Undeterred by this season’s torrential downpour and thunderstorms is a file of men and women marching on a sacred journey. Though it will last 22 days, the pilgrims believe it will bring lasting spiritual satisfaction. These pilgrims are the Varkaris, who have set off on their annual, arduous journey to the religious seat of Pandharpur in Solapur district, the abode of Lord Vitthal.
There, they will celebrate Ashadhi Ekadashi, or the 11th day of the Hindu lunar calendar, which falls on July 15 this year.
The Varkaris’ journey is unique, with saffron-clad barefoot pilgrims marching along, carrying Palkhis or palanquins of saints from their places of Samadhi (enlightenment or “spiritual birth”).
As they walk, music from cymbals and single-stringed ektaras, and songs sung in spiritual delight, fill the air.
Shyamsunder Sonnar, a Varkari from Mumbai, says his is a community of shared spiritual beliefs and religious practices. “There are influences from various sects of Hinduism. And there was Kabir. There are influences of Islam too,” he says.
The Varkari spiritual thought is believed to have originated 700 years ago. The community recognises prominent gurus — Gyaneshwar, Namdev, and Tukaram — among 15-20 such leaders. Their teachings inculcate the perception of paap and punya (sins and virtues). The teachings of Saint Gyaneshawar deal with the path chosen for abdication of sins.
Among the many forms of Lord Vishnu in Hinduism, one is Vitthal. Varkari pilgrims congregate from various part of Maharashtra at the city of Alandi in Pune, and then set off barefoot towards Pandharpur.
Most pilgrims comprise people engaged in jobs demanding strenuous physical labour, including farmers and former millworkers and their families. Women too, show great enthusiasm.
Legend has it that Lord Vitthal neither harmed anyone nor did he expect anything from his followers, says Sonnar. “All he offered was love. Our saint, Tukaram, has said all we need is love. And all we need it love and peace,” he says.
The seeds have been sown this season, and hence farmers, Sonnar says, are also part of the massive crowd of followers. While 1,00,000 Varkaris from Mumbai undertake the journey every year, the participation from the entire state is tenfold the number.
Adoption of Abhang, or poetic recitals of spiritualism, self-restraint and austerity, defines the movement of the Varkaris.
“The journey involves some formidable obstacles but the notion of unity and equality is enough to overcome that. This is an occasion where all the pilgrims, irrespective of their societal and class, sit together and eat,” says a Varkari member.