MUMBAI: It's a vision that would melt the heart of the staunchest atheist. And it must be one of its kinds in the world; at one time, millions of people walk in Waari- a holy pilgrimage in Maharashtra. It's perhaps, the world's longest pilgrimage. Remarkable, in over 700 years of Waari tradition, no stampede or chaos has ever taken place. Waari is undertaken in the Hindu month of Ashadhi Ekadashi. Every year, millions of devotees walk along the 450-km route from Alandi (near Pune) to Pandarpur (near Kolhapur) in Western Maharashtra. They walk with one focus and that is to reach Pandharpur and offer their respects to Lord Vithal (reincarnation of Vishnu in the form of Krishna). The waarkaris (pilgrims) are mainly agriculturists and the majority of them are poor. After travelling for almost 15-20 days, devotees reach Pandarpur to meet their favourite God, Vithal. This year Waari started on June 26 and draws to an end on July 14th. A chain of millions of men, women and children walking for miles with non-stop chants of Gyanba-Tukaram on their lips, is an incredible spectacle. Origin and philosophy of Waari References of Waari can be found as far back as one thousand years. Nobody knows anything about the original waarkaris. According to an account, parents of 13th century Marathi poet-saint Dnyaneshwar undertook this pilgrimage. And he did the same, later. Sant Dnyaneshwar undertook this tradition where all along the route worshippers rendered traditional songs called Abhanga. He used to walk barefoot with a flag in his hands, keeping his fast throughout the journey. The group is divided into dindi, which is a small group. All dindis combined is called Waari. Seven centuries have passed, but worshippers from all the corners of Maharashtra still go for this holy journey. Most waarkaris observe fast. Some of them even walk barefoot; a spiritual belief propagating that the path to reach God is chock-a-block with obstacles and hardships. Devotees of all age groups form the Dindi and celebrate abandoning all tensions and problems. All the worshippers reach their destination; in spiritual terms "God", "Happiness" and "Freedom". In 1685, Narayan Baba, the youngest son of Tukaram and a man of innovative spirit decided to bring about a change in the dindi-wari tradition by introducing the Palkhi (palanquin), which is a sign of social respect. He put the silver padukas (footsteps) of Tukaram in the Palkhi and proceeded with his dindi to Alandi where he put the padukas of Dnyaneshwar in the same Palkhi. This tradition of twin Palkhis continued, but in 1830 there were some disputes in the family of Tukaram, concerned with rights and privileges. Following this, some thoughtful persons decided to break-up the tradition of twin Palkhis and organise, two separate Palkhis - Tukaram Palkhi from Dehu and the Dnyaneshwar Palkhi from Alandi. Still, both the Palkhis meet in Pune for a brief halt and then diverge at Hadapsar to meet again at Wakhri, a village near Pandharpur and the last stop of waarkaris. Along with times, the popularity of this ancient tradition soared. And a total of over 40 Palkhis, including Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram, visit Pandharpur every year. This year 275 registered dindis (it is more if one counts the unregistered dindis) and 2 lakh devotees are marching along the route to Pandharpur. The total number of pilgrims is lesser than the previous year. It is due to scanty rainfall and high inflation that has made it unaffordable for poor who normally undertake this pilgrimage after the sowing season is over.
Barrington de La Roche and Inesa Vaiciute from England specially came to India to see Waari. They were struck by the sheer magic of it. "This is the real India I wanted to see," exults Barrington who belongs to a French royal family, settled in England for 100 years. "It's absolutely fascinating," adds his friend Inesa. This was their first visit to the country and they couldn't believe their eyes when they saw the worshippers trekking barefoot with flags in hand and prayers on lips. They are filmmakers and were introduced to the idea by their 80-year old Indian friend Basant Chapekar who has lived in England for 63 years. Chapekar's late mother used to visit India every year for Waari. This year he decided to honour his mother by undertaking this spiritual journey. While walking with waarkaris, one undergoes a change and learns to adjust to any situation; it's tweaking life as you go along. The foreign couple is so taken in by Indian spirituality that they do not have much to complain. "It's only the toilets that we have some problem with," utters Inesa with a smile. As for the cultural shocks, "It happened when we arrived in Mumbai!" she replied. "We were so taken aback by the noise, the crowd and the chaos. Here (rural India), despite the crowd, it's so peaceful," utters Barrington who is filming the events at Waari and intends to make a documentary. When asked if they had understood anything about the philosophy of Waari they replied, "We are still analysing. Each day, there is someone who tells us something new about it. Each one comes up with his own interpretations." Sixty-four year old Barrington rues, had he been introduced to Indian philosophy and way of life earlier in his life, he would not have become a drug addict. "I am clean now but there was a (dark) phase I went through in my life." An event the foreign couple eagerly described was when the dindis arrived at a place called Jejuri. The dindis reached the Khandoba temple and performed a "Bhandara". It's a ritual where the waarkaris place the Dnyaneshwar Palkhi (palanquin) on the steps of the temple and all the devotees throw turmeric powder on it. A smoke of yellow hue rose in the sky covering the Palkhi. It was great visual for the camera to capture. Another event that made them speechless was the game of "Ringan". Devotees line up on either side of the road and two horses (one with a flag bearing rider) race across the stretch and then go back on the same route. This concept was designed as an entertainment to beat the monotony of tired devotees who walked non stop for 3-4 hours. Another form of amusement is "Fugdi" which the women play by joining hands and going round in circle. Such activities refresh and energise the devotees who carry on the journey with renewed vigour. No division of caste, religion or status At the campsite where Barrington and Inesa were staying, few paces away, sat seventy-five years old Jaitun Bi - bend with age but standing tall in spirits. Everybody was touching her feet. A Muslim, she became a Lord Krishna devotee at the age of five and ever since had been going on Waari. She was introduced to this by her guru Sadguru Hanuman Das. "Being a Muslim there was some opposition by my community. But I felt this magnetic attraction towards Krishna and threw myself wholeheartedly into His service," says the woman who faced a boycott by her community on account of her actions. Pressures were put on her to marry but she wowed herself to Brahmacharya (celibacy). Waari knows no divisions of religion or caste says Jaitun Bi, who has in her group, several Muslim followers like Lalaji Abdul Sheikh (65) who does Kirtans and Bhajans (hymns). Jaitun Bi's brother Abbas Bhai too has joined her. Jaitun Bi, who is fondly called "mataji", belongs to Malegaon in Baramati district. She first started Waari in 1942 when India was under the British rule. And to honour the Indian Nationalists she began her first Waari by placing a photograph of Mahatma Gandhi in her dindi. In 1947 her dindi was named after her and now it's called Jaitun Bi Dindi. As Jaitun Bi holds court, fresh smell of chula made rotis waft through the air. There are several people sitting down to dinner of simple besan sabji and chapatti. Barrington and Inesa are invited to join the gastronomic treat, and they gladly accept it. Inesa, a Lithuanian, looks every inch an Indian in a shalwar-kameez , plated hair and a bindi on her forehead. She said," I am living with these women and they treat me like a doll - someone is plating my hair and gives me tips on various topics. Over here, there is so much care and love." There are stories galore when one goes on Waari. One Ganpat Maharaj Jagtap, who lost his eye sight at a young age due to illness, started going for Waari as a young boy. He decided to write the Bhajans (hymns) in brail so that the blind too could join in the singing. Affinity towards all caste, creed and religion is evident when one walks in the Waari. Muslim devotees from North India used to come for Waari, earlier. As time passed it became increasingly difficult for them to join the Waari every year. Hence, they said that they were finding it very difficult to join Waari but their hearts were in it. Hence, a white flag was assigned to dindi No. 7 as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with and a mark of respect to their Muslim brethren. Though majority of the people walking in the Waari are poor, economic status is not important. There would be an affluent businessman walking alongside a poor farmer. Maharashtra's forest minister Babanrao Pachpute who goes for Waari every year too was walking, and it did not disturb the momentum of the group.
Why walk for God? When asked why they were walking, the waarkaris replied it just made them happy. Bhakti (devotion) just filled them with peace. A waarkari walks for the love of God. His focus is to reach Pandharpur, bathe in river Chandrabhaga, offer Puja to Dyaneshwar's paduka, buy Prasad (offering from God), go round the main temple that houses Vithal's deity and leave for his village, where he distributes the prasad among fellow villagers. After weeks of walking he does not get to see Lord Vithal's idol inside the temple because it is too crowded for everyone to reach the inner sanctum of the temple. Yet, he feels blessed to have undertaken the pilgrimage to Pandharpur. Waarkaris do not ask for anything from the Lord. Life now is easier for scribes Over the years it has become easier for journalists to cover waari. Recounts freelance journalist Suryakant Bhagwan Bhise, who has covered the event for 19 years, "Things were very difficult in those days. There was no place to rest, bathe, eat or sleep. I have spent a number of nights in paddy fields, sitting the whole time clutching my bag with my meagre belongings. As time passed, I developed good contacts and started arranging accommodations and meals for visiting journalists." Waarkaris set up camp anywhere. And so Bhise too had to follow. Another sore point was the communication systems. Over a decade ago Bhise found it very hard to send his stories to his paper. "My stories used to reach my paper days later. And they were published after three days of filing them. I never got to read them." For long distance phone call there were only trunk calls that one could make from rural Maharashtra. Then the STD phone facility made life easier. Gradually, with the advent of fax and internet, communications channel became so smooth that the stories began to be filed in real time. Over the years, media too started taking interest with more and more newspapers and TV channels sending their reporters for the coverage. It's not an easy job. The pilgrimage goes on for nearly three weeks and one can experience fatigue, get bruised and sore all over. When 25000 rotis were distributed in a day Bhise narrates an indent showing the spirit of Waari. Wherever the waarkaris pass his village, people touch their feet calling them "Maoli" (in the image of mother-father). It's a feeling they associate with Lord Vithal. And from each home, school children bring five rotis, some flour (besan) and peanuts to make chutney. They make a dish called Pithle (with besan) and distribute everything among waarkaris who do not accept any alms or food from anyone. But there are others in the group, who join the trek, and they accept it. With each home contributing food, in a day a mammoth 25000 rotis are distributed in a day. Armed with the spirit of Waari, India may never know food crisis. Lessons for corporates A noticeable feature on the walk with waarkaris the similar names of mobile tea stalls by the road side. All had 'Saagar" emblazoned on them. It emerged that once someone started a tea stall by that name and since then everybody adopted the same name. So, there was Saagar tea-stall galore; a lesson in brand equity for management students! The organisation, management and administration of the Waari were the brain child of Haibatbaba Aarphalkar, a lieutenant of Maratha ruler Mahadji Scindia who designed with military precision the movement of the dindis. The management, precision and administration of the group is a lesson that none of the management schools will ever teach in their course. But, it's a grass root lesson worthy of any education. Dindis don't wait for anyone or any calamity. Rain, hail storm or VIP visit, they keep walking. So much so, a practical joke doing the rounds among scribes was that they were wary of sleeping in one of the tents pitched by waarkaris because if they are required to dismantle their tents at 3 in the morning they would do so and move on, leaving the person sleeping under the open sky. There have been incidences of old and infirm dying while walking. The group stops to arrange for the dead to be transported to its destination. And if the body remains unclaimed the waarkaris perform the cremation and move ahead. They never leave them unattended. Then there is Audumbar Mahadev Chatake who spent 14 years doing waari and believes if one dies that on this spiritual journey then he is the lucky one to receive the "Number 1 Death." According to him such persons must not have sinned in their last seven births. It's only the fortunate who get this sort of death, believes Chatake.
Fine tuning life Adjustment is evident at every step. To shield themselves from lashing rain waarkaris use colorful plastic sheets as it's cumbersome to hold umbrellas. Everybody makes "adjustments", even when it comes to using water. Since the pilgrims are on the move, water is a rare commodity. A scribe narrated how he was asked to share his glass of water after he had used it to wash his hands and was about to throw away the rest. At campsite, through satirical dramas like bharud, message like ills of smoking are brought forth. Dindi promotes the three-pronged philosophy of positive approach to health, environment and spiritual development. Business as usual When the waarkaris move, an entire village moves with them. There is a barber, grocers and others who walk ahead of the group and set up shop by the road side. Brisk selling takes place. Kabir Gaekwad (30) from Solapur sells basic eatables like peanuts and cucumber. Before the group reaches its destination he moves ahead and sets up shop on the ground. He buys supplies from the village or town that fall on his way; he keeps moving all along the route. "This way I earn my livelihood and also do my Waari," says the nondescript man who earns around Rs 3 to 4 thousands during the pilgrimage. Spontaneous hospitality There are people like the elderly Jain businessman Doshi who throw open their doors for the pilgrims. His mother used to go on Waari. "Twenty-five years ago, inspired by my mother's devotion, I started serving the pilgrims and continue to do so. Every year, when they pass by my house, I serve them with food, and allow them facilities like ablutions in my house." This impromptu hospitality was seen right through the road that waarkaris traversed. Quaint houses along the dusty rural roads had allowed the pilgrims to make use of basic facilities. Military like precision Each dindi is led by saffron-flag bearers. They are followed by women holding the holy plant Tulsi on heads. Following them is a man playing the Veena. He is followed by another set of instrumentalists playing Mridang and singing Bhajans (hymns). The rest in the group follow those ahead. Each dindi is supervised by a Chopdar. Individual Chopdar coordinate with the main Chopdar who is regarded as the supreme commander of the dindis. He enjoys immense authority. He carries a silver rod in his hand (akin to a rod of Jutscie). His influence is evident when one sees him in action. In a 100 acres field where lakhs of pilgrims assemble the Chopdar raises his rod just once and a pin-drop silence follows. Only the group with a grievance continues beating the drum. Thereafter, the Chopdar redresses the grievance of that particular group, and the entire assemblage moves on. It takes all sorts to make the world go round The sight of men and women bathing in the same pond, side by side and uninhibited was a staggering revelation. No lewd gestures were made and sexual harassment has never been reported. It is a tribute to the spiritual level of the waarkaris (pilgrims or devotees). Their thoughts are so pure that they see no evil, utter no evil and hear no evil. Undoubtedly, dindis comprise waarkaris with a single-minded dedication to reach Pandharpur. But there are others who join them on the way. They comprised the riff-raffs, too who cannot brushing past a woman or stealthily run away with a devotee's belongings. Though such incidents do not happen too often, they are not totally unknown. However, no serious criminal offence takes place and the regular waarkaris keep a watchful eye to avoid any untoward incident during the pilgrimage. When the group passes a town the lodges do brisk business; prostitution is known to take place at such times. Legend of Pandharpur As per the folklore a devotee named Pundalik lived in Pandharpur. Lord vithal once went to Pundalik's house to meet him. But Pundalik made Lord Vithal wait at his doorstep because he was attending to his beloved parents at the time. The Lord willingly stood outside and waited for Pundalik to finish serving his parents. The message is that Pundalik believed in Karama (deed) being greater than Bhakti (devotion) of the Lord whom he regarded as a friend. It's a belief that the Lord came to meet Pundalik at Pandarpur and stayed back. He resides there till date and all his devotees go to meet him at Pandharpur. The idol of the Lord inside the temple is depicted in the image of a shepherd clad in a loin cloth. Dash for Pandharpur When devotees approach Pandharpur, they make a dash for the temple. This is called Dhaava and even this is so well organised that no stampede has ever been reported. After worshipping the Lord at Pandharpur a reverse Waari starts but it's a smaller group of people who go back in the procession. Lord is their Captain Witnessing the energy of the pilgrims someone remarked that it's the faith that moves them. Even the city-bred among the waarkaris walk for miles before resting. In cities, they would not walk 500 meters without feeling tired. A young man from Mumbai was surprised that he had trekked with the pilgrims up to 8 km of Dive Ghat and descended 6 km down without a feeling to give up on the journey. The pilgrims clearly transcend to a higher plane. And it's an experience that even the ordinary people undergo.