October 2018 saw us undertake a pilgrimage to Sri Ghanagapur in North Karnataka. En route, Lord Vithoba beckoned to us and so we made a detour to Pandharpur. The drive from Mumbai, via Pune on the Mumbai- Bangalore Highway, the distance is approximately 360 kilometres. Besides getting stuck in some traffic in Pune, it was all good. The drive is amazing, especially, when you go alongside River Bhima. The river traverses 861 kilometres southeast through three states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Telangana before it merges with the River Krishna.
Pandharpur is located in the Solapur district of Maharashtra. Here the River Bhima takes a crescent shape and hence is known as Chandrabagha River. For an important pilgrim centre, the town, unfortunately, needs a lot of sprucing and upkeep. We drove to a designated car-park and decided to hop into an auto-rickshaw and the driver doubled up as our guide. The wisest decision, as we didn’t need to navigate our way.
The main centre of worship is the Shri Vitthal-Rukmini Temple, also known as Vithoba Temple. Dedicated to Lord Krishna and his consort Rukmini or Rakhubai, it has an interesting legend associated with it.
The Legend: According to the legend, Pundalik, a young man was a devoted son to his parents Janudev and Satyavati. However, after his marriage, there was a change in Pundalik’s attitude towards his parents and he started ill-treating them. Sad, tired and disgusted with their son’s behaviour, the parents decided to proceed towards Kashi (Varanasi) in search of liberation or ‘moksha’. When Pundalik got to know of his parent’s plans, he also decided to join them along with his wife. During the journey too, Pundalik’s attitude did not change and he was inconsiderate towards his ageing parents. While he and his wife rode on a horse, the parents were made to walk the journey.
Tired as they were, the family decided to take a break at the hermitage of a sage called Kukkutswami. That night, Pundalik found it difficult to sleep. Just before daybreak, he witnessed something extraordinary. A group of beautiful, young women entered the sage’s hermitage and started doing household chores like cleaning the floor, washing clothes and fetching water for the hermitage. They then entered the prayer room and when they emerged their clothes were spotlessly clean. Pundalik was intrigued and wondered if he had dreamt the whole thing. A strange feeling of peace came over him.
And so he decided to lie awake, the subsequent night too. The women entered the ashram, yet again. This time Pundalik mustered courage and decided to speak to them. “Who are you?” he enquired. The women replied, “We are the holy rivers of Bharatvarsha- Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari and all our sisters who go through this land. People take a dip in our waters to wash off their sins and the dirt that exists in their mind, body and souls. That is why we look so dirty.” Pundalik was stunned by listening to them. They continued to say, “But you are the biggest sinner – just see how you treat your parents!”
The entire episode was an awakening for Pundalik. He realized his grave mistake and decided to serve and look after his parents with devotion. It is said that sincere devotion of any kind reaches the Supreme Being. And Lord Vishnu was so pleased that he left his abode- Vaikuntha and arrived at the doorstep of Pundalik’s house. Pundalik was busy serving food to his parents that he asked the ‘visitor’ to wait until he finished. He offered the Lord a brick to stand on so that His feet don’t get muddy and wet due to the monsoon rains. The Lord waited for Pundalik to finish and when he came out to apologise having made Him wait, the Lord simply asked him to request for a boon. Pundalik was elated and asked Him to stay back on Earth to continue blessing his devotees.
The wish was granted and to this date, the Swayambhu (self-manifested) form of Lord Vithoba stands on a brick in Pandharpur along with his consort Rukmini.
The Temple: The entrance to Lord Vitthala’s temple faces the River Chandrabhaga. At the entrance are the samadhis of Sant Namadev and Chockamela. Namdev was a staunch devotee of Lord Vitthala, who was adopted by a childless couple Damashet (a printer by profession) and his wife Gonai, when he was found floating down the river. The parents were part of the Varkari sect- who followed Lord Vithoba and a strict code of conduct. As a young age, his feelings for Lord Krishna or Vitthala were that of a friend. In the Bhakti Yoga, this is known as Sakhya Bhava. According to legend, when Namdev was five years old, his mother sent sweets to be offered to Lord Vithoba in the temple. When he saw that the sweets just remained as it was, he cried his heart out that the Lord manifested in front of him and ate the sweets. Namdev later went on to compose many bhajans and abhangs in Marathi, dedicated to Lord Krishna and the Vaishnava philosophy. Later as he travelled the country he reached the Gurdaspur district of Punjab, where even the Sikhs followed his teachings and listened to his kirtans. Chockamela was another devotee who belonged to the Varkari sect and followed Namdev’s teachings.
As you enter the temple, the first shrine has Lord Ganesha followed by a small hall where devotees sing bhajans. After paying obeisance to Garuda and Hanuman, devotees can see the face of Lord Vitthala. We were present on a day when the crowds were less and so we had darshan very quickly and were also led into the sanctum sanctorum to touch His feet. There are also shrines for the Lord’s consorts Rukmini, Satyabhama, and Radha. Shrines dedicated to Lord Narasimha, Lord Venkateshwara, Lord Shiva, Goddess Annapoorna and Mahalakshmi complete the temple.
The Varkari pilgrimage/ Dindi yatra to Pandharpur: The Varkari sect has been part of Hindu culture since the thirteenth century. They recognise around 50 poet-saints, and an 18th-century hagiographical work by Marathi biographer Mahipati has documented their work that spans a period of over 500 years. The Varkari people undertake a pilgrimage on Ashada Shukla Paksha Ekadasi known as DevShayani Ekadasi. (Ekadasi means ‘the eleventh’ in Sanskrit and refers to the eleventh day of a fortnight belonging to a lunar month. Deva Shayani Ekadasi falls in the moon’s waxing phase (Shukla Paksha) in the month of June-July. Devshayani Ekadashi comes just after famous Jagannath Ratha Yatra and heralds the beginning of Chaturmas, a holy period of four months in Hindu calendar. It also heralds the rainy season and hence wandering saints stay at holy place giving discourses instead of travelling. Devshayani Ekadashi is also known as Ashadi Ekadashi, Padma Ekadashi and Hari Shayani Ekadashi.
This pilgrimage undertaken by the Varkari sect is known as the Dindi Yatra. On this day, the Varkari pilgrims carry the padukas or footwear of the Lord and also their saints in a palanquin and walk and sing collectively in what is called a ‘Dindi’. Many Varkaris are farmers and undertake a 21-day walk to Pandharpur after sowing their seeds. Thousands turn up in Pandharpur on this occasion and this occassion has been featured in the ‘Limca Book of Records’ as one of the most visited places in a day.
The banks of Chandrabagha: After visiting the temple we went to the banks of the River Chandrabagha. This is one area which the administration has to undertake massive maintenance work. The river is beautiful but litter mars its beauty. The holy river has unfortunately become a dumping ground. The path to the river needs reconstruction and the overall ambience has to be made more aesthetic. The town itself needs a lot of sprucing up as it has broken roads and a lot of trash lying around. For an important and holy pilgrim site, this is most unfortunate. I hope and pray to Lord Vithoba that in the near future, Pandharpur- His abode gets the attention it deserves.
Reaching Pandharpur: To reach Pandharpur from Mumbai, we have to go towards Panvel and then get onto the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. From Pune city, go towards Magarpatta City, then to Loni Kalbhor, Kedagaon, and Khadki. Drive further on Mumbai-Solapur Highway and head towards Indapur – Tembhumi and reach Pandharpur via Karkamb.