August 2014 By Vipul Shaha and Sheetal Sanghvi Vipul Shaha and Sheetal Sanghvi participated for a day in the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur in Maharashtra called the waari, and came away overwhelmed by thespirit of devotion and camaraderie that prevailed My feet are tired but my soul is rested.” These beautiful words from Mahatma Gandhi describe our state as we struggle to walk that last mile to reach the Nature Cure Ashram, where Madhavitai from the Vinoba Ashram at Pavnar has invited us to spend the night. It feels nothing short of a miracle to have just completed this 33-kilometer walking pilgrimage from Pune to Saswad in scorching heat as part of the annual Pandharpur waari. Maybe it was the shakti of bhakti (the power of faith) that kept us going through an incredible 15-hour walk. The Warkaris: A pageant of faith and fellowship Growing up in Maharashtra, one cannot miss the annual pilgrimage that takes place from Alandi to Pandharpur. Popularly called ‘waari’ or ‘palkhi’ it is a 700-year-old tradition that draws over a million people annually to cover a distance of approximately 250 kilometers over 18 days through villages, towns and cities. This year, we felt a spontaneous call to join in the pilgrimage, even if for a short time, and to understand the spirit of this walk that has passed us by for so many years. With no definite plan, no particular agenda, and not much knowledge, we plunged into this river of pilgrims, and got completely soaked in its flow of amazing generosity, bhakti and the celebration of life. The shakti of bhakti As we started our walk at five am, with hundreds and thousands of chanting pilgrims (Warkaris), it felt like being part of a flowing river that was hurtling to dissolve in the ocean of faith and divinity, at the feet of Lord Vitthala in Pandharpur. Innumerable tributaries comprising various saintly traditions and paths, from the tiniest of villages in Maharashtra, join this unstoppable stream. This holy river embraces every pilgrim, washing away any apparent distinctions of class, caste or gender. A sense of camaraderie and fellowship flows among people, as they walk together. Nobody is asked his vocation, qualification and social status. Saint Dhyaneshwara, one of the patron saints of this walk, is lovingly called Mauli (mother) for bestowing the knowledge of universal peace upon the world. The result is a beautiful tradition of pilgrims referring to each other as Mauli – a mark of acknowledging the Divine in others. In a very touching moment, as we stood praying outside a temple, an old grandma came out, bent down to touch our feet, and before we could respond, happily glided away to join her friends. Around the same time, a flowering tree overhead showered its flowers upon us as though saying, “I honour the Divine in you.” Something melted in the heart space, as tears of gratitude rolled freely, and the mind became still. We met many elderly folks who had been coming to waari for decades. One grandma in her 80s chuckled. “My family worries about me since they think that I cannot do this any longer. But every year, I just can’t help it as my whole being vibrates with the call to walk!” Another tiny grandma in her 80s, when asked how long she had been walking, kindly looked us in the eye and said, “Why bother with numbers? Just chant His name and walk His path.” It was moving to see a disabled Warkari riding a hand-operated tricycle being offered a helping push uphill, by unknown fellow pilgrims. There were small children, families – large and small, barefooted women, a group of doctors, a group of nature lovers, and even service groups like Rotarians taking a dip in the pilgrim river. Interestingly, there is no single authority or hierarchy that controls the flow of this human river. Self-organisation and discipline prevails as pilgrims from all walks join without invitation to participate in this sacred journey. When asked what brings them to this pilgrimage year after year, many expressed that they get tremendous ‘samaadhaan’ (solutions) from joining the waari. The seed of this towering faith must be powerful, to have kept this tradition alive and thriving for several centuries. Unlimited generosity As this endless stream of pilgrims passes through cities and villages, it attracts overwhelming generosity everywhere. Unlimited tea, water, bananas, sweets and hot food flow freely from the locals to the pilgrims. It seems as if everyone along the way wants to contribute their own bit to this flow. We enjoyed the simple warm breakfast cooked with love by a family that we had never met, and who probably woke up at four am to cook it. Everywhere we saw people opening up their homes to pilgrims for bathing and resting. All along the way, simple folks like barbers, cobblers and tailors offered their services as a gift to the willing pilgrim. Keeping up with modern times, some locals even offered free mobile phone charging service. Local politicians, business communities, government officials, police force, social service organisations came together to offer service in various innovative ways. Free medicines, ambulances on motorcycles, and doctors were made available all along the way in case of emergency. We felt pained, however, to witness the colossal amount of trash that was created by the castaway mineral water bottles, packaged food, plastic cups and plates. En route, we saw shopping booths with smart marketing strategies, selling coloured drinks, plastic toys, polyester clothes and influencing simple, village folks with cheap freebies. Such products runs counter to the sanctity of this sacred pilgrimage which has so far stood the test of time. It is indeed a challenge for the Warkaris to maintain their purity and environmental sensitivity in the face of an increasingly market-driven consumption-based lifestyle, and the onslaught of urban media. Hearteningly, we saw small groups of volunteers doing small acts with great love. The forest department officials in Saswad town gifted over 50,000 paper bags filled with seeds of various fruit-bearing trees and medicinal plants to the pilgrims, requesting them to plant them along their way. Young eco-lovers performed street-plays to generate awareness on organic farming. Our elders from the Vinoba Ashram at Pavnar distributed copies of the Gita, and gave public discourses on the topi. Vipul Shaha and Sheetal Sanghvi in waari garb After climbing up a long mountain stretch, our bodies were exhausted. We were pleasantly surprised when a young man walked up to us and asked, “May we offer you a foot massage?” About 100 volunteers had turned up from a nearby city with a bottle of oil to lovingly massage the feet of the pilgrims! How wonderful to be at the receiving end of such love! We were reminded of a quote from Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself, that you truly give”. Feeling grateful and inspired, we volunteered to press the feet of the next pilgrim in line. Seasoned Warkaris very enthusiastically shared their songs, stories and experiences when entreated upon to talk about the tradition of bhakti. An old grandfather offered us his personal prayer book containing bhajans and abhangas of Saint Tukaram. Thoughout the walk, spontaneous chants of “Gyanba”, “Tukaram”, “Vitthal, Vitthala” and “Jai Jai Ram Krishna Hari” resounded in the air. Caught up in the devotional breeze, we started singing and dancing to the tune of soulful bhakti songs which brought alive a collective celebration. Men and women paired up to a spontaneous phugadi dance and matched steps to the sound of drum-beats and cymbals. Flags, multi-coloured outfits, sarees, Gandhi topis, dhotis, flowers, every little thing added its own charm and beauty to the multi-pronged gathering. After experiencing a day in the life of Warkaris, we returned home, our bodies completely exhausted, our clothes soiled with dust, yet our spirit feeling cleansed and faces beaming with joy! In future, we pray to be able to walk the full length of the pilgrimage, and invite like-hearted souls like you to join us on this walking university of life! Vitthala Vitthala.
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