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Pilgrim's progress


Simple people. Uncomplicated thoughts. Total faith. This is what makes the warkaris undertake their 250-km walkathon.

A SEA OF HUMANITY: The warkaris crossing the picturesque Dive ghats near Pune. PHOTOS: RAHUL CHANDAWARKAR

IT is 5 a.m. in Raviwar peth, the business district of Pune. It is raining incessantly and visibility is poor. Yet, for Shantabai Chogle, the indefatigable, middle-aged fisherwoman from Paj Pandhari village in coastal Maharashtra, there is only "Gyanba-Tukaram" on her mind.

Non-stop chants of "Gyanba-Tukaram", "Gyanba-Tukaram" (Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram, patron saints of Alandi and Dehu respectively) is on the lips of every single warkari, who sings and dances his/her way to the temple town of Pandharpur in southern Maharashtra for a glimpse of Vithoba and his consort Rukmai.

Actually, the warkaris accompany the flower bedecked palkhis (palanquins) of the two beloved saints on the 21-day walk to Pandharpur every year. This year, the wari (pilgrimage) began on June 28 (jeshta vadya sapthami, the seventh day of the dark/waning moon) and concluded on July 18 (aashadi ekadashi, the 11th day of the bright/waxing moon).

I have known Shantabai for some years. She is a fund of information for an itinerant scribe like me, especially on my many visits to coastal Maharashtra, in search of shells and stories.

`You are accompanying us ... .'

On my recent visit to her village this summer, she announced firmly, pushing a cup of hot tea in my hands, "Enough of your talk. You are accompanying us on the wari for at least one full day this year."

That is how, I was in Raviwar peth, early on the morning of July 2, helping Shantabai lug her bags into her group's transport truck. Every dhindi (group), has a truck which carries personal belongings of the warkaris, so that they may walk without hindrance. However, many poor warkaris often carry their own heavy bags.

By now, the rain is coming down very heavily. However, this hardly dithers the enthusiastic warkaris. They cover themselves in multi-coloured plastic sheets and walk resolutely to meet the Sant Dnyaneshwar palkhi in the Bhavani peth area of Pune.

WITH FERVOUR AND DEVOTION: On the Pune-Saswad road.

As mentioned earlier, warkaris and their dhindis accompany either one of the two palkhis, Sant Dyaneshwar's or Sant Tukaram's to Pandharpur on the 21-day journey. However, on July 18 this year, there were close to 10 lakh warkaris accompanying hundreds of palkhis from all over Maharashtra converging on Pandharpur for a darshan of the Lord!

Shantabai's dhindi is dhindi number nine and is positioned nine groups ahead of the rath (chariot) pulling the Sant Dnyaneshwar palkhi. The dhindis, typically, comprise a kirthankar (a lead singer and group leader), who could be of either gender, carrying a tanpura (stringed instrument).

The wari is essentially a celebration in the name of the Lord. Hence, singing and dancing is an integral part of the whole experience. Warkaris sing and dance and play their cymbals throughout the journey.

The kirthankar, it is, who leads the group with a series of abhangs (four-line poems) usually written by either Sant Dnyaneshwar or Sant Tukaram. The group supports the kirthankar in a chorus.

Shrikrishna Mehrunkar of Alandi is one of the two kirthankars in Shantabai's dhindi. As we wind our way past the Pune race course on the Pune-Solapur road, he begins to tell me, why he has been walking to Pandharpur for the last 25 years.

"All of us have become overtly materialistic in today's world. The Bhakti marg ( the path of devotion) as propounded by Sant Dnyaneshwar, has taught us to forget the physical self in pursuit of the Lord. When we sing and dance during the pilgrimage, we forget the material world around us. It is blissful, believe me. That is why, so many of us undertake this journey to meet the Lord every year," explains Mehrunkar.

Meanwhile, enthusiastic bystanders, throng Pune's roads and cheer the warkaris along, just like spectators along a marathon route. They offer hot cups of tea, water, bananas and peanuts to the warkaris, in a bid to fuel their walk.

Headed for the ghats

It is 8 a.m. and we have been walking for two hours. We have reached the Pune suburb of Hadapsar, from where the palkhi proceeds for the picturesque Dive ghats.

There is a scheduled 45-minute halt in one of the residential societies here. The flower-bedecked palkhi rests inside the society and people from all walks of life mill around it for a darshan.

The warkaris meanwhile, refresh themselves with water and some hot breakfast. Sabudana (sago) khichdi and bananas are offered to the warkaris by the local residents and they relish it.

In between mouthfuls, Shantabai explains her tryst with the Lord. "Gyanba walked selflessly to Pandharpur in the 13th Century. He sacrificed so much for us. By walking along the same route, I get peace of mind and energy, which keeps me going for the whole year," says the fisherwoman, who is leading a contingent of 20 fisherwomen from her village on this pilgrimage.

The journey resumes amid much hustle and bustle. Shantabai and her fisherwoman friend Ashabai, hurt their toes in the melee. Blood oozes out. But the two women just smile, quickly apply some ointment and are walking again. "Kahi hot nahi. Gyanba aahe amchya sangti, (Nothing can happen to us. Sant Dnyaneshwar is with us") they say cheerfully.

The tall and imposing figure of Raghunath Kamte (65), retired police assistant sub inspector, is another interesting warkari from the dhindi. His white beard almost makes him look like Father Christmas! He enjoys tremendous goodwill among the police force. Senior police inspectors come and hug him affectionately all along the route.

Kamte and wife have been warkaris for 35 years. Says Kamte, "Even when I was a policeman, I always took a month's vacation to do the wari. It has always brought me tremendous peace of mind and clarity of thought. Even when I encountered the toughest criminals, I always remained very focused. Vithoba has given me a spotless career." Today, the Kamte couple walks to Pandharpur at least six times a year.

Peace of mind, happiness

As we approach the Dive ghats, which is a picturesque five-kilometre stretch of winding road, businessman Rajan Kachi of Pune, gets ready with his 20-odd volunteers to dish out close to 1,00,000 cups of tea to the thirsty warkaris! Says Kachi, "We spend about Rs. one lakh on this effort, but get so much peace of mind and happiness in return. When you offer tea to a warkari, you are actually serving the Lord."

The warkaris sip Kachi's tea and take a breather. Kismatrao Gaurunath, headmaster from the village of Gonsai in the Thane district, tells me that the wari, actually, is a large classroom.

"It is the best school in the world," says an excited Gaurunath. "Where else can one learn gender equality, caste equality, respect for elders and love for one's god and nation all rolled into one. The government should insist on school students doing the wari. They will learn more here, than in their classrooms," says Gaurunath.

We cross the Dive ghats and head for the town of Saswad for the night halt. I take leave of the soldiers of God over here.

As I head home for Pune, the sweet lyrics of "Gyanba-Tukaram" keep ringing in my ears, so do the words of a 90-year-old warkari Shantaram, who said, "I am walking for the last 60 years. I want to die at the feet of the Lord in Pandharpur."

Simple people. Uncomplicated thoughts. Total faith in the Lord.

The tradition

ACCORDING to Dilip Chitre, Sahitya Akademi winner and writer of the Says Tuka (a compilation of Tukaram's poems), a warkari (pilgrim) is a person who makes a circular pilgrimage (a wari). In this case, it is usually from his/her home, in a Maharashtrian village to the Vithal temple in Pandharpur and back.

According to Chitre, there are warkaris who make a trip to Pandharpur every month of the year on Ekadashi day. However, the Ekadashi days in the Hindu calendar months of Aashad and Karthik are the days of Vithoba's festival in Pandharpur, attended by pilgrims from all over Maharashtra.

To Chitre, it was Narayan Maharaj, youngest son of Sant Tukaram, who started the tradition of the palkhi in the latter half of the 17th Century in Dehu near Pune. Narayan Maharaj started the tradition of carrying the padukas (footwear) of both Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram in the same palkhi.

Prof. Sadanand More, head of the Tukaram Chair at the University of Pune and a tenth generation descendant of Sant Tukaram, says that the concept of the wari is far older than that of the palkhi. Says More, "Several saints, preceding even Sant Dnyaneshwar, walked in dhindis (groups) to Pandharpur for the wari. The wari is no silent procession. Warkaris always sing and dance all the way to Pandharpur."

Linked to agriculture

According to More, the wari is interwoven with the agricultural life in Maharashtra. "The warkaris, who are predominantly simple farmers, usually undertake this 21-day walk after they have completed the sowing process in their fields. It suits them, as they are completely free during this period. They come back and begin the de-weeding activity."

He says that the palkhi of Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram was bifurcated into two separate palkhis in 1832. The Dnyaneshwar palkhi was supported by the Shindes of Gwalior, while the Tukaram palkhi was supported financially by the warrior clans of the Dabhades, the Ingles and the Angres of Maharashtra.

In 1988, German documentary film makers, the late Gunther Sontheimer and Henning Stegmuller made a film on the Wari titled: "Wari: An Indian Pilgrimage" (70 minutes).<11,3m,0m> Today, pilgrims, not just from Maharashtra, but even other parts of India and overseas regularly undertake the wari.

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