Pandharichi Vari is an annual pilgrimage in Maharashtra that starts from Alandi near Pune and ends in Pandharpur, a distance of more than 205 kilometres. The word ‘Vari’ in Marathi literally means ‘to visit at regular intervals’, therefore this annual pilgrimage to pay tributes to Bhagwan Viththala in Pandharpur is termed as Pandharichi Vari. There are a total of four Varis which are conducted in the months of Magha, Ashadha, Kartik of the Hindu Lunar Calendar. Although all Varis are equally important, the Ashadhi Vari has an unusual and special significance and draws hundreds of thousands of Varkaris, devotees from Maharashtra and Karnataka. It also draws significantly large number of scholars from all corners of the world who are interested in the culture and heritage of Bhagwat Dharma and are studying the Saint literature of Maharashtra. Happily, their numbers are also increasing each year. There are significant numbers of such scholars who are so emotionally involved with the tradition that they return each year to perform Vari. This Vari is held during the months of June and July, starting on Jyeshtha Vadya Ashtami from Alandi and culminates at Pandharpur on Ashadhi Ekadashi, the 11th day of Ashadha. This Vari consists of Palkhi carrying Padukas of Sant Dnyneshwar Maharaj. The second Palkhi in Vari is of sant Tukaram Maharaj which starts from Dehu near Pune and reached Pandharpur via Solapur district. Both Varis reach Pandharpur on the Ekadashi day. After reaching Pandharpur, Padukas of both Saints are bathed in the waters of River Bheema (also called as Chandrabhaga due to the half-moon shape of its basin). After the bathing ritual, they are taken for nagarpradakshina, circumnavigating the Pandharpur town. Then certain other rituals are performed such as meeting of Padukas with Viththala-Rakhumai and gopalkala etc, after which the Palkhis start on Poornima (full-moon day) on a return journey to their respective homes in Alandi and Dehu. Simple though the entire journey may seem, it is quite an intense and emotional experience and is of gigantic proportions, which one will understand upon reading all the aspects of what the Vari involves.

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The Vari consists of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims on foot, walking relentlessly for 20-21 days, braving all sorts of weather conditions, for this is the peak period of monsoon in Maharashtra. These pilgrims brave heavy rains, cold, difficult walking conditions through mountain ghats and many other unforeseeable obstacles, marching on without stopping, chanting ‘Viththala, Viththala’ all the while. The Ashadhi Vari is an integral part of Maharashtrian culture that permeates through all barriers of caste, creed or class. The pilgrims who make this journey each year unfailingly are called as ‘Varkaris’ and thousands of these Varkaris traditionally perform this annual pilgrimage through generations. The custom is unbroken in all these families. The Varkari Sampraday or Sect has a huge following in Maharashtra; in fact it is one of the major sects in the state. There are followers of Lord Viththala in Karnataka too who are called as Haridas.

Incarnation of Lord Viththala in Pandharpur

IMG 0001There is a very popular folk tale that explains the incarnation of Lord Viththala in Pandharpur. Pundalik was a famous devotee of Lord Viththala. He was initially a very selfish and self-possessed man who started harassing his parents on his wife’s commands, behaving in an abominably cruel manner with them, neglecting his duties towards them etc. Once he took his wife and his parents for the Char Dham yatra. There too he did not mend his ways and kept behaving horribly with them. While he and his wife rode the horse, he made his old, frail parents walk for miles without allowing them to rest. During one rest stop, he met a hermit who immediately recognized him and his selfish ways. The hermit admonished him severely, calling attention to the duties of a son that he had forgotten, blinded by the love of his wife. Pundalik was ashamed of his deeds and vowed to change his ways. He started treating his parents with respect and love, serving them in many different ways, taking care of them well, trying to make up for his misconduct all this while. He was a changed man for whom his parents now stood above the rest of the world. So intense was his devotion and love towards his parents that Lord Krishna was moved who decided to pay this man a visit. When Lord Krishna came to his door, Pundalik was busy massaging his tired parents’ feet. So intensely engrossed was he in his work that he did not even move from his place when the Lord announced himself. Without even looking back towards the door, Pundalik picked up a brick lying nearby and threw it towards Lord Krishna and asked him to stand on it while he tended to his parents. Wordlessly, Lord Krishna stood on the small brick, patiently waiting for his beloved devotee to fulfill his duties, duties that put his parents before even God. In order to maintain his balance, Lord Krishna put his both hands on his hips, the exact form of how Viththala is now depicted. ‘Vit’ means a brick in Marathi and ‘thala’ means standing in one spot, hence Viththala literally means as ‘the one who stands on a brick’ Krishna is believed to have stood on the brick for 28 yugas or seasons awaiting the attention of his devotee Pundalik. Even today before start of every bhajan or kirtan, it is a common practice to cry ‘Bola Pundalik Varde Hari Viththala Shree Dnyandev Tukaram, Pandharinath Maharaj ki Jai’ where Pundalik’s name is taken even before the lord’s name.

Thus, Lord Viththala is essentially an incarnation of Lord Krishna or Lord Vishnu. Hence Varkari sect is also called as the Vaishnav Sect which is basically free from rituals of any kind and focus more on devotion or ‘Bhakti’ by following a certain way of life. Viththala is considered as being both the mother and father of all (Mai-baap) and is lovingly called by many names such as Vithu, Vithoba, Vithuraya, Pandurang, and Mauli (means a mother). Lord Viththala is always portrayed as being very dark in colour, hence is also called as ‘Sawala Viththala’ and yet is also called Pandurang meaning fair in colour. A contradiction of sorts but it becomes clear when we understand its real meaning. Lord Krishna is depicted as being blue in colour but when he returned home every evening herding his cows and calves home in Vrindavan, the dust that kicked up by hundreds of hooves cast a fair glow upon the Lord’s face. And since Viththala is another form of Lord Krishna, he is depicted as being dark but fondly called as Pandurang by his devotees. Viththala is accompanied by his consort Rukmini (also called Rakhumai), who also is the consort of Lord Krishna.

History and Tradition of the Vari

Before accounting the history of Vari, I must explain here what exactly does the Vari mean. As mentioned earlier, Vari literally means ‘to return at regular intervals’.  So during Vari thousands of Varkaris or Vaishnavas return to Pandharpur on foot to meet their beloved Vitthu Mauli and take with them the Palkhis of the Lord’s favorite and supreme devotees Sant Dnyaneshwar, Sant Tukaram and many other saints such as Sant Sopan Nath, Sant Nivrutti Nath, Muktabai, and Gajanan Maharaj. On the 11th day of Ashadh, which is also called Devshayani Ashadhi Ekadashi, it is believed that the Lord goes off to sleep for four months, the beginning of Chaturmas – four-month long period which is considered a period of significant importance amongst all Hindus. Therefore the entire Vari with the Palkhis arrive at Pandharpur on the Ekadashi to take blessings from the Lord before he went to sleep.

The tradition of including Palkhis in the Vari was started by Narayan Maharaj, the third son of Sant Tukaram. In 1685, he went to Alandi and took with him Padukas (Khadav or wooden slippers) of Sant Dnyaneshwar, next visited Dehu and took Padukas of Sant Tukaram. Then he went on Vari all the way to Pandharpur, believing through his heart and soul that both Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram accompanied him on this journey to meet their beloved Mauli, Pandurang Viththala. The tradition struck and to his day Palkhis of both Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram are taken on Vari to Pandharpur, in fact are the most important and integral aspect of the Vari tradition.The exact year during which the Vari started is not known but there are documented evidences that suggest the annual tradition is at least 1000 years old. The tradition of Vari existed even before the birth of Sant Dnyaneshwar in 12th century; there are written accounts of his father having participated in the Vari. The tradition of Vari had been in the family of Sant Tukaram whose forefathers went on Vari each year. 

Sant Dnyaneshwar, Sant Tukaram and many other saints of Maharashtra carried out this divine journey each year. The Vari has gone on consistently for one thousand years, prevailing through all kinds of foreign invasions mainly consisting of Mughal invasions through centuries, later on even under British tyranny, it went on relentlessly; although the form of the Vari greatly differed during those times. The groups from different villages and towns went their own ways. It did not have an organized form, the Varkaris were greatly scattered among different groups as opposed to the present form, which is akin to a large army marching in synchronization with each other. During the later period, due to some reasons, both Palkhis of Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram were separated and also taken to Pandharpur through separate routes, meeting only once during the journey at a rest stop in Pune. The probable reason for their being separated is believed to be some kind of ownership disputes amongst the descendents of Sant Tukaram. A Sardar in the court of Mahadji Shinde - the valiant Maratha warrior and the ruler of Gwalior state, by name of Haibat Baba was responsible for this separation of Palkhis. Haibat Baba was a devout worshipper of Vithoba Mauli and having fulfilled his duties at the court of Gwalior, decided to spend the rest of his life in service of his Lord and settled in Alandi. Until then, combined journey of both Palkhis had completed up to 150 years consecutively. It was now in 1832 that Haibat Baba started taking only the Padukas of Sant Dnyaneshwar from Alandi to Pandharpur. Sant Tukaram Palkhi went its separate way through a different route. This form of the Vari exists till today. Haibat Baba was granted the status of being the owner (Malak) of the entire Palkhi Sohala (Sohala means celebration) and the owners of Palkhi Sohala today are his descendents. On the day the Vari starts from Alandi, the trustees of the Sant Dnyaneshwar Samadhi Mandir hand over the Padukas of Sant Dnyaneshwar to the Sohala Owner who also is responsible for the entire Vari which consists of more than 2 lakhs Varkaris. The Malak is accompanied and assisted by a Chopdar who is responsible for keeping the entire Vari together, the discipline, following the schedules etc. The Padukas are placed in a special Palkhi, carried on a Rath (Chariot) which is pulled by pairs of bullocks who are changed regularly so that they get adequate rest. This year although, the bullock cart is equipped with special batteries, to ensure that the bullocks do not face a lot of strain and stress.

Organization and Management of the Palkhi Sohala

Entire Vari consists of more than 2 lakh Varkaris who walk in registered Dindis. Apart from them at the beginning of the Vari, more and more Varkaris join the Vari on route to Pandharpur. There also are many Dindis that come from other states like Karnataka, Goa and Gujarat. So it is estimated that the total numbers Vari in final stages could be about 10 lakhs. So it is a Herculean task to manage the affairs of such astonishing crowd, but give or take a few unavoidable hiccups, it is managed very well. Studying the total affairs of vari from starting to finishing point would prove to be an invaluable lesson for any management student.

The present organized form of the Palkhi Sohala is attributed to the military discipline inculcated by Haibat Baba. Since he was a military commander at the Gwalior Court, he was an extremely organized and disciplined man and instilled the same values to the Vari. He allotted the roles to all Varkaris, distributed duties equally amongst all, creating proper schedules and seeing that the schedule was followed properly. He organized all the scattered Varkaris together in a large group so that they all remained together no matter what difficulties lay in the route. He arranged the placement of each singular component of the Vari and it is unchanged even today. When he first took over the Palkhi Sohala, there were 27 Dindis to each of whom he allotted a number. Those 27 Dindis are placed before the Rath carrying Palkhi. All those Dindis that were formed afterwards are placed behind the Rath, each Dindi with its allotted number that is permanent. Today in addition to the original 27, there are 201 registered Dindis in the Vari. At the head of the Vari is the ‘Maulincha Ashwa’ a horse who it is believed, carries the soul of  Sant Dnyaneshwar to Pandharpur, hence walks alone, all decked up in finery. Next to him is another horse rode by a bodyguard who guards ‘Maulincha Ashwa’.  Each Dindi is also arranged in a very systematic fashion, at the head of each Dindi stand the ‘Phadkari’ with 4 Varkaris, after which come ‘Veenekari’- Varkaris who each carry Veena.  Next come Varkaris who sing abhang, ovis, and Haripaath. They are accompanied by Varkaris playing Mrudang, Jhaanja and Pakhvaaj. Then follow the columns of Varkaris carrying Patakas (saffron flags). Then the women Varkaris are placed who carry Patakas, Tulsi Vrindavan on their heads, Veenas etc. 


Today watching the Vari marching on is an amazing experience. Hundreds of thousands of men dressed in white carry the saffron flags (Bhagwat  Dharmachi Pataka) and women carry the Tulshi Vrundavan (Tulsi plant placed in typical, square containers) on their heads. Many men and women also carry ‘taal’ (small cymbals) strung around their necks, some carrying ‘Veena’ a stringed instrument synonymous with Goddess Saraswati. Each man and woman walks in their own ‘Dindi’. A Dindi is a group of people and usually each small village, town has its own Dindi and people from same villages walk in their own Dindis. A Dindi may be very small consisting of a group of 10-50 people or large containing 100s of people. The largest Dindi at present contains 7000 Varkaris this year. Each Dindi has Dindi owner or Chief, special officials who are called as Wasekar, Phadkari etc. Each Dindi carries with them their provisions for food and water, medicines, emergency supplies, tents, sleeping arrangements etc. All the supplies are carried in trucks which start hours ahead of the Varkaris, arriving at the predetermined stopovers and preparing the food for Varkaris and making other arrangements. When the Vari reaches the stopover camp, the Varkaris only have to get refreshed and ready to eat the food served. They have their own cooks and women in the Dindi also take turns to help prepare food. All are allotted duties and responsibilities which are carried to the letter without any complaints of grumblings. Inconveniences are many but are met with very little importance. Even during the rest stops no Dindi encoraches upon the space allocated to other Dindis, they take whatever they are given with respect and dignity. The focus is entirely on devotion to the Lord Viththala and everything else is considered trivial. 

The placement of Varkaris in the Dindi is decided by the Chief and once their places determined, no single man or woman will leave their places. When the Vari is moving, these people move on with military precision, dancing to the music of Taal, Mrudang, and Veena, singing bhajans, chanting Harinaam.  The bullocks are encouraged to keep walking amidst loud chants of ‘Mauli’ ‘Mauli”. When the Palkhi reaches their predecided place of rest, the Palkhi is halted at a prominent place and all the Dindis stand around it forming a circle (Ringan). The Chopdar then raises his Rajdand (a metal staff) which is a signal for everyone to fall silent. He then announces a list of all items lost and found that day. Later on, the Varkaris are expected to identify and collect those items from his tent. Some Varkaris too sometimes lose their way and get separated from their Dindi. Chopdar helps them find their Dindis and are returned to their own groups. Having done this, the ritual of ‘Samaaj Arati’ is performed. After this the Chopdar then announces the further schedule of Vari eg. the time when the Vari will again commence next, their expected arrival time at the next place of stopover, and any other information that needs to be conveyed on behalf of the organizers etc. Next, if there are any grievances or complaints, they are brought forward in a very typical manner. After the Arati is over, the Dindi that wishes to lodge a complaint or a grievance starts ringing their cymbals. Then the owner of the Vari asks them to state their grievances for which a solution is promptly sought out and resolved on the spot. Because of such proper management and organization, mishaps are almost negligent. There are no fights or major disruptive behaviors among Varkaris. Each person treats the other with respect and dignity.

Unique Features of the Vari

During Vari, the Varkaris walk long distances daily on foot, stopping only during predetermined rest periods. It is a wonder how they manage to walk so much, for not all Varkaris are young. There are many children too along with women. Major proportion of the Varkaris compromise of people who are over 50 years of age, displaying an attitude and energy that would put even a young man of 25 to shame. The oldest known Varkari this year is 89 years old, Shri. Laxman Sherkar, a grandpa who has been performing Vari his entire life without break. He walks in Sant Tukaram Maharaj’s Palkhi and has completed 50 years of performing the holy walk this year. He and thousands of others are intensely motivated and driven to perform such an amazing feat each year, fueled mainly by their love and longing to seek Darshan of their beloved Viththala Mauli. The mere fact that the Vari has continued for the last one thousand years alone is what grants it a unique status. There are certain other rituals that are performed traditionally during the Vari. These rituals are a feast for the eyes and minds of the Varkaris and they also help relax their tired, aching muscles. One such ritual is called the Ringan Sohala that is performed at fixed places.

2Ringan essentially means a ‘circle’ and involves the Varkaris and thel ‘Maulincha Ashwa’ running around the Palkhi.  It is symbolic of completing a circle of life. The towns where ringans are conducted are fixed and when the Vari reaches those places, a large open ground is already earmarked for the purpose. The Rath is halted at the centre of the ground where a large circle has been outlined. Surrounding the Rath and within the circle, Dindis stand in a predetermined sequence. Then a broad strip of circle is left empty around these Dindis outside which other Dindis and devotees take their places. Then to cheery accompaniment of taal, mrudang, other instruments and loud chants of ‘Mauli, Mauli’ the Ashwa is released who circumnavigates the empty ring, accompanied by the guardian horse rode by the Chopdar. Behind them, the Veenekaris, Taalkaris, Pakhvaaj vadak, Varkaris carrying Patakas, women Varkaris carrying Tulsi Vrundavan on their heads all navigate the ring at an amazing speed and enthusiasm that defies their age and physical condition. The dust that is kicked up by hooves of the Ashwa is sought after by all and is applied to foreheads as symbolizing blessings from the Lord. The ritual of Ringan is of three types, the basic circular one which I just described and Ubhe or straight and Adawe. After the Ringan, the Varkaris also perform a number of other exercised-based games such as fugadi, dances etc. Yesterday on 09th July 2013, the first Ubhe Ringan of Sant Dnyaneshwar Palkhi was performed at Chandobacha Limb in Lonand. In it, the sortie was made a number of times in a straight line The Ringans are performed mainly to break the monotony of relentless walking. They are also designed to relax their muscles and body is tired from walking. These rituals also instill a great amount of motivation and positive energy.

Apart from Ringan, there is another tradition followed every year which is called ‘Dhava’ meaning a run. This is performed close to Pandharpur on a hillock at Velapur from where the Viththala Mandir is sighted. This ritual is conducted to commemorate Sant Tukaram’s reaction who; upon sighting the temple started running with sheer exhilaration. Similar exhilaration is seen amongst the Varkaris who run at great speeds forgetting their age, their exhaustion
of having walked such a great distance.

(To be continued....)

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