Waari – A Pilgrimage of Joy

‘Waari’ means ‘a holy pilgrimage’ in Marathi. There are many traditional pilgrimages in Maharashtra, but one specific pilgrimage has attained a mythical status. This is the Waari to Pandharpur, a tradition for more than 700 years. It is undertaken in the Hindu months of Jyeshtha-Ashadha every year. It culminates on the eleventh day of the month Ashadha. The Waari is made on foot, and spans a distance of about 250 kilometres. Millions of people participate in this pilgrimage with the aim of becoming one with their beloved deity, the Vitthala of Pandharpur. Several religions have similar traditions. India itself has hundreds of pilgrimages. What is it then that makes the Pandharpur Waari so unique and mythical?

History has examples of many religious sects and communities establishing themselves with the help of some power structure. Sometimes the power came from religious institutions such as the church; sometimes, it came with the patronage of the state – from kings, generals as well as democratically elected politicians. The Bhagavata sect that gave rise to the Waari, however, has no such base of a power structure. The millions of people who walk this pilgrimage are its only support.

Hinduism is synonymous with the caste system that divided people into higher and lower castes and thus accorded or denied them social status and respect. This gave rise to social inequalities and exploitative power structures. Considered in this context, the Bhagavata sect and its Waari tradition were unique right from their humble beginnings many centuries ago, since they were rooted in a social movement that emphasized equality. ‘God created all living beings, so it is illogical to proclaim that God differentiates between them.’ This was the primary philosophy of this sect. This was reflected in the long tradition of saints that worshipped Vitthala. The saints belonged to high as well low castes. There were men as well as women saints. Eventually, even Muslims started participating in the Waari so that it no longer remained a strict Hindu tradition. This was revolutionary at a time when Shudras (the lowest caste in the traditional hierarchy) and women were not considered worthy of God’s grace, and were therefore denied the right to pray and to attain oneness with God.

This equality inherent to the tradition also gives rise to a unique camaraderie and playfulness among the pilgrims partaking in the Waari. Rich or poor, illiterate or highly educated, people walk together, eat together, share confidences with each other; they sing together, and even play together. This playfulness, this joy of life is not arbitrary, but has its basis in the philosophy of the tradition. A long series of saints across centuries has carved this tradition. Apart from the respect given to all human beings regardless of their caste and creed, this tradition also emphasizes that even a simpleton can become one with God without external help. There is no concept of priests or clergy in the tradition. It thus becomes a truly democratic path to God, free from power, politics and exploitation. Its philosophy says that being sincere, humble and reducing one’s needs is all that is needed to get closer to God. Attaining a joyous state of mind is easier when one learns to live with less material comfort and loses one’s individuality in the crowds of the Waari. This bliss is what causes millions of people to walk with the Waari even in this age, where material comforts entice everyone.

The Waari has been studied by various kinds of people, including historians, anthropologists and ethnologists. Scholarly tomes have also been written about it. This exhibition attempts to capture major aspects of the Waari through the medium of photography. The photographs depict various stages in the Waari. We hope that the photographs serve a dual purpose – to be a social documentation of this unique, ancient tradition, and to have an aesthetic appeal for the viewer. We plan to send twenty-five photographs. Each photograph will have accompanying information explaining its context as necessary. There will also be more detailed information about the historical and social context of the pilgrimage, and how it has changed over time. The observations of the photographer when he accompanied the Waari to take photographs will also be provided. Depending on the area available at the exhibition venue, you could choose to exhibit a subset of the photographs, should it become necessary

The Waari tradition has evolved for over 700 years. Today, the entire route is roughly 250 kilometres. At its culmination in Pandharpur, roughly a 100 million people gather. This scene depicts a multitude of people on a mountainous part of the pilgrimage route.
Today, the entire route is roughly 250 kilometres. At its culmination in Pandharpur, roughly a 100 million people gather. This scene depicts a multitude of people on a mountainous part of the pilgrimage route.