India is a colorful country having different colors of lifestyles, languages, food, sports, festivals, etc. Each of these (lifestyle, language, food, sports, festivals) has an influence of the geography of that region. As we travel from one part of India to another, we can experience the changes, not only in people but in their lifestyle as well. Every region will have a unique way of living life, celebrating festivals. Though they bring joy to their life differently, but there is the feeling of unity in them. Once can experience it in some special events.
Each region or more accurately state in India, has unique ways of celebrating common festivals like Diwali, Holi, etc. In addition to that, these states have few festivals of their own. Same is applicable to Maharashtra, which is having a unique way of celebrating Ganesh Festival, Gudhi Padhava (new year), and Vari. We got a chance or more appropriately planned to spend a day with Vari and feel it, and definitely it was a unique experience. Here is an attempt to share what we saw and what we experienced, with the readers of this article.
What is Vari?
Vitthal, also considered as Shri Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, is worshiped in almost entire Maharashtra and outside also. The worshipers of Vitthal perform a pilgrimage to Pandharpur, the place of Vitthal. This holy journey from the places of different saints – Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, etc. around 40 in number, to Pandharpur is called Vari. The people who perform this vari are called as varkari. Varkari’s are worshipers of Vitthal. This pilgrimage happens twice a year – one during the Hindu calendar month Ashadh (around July) and second in Kartik (around November). Varkari’s start this journey on bright Ekadashi (11th day by lunar calender) and complete in 15 day to reach Pandharpur on the immediate next Ekadashi. Varkari are part of Varkari Sampraday, Varkari Stream.
How does the Vari happen?
In the current form of Vari, Varkari carry Paduka (sandals) from the place of a saint to Pandharpur. They walk hundreds of kilometers to reach Pandharpur. We joined Saint Dnyaneshwar Maharaj Palakhi (in which the Paduka’s are carried), which starts from Alandi (25km east of Pune), and travels through Pune, Saswad, Jejuri, Vhalhe, Lonand, Taradgaon, Phaltan, Barad, Natepute, Malshiras, Velapur, Bhandishegaon, Vakhari to reach Pandharpur. Other palakhi starting near pune is – Saint Tukaram Maharaj Palakhi, which starts from Dehu (near Pune) through Akurdi, Pune, Loni Kalbhor, Yavat, Varvand, Baramati, Sansar, Lasurne, Nimgaon Ketaki, Indapur, Sarati, Akaluj, Borgaon, Pirachi Kuroli, Vakhari to Pandharpur. Both the Palakhi merge together in Vakhari, just prior to Pandharpur.
Varkari’s mostly dressed in dothi/kurta or women in sari, having gandh on their forehead, playing Taal, Mridang, Veena (Indian instruments), and singing songs, called as Abhang’s of the Saints keep walking with an eagerness to meet/see Vitthal in Pandarpur.
The Atmosphere in Vari
In exact words, if one has to describe how the atmosphere is in the Vari – it is ‘VitthalMay’ – filled in with Vitthal and thoughts of Vitthal. Thousands of Varkari’s, of different ages, men and women, rich and poor, educated/uneducated people from different parts of Maharashtra and outside, are walking briskly, forgetting all worries, all worldly thoughts, and singing & dancing Vitthal Abhangs loudly.
The environment teaches unity by bringing people having different economic status, casts, education, etc. together, with a common goal of reaching the almighty – Vitthal. They forget all worldly barriers and help each other, they befriend with each other, they know each other, and finally merge into one thought, which is of Vitthal. They call each other ‘Mauli’ – the mother. This is the name given to Saint Dnyaneshwar. The reason is the way he explains the spiritual concepts in his teachings, is similar to a mother explaining to her child.
How It Works in Vari: The System Behind
As the number of Varkari started increasing over past decade or so, there was a need to organize different Varkari groups to avoid issues of ‘respective’ position in the Vari. Now each small group of varkari, called Dindi, has their own sequence number in the Vari, and they have to walk at designated place only. When palakhi is about to start, each Dindi stands at their designated place and then start walking in same sequence. By the time the Vari reaches to a stop prior to Pandharpur, there are around 7 to 8 lakhs (around 0.7 to 0.8 million) Varkari in Vari. Managing so many people is gigantic task. This sequencing system works perfectly to manage such a huge number of people. In addition to this, plan of each day is already worked out, and it is followed by each Varkari and Dindi.
Each Dindi has a truck allocated to carry the luggage and food items. Also there are few people who are having responsibility to cook food for the people in Dindi. These are the Varkari who are cook by profession mostly. These people try to reach the place of rest in afternoon or to the place of night stop ahead of the Dindi. They cook keep the food ready by the time Dindi reaches there for rest.
Local people also contribute as per their capacity to the food either by donating raw material or by serving prepared food itself. Usually the food contains Poli/Bhakari (Bread), curry, two vegetables, rice and one or two other snacks. Mostly the food is served on disposable plates made of leaves, called Patravali. Some Dindi have their own stainless steel plates, while some people carry their own plates. Tea and breakfasts are also arranged in same way. Water tankers keep supplying water to the Dindi along with local people. Some people carry water containers on their head and keep supplying to people in Dindi whenever needed. Water supply is very important as the Varkari are walking briskly, singing and the area through which they pass is hotter as compared to rest of the Maharashtra.
Arrangements of Stay
Multiple options are available to the Varkari to stay over. Mostly there are tents set up for the Dindi. Depending on rain situation, some Varkari prefer to sleep on the empty grounds/barron lands. It is possible because most of the stopping places are hot at the time of Vari, especially during the month of June/July. Some of the local people at the destinations offer places to stay.
At each stay, Varkari arrange different programs. Local people and Varkari gather together to offer prayer called Samaj – Arati. Other than Arati, there are many Bhajans, Kirtans and Bharuds presented by Varkari. This is how the teachings of Saints are spread across the Varkari. During the stop, Varkari take attendance and check if anything is lost or somebody is missing. The missing/found people/things are given to a designated person called Chopdar. Chopdar ensure that the missing people reach to correct place. Chopdar also communicate the messages from the organizers to respective Dindi during stops. He also controls the Dindi while walking. If the Dindi is supposed to stop then Chopdar raises a metal stick, called Dandh and the Varkari in that Dindi understand that they have to stop now.
In the morning, people get up early, get ready to start the walk. At six O’ clock, the Palakhi starts for next destination and after five to six kilometers of walk, it stops for breakfast.
Services for Varkaris
Government and different social and private organizations come forward to offer different necessary services to Varkaris, so that they just continue their journey forgetting day to day requirements. People from villages/towns/cities, from where the Vari passes through, celebrate the day as a festival.
Many hospitals and related agencies come forward to provide medical services whenever needed. Transport for elderly people who can not walk all the way, or transport for luggage is also provided by different agencies.
Hair cutting and shaving, repairing shoes, are amongst the services which are offered by local people for free. They think that they are offering a service to God – Vittal.
The Special Events
An important event that occurs during journey is ‘Ringan’. Literal meaning is circle. In this event, the horse rider travelling in front, offers his prayers by coming back to the Palakhi – carrying Paduka, with Varkari singing on both sides of path. This ‘Ringan’ can be of type ‘Ubhe/ – straight or ‘Gol’ – a circular.
This is a beautiful scene to watch when lakhs of Varkari prepare path for the horse rider within minutes and the horse reaches to the palakhi and returns within blink of eyes. When this starts all Varkari start singing Abhangs louder and everything starts getting the heavenly feeling. Even people like us, who were there to see how it happens, forgot everything and became part of the heavenly journey. This ‘Ringan’ occurs at multiple places during journey and as the number of people go on increasing towards later part of journey, it gets more spectacular.
After reaching Pandharpur, Varkari take a bath in Chandrabhaga river (Bhima river) and go to the Vitthal temple. Not that everyone gets a chance to see Vitthal idol, called Darshan, cause the queue is takes around forty eight to fifty hours to reach the main temple area. It is around fifty to seventy Varkari take Darshan per second. Some Varkari just take Darshan of the top of the temple, called Kalas, and go back. Usually Maharashtra CM comes to offer the pooja at the temple.
Seven to eight lakh Varkari in a town having capacity less than fifty thousand leads to stampede sometime as well as the facilities fall short. But Varkari manage it some how.
This pilgrimage is a way of bringing people of all casts together and spreading the teachings of the saints amongst them. Other than personal goal of reaching to God or worshiping the God, the social development aspect is also served through this. The Vari is a complete system that works with the co-operation amongst Varkari, local people and government.
It was a wonderful experience to be with the Vari. One must travel the entire journey at least once in life.