Close on the heels of the Jagannath Yatra being permitted at Puri in Odisha, following an order by the Supreme Court, various religious institutions and political leaders have sought permission from the Maharashtra government to participate in the annual Ashadhi Ekadashi religious event in Pandharpur, the state’s largest annual religious gathering that will be a brief and symbolic affair this year. The event is set to be held on July 1.
On account of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions against gatherings, the state had decided last month that the annual on-foot pilgrimage to the Vithal temple in Pandharpur — undertaken by about 15 lakh members of the Warkari community — will be prohibited this year.
Instead, in a symbolic continuance of tradition, the government will supervise the ferrying of the ‘padukas’ or ceremonial foot imprints of the most revered saints, by air or by road, to Pandharpur. Every year, lakhs of pilgrims follow the ‘palkhis’ or palanquins bearing images of these saints from across the state, the main groups departing from Alandi’s Sant Dnyaneshwar temple and Dehu’s Sant Tukaram temple.
With the state indicating that dozens of teams cannot participate even in very small numbers, some have begun to petition district authorities and other leaders. “We are prepared to spend Rs 8 lakh on this symbolic pilgrimage of Sant Janabai’s padukas. We have booked a helicopter, we want permission to land at the Pandharpur helipad, drive to the Chandrabhaga river and complete the holy dip as per tradition,” said Govind Yadav, the Gangakhed taluka president of Congress. Born in Gangakhed in Parbhani, Sant Janabai is a 13th century religious poet.
Refused permission to land their chopper or to visit the site by the Solapur collector, Yadav wrote to Pune Divisional Commissioner Deepak Mhaisekar on Wednesday. “They’re tells us the temple is closed. But we don’t need to enter the temple at all. Just like all precautions were taken as per the Supreme Court’s orders for the Puri Jagannath Yatra, we are willing to take any precautions the state orders,” he told The Indian Express.
He said only a handful of people, including four senior Warkari representatives, want to travel from Gangakhed to Pandharpur. The group is willing to produce medical certificates, undergo a Covid-19 test or be sent to quarantine.
“A team of officials even assessed the helipad site we prepared in Gangakhed. Two trusts here have made all preparations for the helicopter-palkhi. Refusing permission now would dash the hopes of lakhs of devotees across Marathwada,” Yadav said.
Also seeking permission is BJP MLA Tanaji Mutkule from Hingoli, the birthplace of Sant Namdev, another of the most revered in Maharashtra’s tradition of poet-saints.
“The government is not responding to us, we’re waiting with all preparations done,” Mutkule said. “Our wari (pilgrimage) is a 500-year-old tradition and thousands participate. This year, we’re asking for permission for five persons to go with the padukas. We want to go by jeep and return immediately,” he added.
“This government has already stalled an allocation of Rs 25 crore made by the Devendra Fadnavis government for the Namdev temple in Hingoli. Through public donations of Rs 6 crore, we roped in artisans from Rajasthan to build a marble temple to Sant Namdev. It’s almost ready. Not getting permission for our palkhi this year will be an injustice,” Mutkule said.
In the last week of May, the state government had decided to curtail the annual gathering at the Vithal-Rukmini temple of Pandharpur, where lakhs of devotees gather on the Ekadashi day of the month of Ashadh, after having walked 15 to 20 days with their palkhis, continuing a tradition that is said to be several hundred years old.
Several other temple trusts that traditionally lead palkhis and devotees to take a dip in the Chandrabhaga are also pressurising the state to permit small groups of five or 10 people to participate in the July 1 event. The Aundha-Nagnath temple trust in Parbhani, another trust in Beed district, and several smaller institutions have also sought permission.
For now, the Solapur collector has refused permissions citing the need to restrict gatherings in view of the district’s Covid-19 cases, but Yadav said various groups are also writing to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and other state leaders. “The followers of these saints have a deep faith in continuing the tradition. We hope permissions will be given with whatever precautions and restrictions the state deems fit,” said Yadav.