Many pilgrimages take place in different parts of India every year. A pilgrimage is a journey to a holy place. One such annual pilgrimage from the Indian state of Maharashtra is the Varkari pilgrimage.
This pilgrimage is held every year on the occasion of Ashadhi Ekadashi (a holy day). Lakhs of devotees gather in Pandharpur, a small town in Maharashtra, to worship the deity Vitthala or Vithoba. Pandharpur is considered to be the abode of Vitthala. In Hindu mythology, Vitthala is another form of god Vishnu. Ashadhi Ekadashi celebrates this deity.
The devotees who take part in the pilgrimage are famously known as the Varkaris. They belong to the Varkari sampradaya (sect or religious system). They worship Vitthala. The Varkaris mostly wear white and a rosary made of the sacred Tulsi plant. The word Varkari is derived from ‘vari’ and ‘kari’. ‘Vari’ means regular pilgrimage to Pandharpur and ‘kari’ means a doer. Thus, the Varkaris are people who regularly undertake the pilgrimage to Pandharpur.
The vari or the pilgrimage starts in different towns of Maharashtra. They travel in small, organized processions known as dindi. A dindi can have as many as 500 people! They walk and set up camp together. The Varkaris are not scared of heavy rain or heat. They walk hundreds of miles for 20-50 days to reach Pandharpur! They walk while singing abhangs, bhajans, and kirtans (devotional songs). The entire procession looks like a long river!
The Varkaris also perform many ceremonies during the pilgrimage. Did you know that the Varkari movement is around 800 years old? It was founded by many saints such as Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Namdeva, among others.
In those times, discrimination based on a person’s caste was prevalent in India. Only people from the upper castes could visit temples and worship gods. People from lower castes and women didn’t have access to temple gods. So, the saints played an important role in removing this discrimination. They used their writing and singing as means to do this. Through their abhangs (couplets) and poems, these saints taught people that everyone was equal in the eyes of god.
In a recent addition to the vari, the Varkaris carry padukas (sandals) of these saints in decorated palanquins!
Today, vari is an important part of Maharashtra and its culture. People belonging to different castes from all over India take part in the vari. It has become a symbol of joy and equality!