The whole of the state of Maharashtra gears up for the annual waari during the monsoon season. The waari is an annual pilgrimage undertaken by hundreds of thousands of people marching on foot to Pandharpur, the abode of Lord Vitthal, the patron deity of Maharashtra. The waari starts from two places, Alandi and Dehu — both located on the outskirts of the city of Pune. Alandi is the site where Maharashtra’s most loved saint poet, Sant Dnyanewshwar lived, and Dehu is the abode of Sant Tukaram, a famous saint poet who lived in the early 17th century.

The waari begins on the 8th/9th lunar day of the waning moon in the Hindu calendar month of Jyeshtha and reaches Pandharpur a day before the Aashadhi Ekadasi. People of both genders from all castes and socio-economic backgrounds participate in the waari. The waari is an egalitarian pilgrimage with the common goal to reach Pandharpur and take Darshan of Lord Vitthal on Aashadhi Ekadasi. This year, Aashadhi Ekadasi falls on 25 July.

Aashadhi Ekadasi is also known as the ‘Devshayani Ekadasi’. It is believed that on this day, Lord Vishnu fell asleep and then woke up after four months on the day of Prabodhini Ekadashi, which falls during the Hindu calendar month of Kartik. This period of four months is known as the Chaturmas, which coincide with the Indian monsoon. This is the period when devout Hindus are supposed to look inwards and devote themselves to spiritual pursuits, eating light, vegetarian food and undertaking ‘vratas’.

People who undertake the annual waari are called waarkaris. They walk non-stop for almost three weeks to cover the 230-kilometre-long journey to Pandharpur on foot. It is an incredibly moving sight to watch the waari. Carrying saffron flags, millions of men, women and children walk for miles to the rhythmic sounds of cymbals and drums, their lips constantly chanting ‘Gyanba-Tukaram’ — the names of the two saint poets.

Nobody can say for sure when the tradition of the waari originated, but references of the pilgrimage to Pandharpur have been found in Marathi literature dating back to almost 800 years. According to an account, Saint Dnyaneshwar and his siblings undertook this pilgrimage. They walked barefoot to Pandharpur from Alandi carrying a saffron flag with them and singing abhangs all the way.

The credit of starting the waari in its present form goes to Narayan Baba, the youngest son of Sant Tukaram, who first introduced the palkhi (palanquin) in the 17th century. He started the tradition of carrying the silver paadukas (footwear) of Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar in a palkhi, and of walking to Pandharpur on foot alongside the palkhi. Initially, there used to be only one palkhi, but as the years progressed and the waari became popular, palkhis of other saints too started joining in.

At present, over 40 palkhis of different saints undertake this journey to Pandharpur from different places in Maharashtra each year. There are nearly 400 registered dindis, which go on the annual waari. Each dindi can have as many as 800 members. Apart from the dindis, there are thousands of people who undertake the waari on their own, not affiliated to any dindi. The villages along the way cater for the food and sleeping arrangements of these people as a part of their sewa to Lord Vitthal. The waari is said to be the largest annual pilgrimage of its kind in the world.

The waari had fascinated me for years. I wanted to know what made thousands of people leave their everyday lives behind and undertake this arduous journey on foot year after year. The more I read about the waari, the more I wanted to experience it for myself. I decided to walk with the waari for a day.

The waari leaves Pune at five in the morning after a day’s rest in the city. By the time I reached MG Road, the palkhi procession was already well on its way. I could hear the rhythmic sounds of cymbals and drums even from a distance. My first glimpse of the waari came over the collective shoulder-line of the spectators; a line of white Gandhi caps bobbing up and down, like white egrets moving rapidly in a paddy field. There were bright saffron banners fluttering above the white caps, and the constant chanting of ‘Jay Jay Ram Krishna Hari’ and ‘Gyanba-Tukaram’ resonated with a hypnotic rhythm.

To the casual observer, at first, the waari might appear to be a very anarchic procession of a large number of people walking. But it is an extremely organised mass movement of people, where every step, every stop, every break in the day is carefully synchronised and meticulously planned.

The waari is composed of several hundred dindis, a group of people walking with the waari every year. Every person in a dindi contributes a fixed amount each year to take care of the food, lodging and other travel expenses incurred during the journey. The dindis are numbered and they walk with the 'palkhis’ — the two silver palanquins bearing the ‘padukas’ or the footwear of Sant Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram in a pre-determined sequence.

The palkhi is carried in an ornately carved, elaborately decorated chariot drawn by two sturdy bullocks for each palkhi. Farmers from all over Maharashtra offer the services of their livestock for the palkhi chariot. It is considered a great honour to have one's bullocks chosen to pull the palkhi chariot.

Each dindi has its own truck which transports the victuals, bedding, clothes and other belongings of the people to the next night halt ahead of the group. Each day, the dindi truck leaves in the early hours of the morning, well before the warkaris begin their march on foot. The dindi truck reaches the scheduled stop a few hours before the warkaris, so that the tents are pitched, food is cooked and all the arrangements are ready by the time the tired warkaris reach the destination.

Every dindi is assigned a specific number according to its position either in front of the palkhi or behind it. Each dindi moves and stops only when the chopdar — the staff bearer of the Palkhi — raises his staff. The palkhi has five scheduled stops each day including the night halt. The location and time of each stop is scheduled in advance, creating no cause for confusion.

The warkaris themselves travel light. Most of them carry only a simple sling bag that carries a bottle of water and a mixture of peanuts and jaggery — a popular pick-me-up snack — and a change of clothes. Most people have their own set of cymbals slung around their necks. Every dindi also has a buwa or a leader, who usually carries the veena. He leads the singing of an abhang — a traditional devotional composition of the saint poets in praise of Lord Vitthal. Other members of the dindi join in.

 As I walked with the warkaris, I began to have a faint idea of why people feel compelled to undertake this arduous journey year after year after year. It is their simple, unassailable faith.

Most of the warkaris were dressed in their regulation white kurta, white dhoti/pyjama and white Gandhi cap, the costume of millions of villagers in Maharashtra. The women mostly wore traditional nine yard saris in beautiful earthy colours like yellow, maroon, green and blue, creating a neat contrast with the white of the men’s costumes. Many women carried tulsi plants on their heads. Tulsi is a medicinal plant, traditionally carried on the waari for its anti-germicidal properties as well as its ability to purify the air. The men carried the saffron flags, known as the 'pataka' — traditionally the symbol of ‘Bhagwat Dharma’, or ‘The Religion of the Lord’.

My camera won me instant friends. People were eager to be photographed. I met Hausabai. Clad in a dark green nine-yard sari with a face as wrinkled as crumpled wrapping paper and a complexion the shade of burnished copper, Hausabai was resting, massaging her, tired, aching feet with her work-calloused hands. She told me that she had been doing the waari for the last 30 years, without a break.

I asked Hausabai what makes her return year after year. She smiled serenely, showing her tobacco-stained teeth and replied, “Vithoba bolavto, mi yete”.(The Lord calls me, I come). I envied her certainty and her blissful smile. Her life back in her village could not have been easy, her work-weary hands, her chapped, cracked feet, her thread-bare, patched sari, the simple glass bangles tinkling around her wrists, all told the story of a hard life, but she still smiled like she did not have a care in the world.

I had finished clicking my pictures when I saw the old couple that symbolised the essence of the waari for me. The woman, dressed in a cheap nylon sari, had opaque, milky pupils and the man walked with the stiff, awkward gait, typical of advanced arthritis. The man carried a tattered orange banner and a small bundle held under his armpit that probably carried all their earthly possessions in the world. He held the woman’s wrist with the other hand as he led her along the way. There was no rancour in their faces, only a calm acceptance and something very close to serenity. They seemed to be walking in a trance, lost in some private thoughts of their own. They walked barefoot, the soles of their feet lined with thick fissures.

I offered the couple the few apples I was carrying with me. The woman clutched tentatively at the apples and ran her fingers over them. Her husband said, “Aga ghe ghe, sa- farchand haye, Vitthalane dileya”. (Do take it, it is an apple. Sent to us by Lord Vithal). They smiled at me, a guileless, happy smile and walked on, their feet following the rhythm of the cymbals, their voices chanting ‘Gyanba-Tukaram’, their unshakeable faith in Lord Vitthal giving them the strength to carry on.