal - and, according to one theory, is credited with starting the annual pilgrimage from his town of Alandi (near Pune) to Pandharpur. Another theory states that it was Dnyaneshwar's father, Vitthalpant, who began the Wari... while some folks credit Sant Tukaram (17th century) to have started it.
What is accepted is that the present-day tradition of carrying the paduka (sandals) of the saints in a decorated palkhi (palanquin) was started by the youngest son of Tukaram, Narayan Maharaj, in 1685.
Whoever started it, one thing is clear - the Pandharpur Wari, to this day, is one of the strongest legacies of the revolutionary Bhakti movement. Even now, the Wari is open to anyone who is a Vitthal devotee and it sees vast representation from all walks of life. Most of the warkaris are simple farmers and other rural folk, who undertake this 250-km, 21-day journey on foot every year.
How do they find the time, you may wonder? Ah, that's where the timing comes into play.
The day of Ekadashi - or the eleventh day in the lunar calendar - is significant for Vishnu worshipers. Of all the Ekadashis in the year, perhaps Aashadi Ekadashi was chosen because it comes in July, a month when the farmers are:
a. Free, having just sown their Kharif crop
b. Hungry for divine blessings, umm, having just sown their Kharif crop!
Whoever designed this pilgrimage, did so smartly!
Practical advantages aside, my most important takeaway from this set of stories: How the Pandharpur Wari is a shining example of acceptance and inclusion, that serves as an inspiration to this day.
3. A Story of Persuasion
When I tried researching about who actually built the temple, I came across many theories (the main temple website does not indicate anything unfortunately).
Having said that, one name seems to recur across sources: A Hoysala King named Vishnuvardhana.
The Hoysalas were a dynasty based in present day Karnataka - with a claim to fame of building several striking temples (Belur, Halebidu, Somnathapura).
One of the Hoysala Kings, Vishnuvardhana is said to have (re)-built the main Vitthal Rukmini temple at Pandharpur.
But, wait a minute, it turns out that the King was actually a follower of Jainism (and went by the name of Bitti Deva) earlier. How did he end up building a temple to a form of Vishnu?
Because he was influenced by another saint - Ramanujacharya - to convert to Hinduism and become a Vishnu devotee. Ramanuja, who hailed from Sriperumbudur (near present day Chennai) was an influential 12th century figure in the Bhakti movement and was later closely associated with the famous Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam.
So, let's summarise this in present day terms: You have a Tamilian, persuading a Kannadiga to change his religion, which ultimately led him to rebuilding a temple in Maharashtra!
Pretty cool, huh?!
4. A Story of Unity
The backdrop to this story is an ancient tussle for divine supremacy - among devotees in India.
It is well established that the religion we call as Hinduism, is a fusion of different forms of faith. Especially in ancient and medieval times, if you ask someone their religion, they would have identified themselves as Vaishnavites (worshipping Vishnu) or Shaivites (worshipping Shiva) among other categories.
Predictably, interactions between these two groups weren't always cordial, with things sometimes even getting violent.
In this context, attempts to unify these streams of thought into a single all-encompassing faith would also be made.
In fact I remember one incident from a visit to the Nellaiappar temple (dedicated to Shiva) in Tirunelveli, southern Tamil Nadu many years back. A priest (or was it a visitor... can't recollect) said that the Tamil word 'arisi', which means rice - the staple diet of the south - is derived from Hari + Shiva.
Based on that, he even shared a small rhyme in Tamil:
"Hari-um, Shivan-um onnu (Hari [Vishnu] and Shiva are one)
Adhu ariyaadhar vayile mannu" (Those who don't know this, have dust in their mouth)
Anyway, this next story is in that similar tradition - trying to bridge the gap between the two worshiping clans.
The story goes that in Pandharpur lived a goldsmith named Narhari Sonar. Now Narhari was a staunch Shiva devotee and would only visit the local Shiva temple in town. Not only had he never visited the (far more famous) Vithoba temple, he even refused to look up at the shikhara (the pinnacle) of the temple.
Now comes the plot twist. A merchant had vowed that if he was blessed with a son, he would get a cummerbund (waistband) made for the idol of Vitthal. The son was duly born and the merchant landed up at Narhari's door, looking for the best goldsmith in town.
Narhari while not respecting Vishnu, probably did not mind the blessing of Goddess Lakshmi that the merchant would bestow on him. So, he agreed to do the job, but on one condition - he will not enter the temple to take the measurements; they would have to be taken for him.
Measurements were duly taken and the cummerbund was made.
However, when the merchant tried to fit the ornament to the deity, it turned out to be too tight.
No worries, said Narhari and loosened the band. Guess what, it was way too loose now.
There was no option but for Narhari to actually visit the deity. No worries, said the merchant, you don't have to actually see it - you just have to feel it! So we will take you in blindfolded.
This seemed a fair compromise to Narhari and he went in. Here's where things got interesting.
When Narhari touched the deity, he was shocked - instead of Vithoba's shape, he could feel an idol with 5 heads and 10 arms, serpents around the neck, matted hair on top, tiger skin garments and a body covered in sacred ash.
Startled to find the features of Shiva, he removed his blindfold - only to realise that the idol in front of him was actually that of the boy Vitthal - standing arms akimbo on a brick.
When he re-tied his blindfold, he again felt like he was touching the idol of Shiva...
That day Narhari had a life-changing epiphany - Vishnu and Shiva are but one and the same. He became a devotee of Vithoba and became part of the Warkari sect, composing several abhangas (devotional hymns) in praise of the Lord.
This story is a wonderful reminder that the Ultimate Truth is one; it just has many forms.
5. A Story of Change
Finally, a word on tradition vs. change. A practice which has been going on for 800 years, must be set in stone, you might think.
But, it turns out that even such enduring traditions are amenable to change - especially for the better.
During the early 1800s, the annual pilgrimage was getting complicated to manage with several groups of devotees from different villages vying to reach Pandharpur on the appointed day.
One gentleman - by the name of Haibatravbaba Arphalkar (an official in the Scindia Court at Gwalior) - is credited with reorganizing the wari, to make it more streamlined... and that is broadly the system that is followed even today.
He separated the two main palkhis (one carrying Dnyaneshwar's paduka from Alandi and the other carrying Tukaram's paduka from Dehu), and organised the warkaris in smaller, manageable groups known as Dindis.
Clearly these fundamental changes were significant and effective enough for devotees to still revere him for his work.
My takeaway from this story: Even if there is a tradition going on for centuries, it is possible to make changes in the same, if you can convince the stakeholders that it is for the better!
Service. Inclusion. Persuasion. Unity. Change.
Five inspiring lessons from five stories... from an 800-year old tradition.
Do you have any stories or memories from the Pandharpur Wari? Do write in and I'll share the best ones in a later edition of the newsletter.
PS: This post is a kind of atonement for me. Why? Because, despite living almost all of my 42 years in Maharashtra (and the last 9 years in Pune), I knew hardly anything about this tradition. Pretty shameful. I must thank the folks from my building and from my son's school for enthusiastically celebrating this festival and making me curious enough to research about it!
Image credits: wikicommons.org