Towards the end of the second week of June, Pune welcomed a "city on move" - a vast congregation of faithfuls who passed through Pune on a rigorous pilgrimage to the temple town of Pandharpur in Solapur district on foot.
The pilgrims, drawn from across the state and outside, walk almost 250 kilometres in continuance with an age-old tradition. This pilgrimage is different because other pilgrimages are undertaken individually or in smaller groups, but in the case of the Pandharpur pilgrimage (referred to as Pandharpur Wari), lakhs of devotees walk together like neat and methodical soldiers, and complete their journey in clockwork precision while maintaining a pre-determined schedule.
The Pandharpur Wari is a collective form of worship and has a predetermined schedule and route. People from various sects, sub-sects, castes and trades, men, women, young and old people from all walks of life, age and socio-economic status walk along side each other to meet Lord Vitthal at Pandharpur. It is an annual pilgrimage on foot to Pandharpur. These ardent devotees of Lord Vitthal are referred to as "warkaris".
According to the long-standing tradition, devotees undertake "wari (pilgrimage)" and walk in a procession accompanying the "Palkhis (palanquins") which carry the "Padukas (footwear/replica of sandals)" of saints.
The nearly two-week long journey culminates on the eleventh day of the month of "Aashaadh (June-July)". Thousands of "warkaris" travel on foot like disciplined soldiers to get a glimpse of Lord Vitthal upon reaching Pandharpur on the banks of river Chandrabhaga.
Maharashtra saints like Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Sawta Mali, Chokhoba and Tukaram used to participate in the "wari" in their own life times, and the tradition has continued. Dnyaneshwar was a 13th century saint who took "samadhi" at Alandi near Pune at a very young age. Dnyaneshwar is affectionately referred to as "Mauli", meaning mother. He is affectionately called "Mauli" because only the mother knows what is right and best suited for her children. Tukaram was a 17th century saint who was a native of Dehu, also near Pune. The "palkhis" of these two saints start from Alandi and Dehu respectively and are met en route to Pandhapur by the "palkhis" of the other saints.
The route of the "wari" has remained unchanged over many centuries. As the "warkaris" reach their destination, a dip in the Chandrabhaga is followed by circumambulation of the holy city of Pandharpur on the day of Ashaadh Ekadashi. On Pournima, at four in the evening, Mauli's return journey to Alandi commences.
Meticulous planning and efficient management goes into organising the "wari" in the absence of which the management of such a sea of humanity would go haywire. Close to two lakh people walk in the "wari" between Alandi and Pandharpur. This scale of population makes the Wari resemble a city on the move. Issues relating to public health and sanitation, waste management, traffic and civic control have to be handled with care. Planning for "warkaris", their food and refreshments arrangements, staying facilities, tents, lights and medicines, bedding and bath arrangements have to be planned in great detail and with caution.
The "warkaris" start their march at exact 6am every day, after finishing their routine activities, prayers and packing, regardless of the weather conditions and other inconveniences. This kind of time management is noteworthy and responsible for ensuring that the day's journey gets completed within the stipulated time frame.
The Wari tradition dates back into times. Saint Dnyaneshwar's great grandfather - Trymbakpant Kulkarni - used to walk the "wari" from his native Apegaon to Pandharpur.