“My feet are tired but my soul is rested”, beautiful words from Gandhi, described our state of being even as we struggled to walk that ‘last mile’ to reach the Nature Cure Ashram where friends from the Vinoba Ashram at Pavnar had invited us for staying over at night. It was nothing short of a miracle for us to have just completed a 35-kilometer walking pilgrimage from Pune to Saswad in rather scorching heat as part of the annual Pandharpur waari. Perhaps it was the Shakti of Bhakti (the power of faith) that kept us going through an incredible daylong journey.
Growing up in Maharashtra, one cannot miss the annual pilgrimage that takes place from Alandi to Pandharpur. Popularly called as ‘waari’, it is a tradition that goes back to over 700 years and draws over a million people annually to walk a distance of about 250 kilometers spread 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 really understand the spirit of this walk that has just passed us by for so many years. No definite plan, no particular agenda, not really knowing much, we just ‘took the plunge in the river’, and got completely soaked in its flow of amazing generosity, bhakti and the celebration of life.
Accompanied by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (warkaris), it truly felt like we were being part of a river—a river that would eventually dissolve in the ocean of faith and humanity when over a million pilgrims conclude their journey at the Vitthal temple in Pandharpur. Innumerable tributaries representing various saints and their teachings come from the tiniest of villages scattered across the rural landscape of Maharashtra to join this river. Every soul was welcome and the river simply embraced every pilgrim with open arms, washing away any apparent distinctions of socio-economic class, caste or gender.
We met with many elderly folks who have been coming on this waari for several decades. One grandma in her eighties chuckled, “my family worries about me as they think that I cannot do this any longer. But, every year, I just can’t help it, as my whole being feels the call to walk!”. Another tiny grandma in her 80′s when asked how long she had been walking, kindly looked me in the eye and said, “Why bother with numbers. Just chant His name and walk His path”
It was very moving to see a physically-disabled man on a hand-operated bicycle as he cycled along with unknown fellow pilgrims offering help whenever he needed a push uphill. There were small kids, families—large and small, women walking barefoot, doctor’s group, nature lovers’ group and even service groups like Rotarians taking a dip in the pilgrim’s river!
A sense of camaraderie and fellowship naturally flowed amongst people, as they greeted each other by calling each other ‘mauli’ (mother)— invoking their mutual respect and reverence for Saint Dnyaneshwara whom they regard as a motherly figure for having bestowed upon them the wisdom and knowledge of universal peace. The boundaries of age and social standing disappeared as the pilgrims would touch other’s feet and seek blessings from one another.
Sant Dnyaneshwara the patron saint of this walk, was lovingly called Mauli (Mother) for having bestowed the wisdom and knowledge of universal peace upon the world. A beautiful tradition of this waari is that the pilgrims refer to each other as also Mauli, as a way of acknowledging and bowing down to the divine in each other. In a very touching moment, as we stood praying outside a temple, an old grandma coming out of the temple, bent down to touch my feet and before I could respond, she happily glided away to join her friends. Around the same time, a flowering tree overhead sent down a shower of flowers upon us as if saying “I honor the Divine in you”. Something melted in the heart space, as tears of gratitude flowed freely and the mind became still.
It was interesting to see how there was no authority or hierarchy that was trying to ‘control’ the flow of the river. Self-organizing and self-discipline seemed to prevail as pilgrims from all walks of life had showed up without anyone inviting them to be part of this sacred journey. When asked what brings them to the this pilgrimage year after year, many expressed that they get tremendous ‘samaadhaan’ (sense of contentment) from joining the waari. We were simply awestruck thinking of how powerful that seed of faith must have been, which has kept this tradition alive and thriving even several centuries after it must have originated.
As this endless stream of pilgrims passed through innumerable cities and villages, overwhelming generosity was offered to those walking the journey. Unlimited amount of tea, water, bananas, sweets and food flowed freely from the locals to the pilgrims. It seemed as if everyone along the way wanted to contribute their own bit to this flow. We enjoyed receiving simple warm breakfast cooked with love by a family that we had never met. Everywhere we saw people opening up their homes to pilgrims for food, bathing and resting. All along the way, simple folks like barbers, cobblers and tailors offered their services as a gift to those in need. Keeping up with the modern times, some even offered free mobile phone charging service. Even local politicians, business people, government officials, police forces, social service organizations teamed up to be of service in various innovative ways. Free medical service was made available all the time.
The forest department in Saswad had over 50,000 paper bags filled with seeds of various fruit trees and medicinal plants which were being handed out to the pilgrims—requesting them to plant those seeds along the journey. There were groups performing street-plays and promoting awareness on organic farming. Another group from the Pavnar Ashram was distributing copies of Geeta and offering public discourses on the topic.
After having just climbed up a long mountain stretch, our feet quite exhausted, we were pleasantly surprised to receive the gift of a foot massage from trained volunteers. About a 100 these volunteers had turned up from a nearby city to sit in the hot sun with a bottle of oil to lovingly massage the feet of the pilgrims. How healing and rejuvenating it felt to be at the receiving end of such love. Was reminded of a beautiful quote from The Prophet as I saw these volunteers selflessly serve: “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself, that you truly give”. Grateful for this gift, I volunteered to press the feet of the next pilgrim in line, inspired to pass on the love I had just received.
Whenever we expressed interest in learning more about the bhakti tradition, seasoned warkaris very enthusiastically shared their songs, stories and experiences. An old grandfather, ended up offering us his personal prayer book containing songs and hymns (bhajans and abhangas) of Saint Tukaram.
Thoughout the walk, spontaneous chants of “Gyanba, Tukaram”, “Vitthal, Vitthal” and “Jai Jai Ram Krishna Hari” resounded in the air. Singing and dancing to the tune of soulful bhakti songs eased our legs and brought alive a sense of collective celebration. It was amazing to see men and women pair up to a spontaneous phugadi dance or following rhythmic steps to the sound of drum-beats and cymbals. Flags, multi-colored 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 yet our spirit feeling cleansed and calmed!
With deep humility and gratitude in our hearts for the countless pilgrims we encountered along the way, we would like to offer a collection of photographs (slideshow) and this week’s Maitri Tune dedicated to the spirit of kindness and Bhakti. In the future, we wish to be able to walk the full length of the pilgrimage and would certainly welcome more like-hearted souls to join us on this walking university of life!
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