The age-old Ashadi Ekadashi tradition has seamlessly evolved into an initiative that appeals to a new generation, says Tanmaya Vyas
Anyone who has commuted in Mumbai’s local trains would have heard at least one compartment buzzing with bhajans and abhangs. What binds regular office-goers and dabbawalas alike is their love and faith for Lord Vitthal.
Pandharpur, a holy location in Maharashtra around 360 kms from Mumbai, is known to be a hub for the devout warkari community. The town, which has the deity Vitthal and his wife Rukmani welcoming worshippers, finds more significance during the palanquin pilgrimages. Palanquin pilgrimages, popularly known as Palkhis, continue to be the route to divinity for all the devotees generation after generation. The culture is adapted according to the current scenario, but celebrations have not stopped.
The pilgrimage is timed four times a year—in the months of Chaitra (March-April), Ashadh (June-July), Kartik (October-November) and Magh (January-February) of the Hindu calendar. However, it’s the Ashadi Ekadashi that has maximum attendance by worshippers. The reason for the popularity of this Ekadashi is simple; since traditionally most warkaris have been farmers, they find this period convenient as they are done sowing crops and have little manual work to be done. Hence, they would set on a barefoot walking pilgrimage of 21 days from their respective villages to pay their respects to their beloved god. Soon, this turned into a culture and today the pilgrimage sees no fewer than eight lakh devotees walking, retaining the wari’s place as a torch-bearer of the Bhakti movement.
The mention of the Palkhis is traced to Sant Dnyaneshwar in the 13th century and today, eight centuries later, we have the government and corporates supporting and volunteering for this tradition, indicating how it has evolved.
Vodafone, a telecom major, has engaged with this initiative for the past five years by providing Mobile Vans to travel with the warkaris on major routes throughout their journey from Pune to Pandharpur. The vans are equipped with eight phones and 50 charging points, with free calling facility, mobile phone charging points, recharge vouchers and M-Pesa money transfer service to help warkaris stay in touch with loved ones throughout the duration of their journey. This year the vans will also be equipped with an LED screen that will stream live content such as news, bhakti bhajans and religious movies through Vodafone Play.
Ashish Chandra, Vodafone, Business Head, Maharashtra and Goa said, “The annual yatra is a one-of-its-kind pilgrimage that brings almost all of Maharashtra together, with lakhs of devotees from different towns in the state joining in the 450-km journey by foot. Vodafone is extremely happy to support the Pandharpur Yatra with our ‘Vodafone Mobile Vans’ initiative that keeps the warkaris constantly connected with their loved ones.”
The tradition is to walk down till Pandharpur; however, now many people travel to Dehu or Alandi in buses or trucks, and walk from there. Every year, the state government increases the number of state transport buses and extra trains to Pandharpur. This year a special committee set for this annual 21-day trek, has also arranged mineral water for all the pilgrims, as previously most would fall ill due to contaminated water.
What is awe-inspiring is the way youngsters connect with this fiesta. Swapnil More, who traces his lineage directly to Sant Tukaram, felt the need to do something for the revered walkathon, but did not know what to do. One day an idea struck him. “I have seen this atmosphere closely, as my family and my 11 generations have been involved in Wari every year,” he says. “Unfortunately, I could never personally attend it. I also got to know many of my friends who wanted to attend but couldn’t. So in 2011, when Facebook was booming we started a page called Facebook Dindi. Within no time we had 700-1,000 members. Today, we have stopped counting the numbers as it has long surpassed the crore mark.” The special thing about this virtual Dindi is that it showcases even the smallest of events happening, “News channels only show selected footage considering their time limits. I have direct access to the wari, so the relay is almost 24/7,” continues Swapnil. Every year, they have a theme; last year, they brought forth women-related issues, and this year they have Netra Wari.
“All these years, we tried to bring Dindi to people with vision but what about the visually impaired? That’s when we came up with this idea. Netra Wari is basically an eye donation campaign and we already have over 100 applications,” he says.
Sanjeevani Gupte, a Rotary Club member, volunteered through Rotary Club of Thane’s Inner Wheel Club of Thane, Charter no 1409, Dist 314 (Dist3142).
“Twenty-seven of us, along with our Club president Mr Ajay Kelkar and First Lady Manik Kelkar set up a medical camp for Warkaris near the Phaltan belt,” she says. “We had basic over-the-counter medicines and treated them for casual bruises they had while travelling. The experience was nothing less than divine. We were in awe of their (warkaris) discipline, the way they had set up their huge tent, maintenance of hygiene, and most importantly their faith. They were extremely warm and welcoming towards us and invited us for their events. It was a life-changing experience. Our Club has been doing this for the past 25 years and it is certainly a fullfilling experience.”
From concerts paying musical odes to the deity Vitthal to restaurants serving lip-smacking dishes to customers who fast on this day, to corporates and not-for-profit organisations volunteering for Ekadashi... the glorious 800-year- old tradition has been weaved into the lives of this fast-paced generation and the faith stays uninterrupted.