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The Shakti of Bhakti

On Pilgrimage in India with a Million Devotees

-Vipul Shaha, Pune, India. July 2014

With Sheetal - the friend with whom I went on this pilgrimage

“My legs are paining but my soul is rested”, borrowing words from Gandhi, described our state of being even as we struggled to walk that ‘last mile’ to reach the Nature Cure Ashram where a friend had invited us for staying over at night.  It was nothing short of a miracle for us to have just completed a 35-kilometer walk from Pune to Saswad in rather scorching heat as part of the annual waari pilgrimage.  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 from across the state to walk a distance of about 250 kilometers spread over an 18 day journey 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 mega-event 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 its final destination—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.  Every soul was welcome...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 women who have been coming on this yatra for several decades.  One elderly women in her eighties chuckled, “my family worries about me…they think that I cannot do this any longer…but I can’t help it...I just have to go!”

It was very moving to see a physically-disabled man trying to push up a hill his hand-operated bicycle, and fellow pilgrims offering him support.  There were small kids, families—large and small, women walking barefoot, doctor’s group, nature lovers’ group and even 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 ‘maooli’ (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 also disappeared as the pilgrims would touch other’s feet and seek blessings from one another. It was also interesting to note 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 event 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.

There was no end to the overwhelming generosity bestowed upon those walking the journey.  Unlimited amount of tea, water, bananas, sweets and food kept being poured in as warkaris were welcomed everywhere.  It seemed as if everyone wanted to contribute his or her own bit.  We enjoyed eating simple warm breakfast cooked with love by a family that we had never met.  People opened up their homes for food, bathing, sleeping.  Free shaving and hair-cuts, free stitching, cobbler services were offered at different locations.  Keeping up with the modern times, some people 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 30,000 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 Sevagram Gandhi-Vinoba Ashram was distributing copies of the 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 a Yoga volunteers’ group.  How healing and rejuvenating that felt!  Whenever we expressed interest in learning more about the bhakti tradition, seasoned warkaris very enthusiastically shared their stories and experiences.  One of them even offered his personal prayer book containing songs and hymns (bhajans and abhangas) of Saint Tukaram.

Singing and dancing to the tune of very 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 but our soul and spirit a little bit 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!

-Vipul Shaha, Pune, India

Published in the Parabola Magazine, New York, Winter 2014-15:


1 Comment

7 days ago

Very nice article Vipul Sir

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