Swapping CEO’s hat for devotee’s

Published on Jul 24, 2022 01:04 AM IST

I stepped out of the workforce, I had also worked on my fitness during the lockdown, so I decided to embark on the 250-kilometer walk to Padharpur, viewing it more as an adventure than a pilgrimage

Nandini Dias walking with the flag bearers leading the Yatra, followed by chanters, dholak players and cymbal players.
Nandini Dias walking with the flag bearers leading the Yatra, followed by chanters, dholak players and cymbal players.
ByNandini Dias

While growing up in a Maharashtrian household, I often heard about the fabled Warkari yatra—the annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur to honour Vithoba. The Pasaydan, the flickering images of devotees making their way singing and dancing and of course, Bhimsen Joshi’s beautifully rendered Indrayani Kathi, these were all the soundtrack of our adolescence. To my impressionable mind, this annual event seemed like Maharashtra’s very own El Camino de Santiago. But all these fancies were before work, family and Mumbai took over my life.

In 2021, I stepped out of the workforce, I had also worked on my fitness during the lockdown, so I decided to embark on the 250-kilometer walk to Padharpur, viewing it more as an adventure than a pilgrimage.

But as I write this piece, trying to get a full measure of the journey, I can say it was the toughest and the best experience in my life—as much a pilgrimage deep within myself as much as it was the actual physical journey. It was a test of endurance, it was about concentration, meditation, understanding the idea of inclusiveness and far more satisfying then any award I had won as a media CEO.

Just to put things in perspective, let me put down a few markers that define the yatra: it’s a 21-day-long journey that celebrates a tradition dating over 700 year. Its present format is roughly 200 years old. The Warkaris who undertake the yatra accompany the Palkhis (palanquins) carrying the padukas (footwear) of Sant Dnyaneshwar and Sant Tukaram to Pandharpur.

Each year, on the final 21st day which always falls on Aashadi Ekadashi, the Warkaris, having walked, danced and sung their way across 250 kilometres, enter Pandharpur to meet Lord Vithoba and his consort Rukhmini (Rakhumai). Approximately 4 to 5 lakh people undertake the journey each year. This year, as no yatras had happened over the past two years due to the pandemic, the numbers were reportedly higher.

I was part of the group that carried the Dnyaneshwar Palkhi and which started from Alandi near Pune. As one cannot reserve a slot, I simply landed in Alandi two days before the yatra and registered in the Maheshwari Dindi (Group) No. 45, led by Kedarnath Bhandari, who took over the running of the Dindi from his father. I was fortunate to accompany him inside the Alandi temple area where only Dindi-owners are privileged to witness the padukas being transferred to the palkhi. We waited 5 hours before the padukas were transferred, and only after I had finished nearly half the yatra did I realise how privileged I was to see the palkhi from such close quarters.

At the outset, I had decided that I would do everything that all the other regular Warkaris did except that instead of sleeping in schools or dharamshalas, I would stay in nearby lodges and homestays so that I could have an independent room to retire in at the end of each day’s walk. A not-so-wise choice, as it turned out since instead of just resting with the group, I had to walk longer to reach my final resting spot every evening and often ended up walking 50 odd kms more than the regular pilgrims.

The yatra has an officially charted path. The dindis move in an organised fashion and have a pre-decided formation. 27 dindis are ahead of the Palkhi and roughly 200 behind. So, between Dnyneshwar, Tukaram, Namdeo there are possibly more than 500 dindis. Within the dindi, the flag bearers walk ahead followed by the people who lead the chanting accompanied by a dholak player and talkaris who play the small brass cymbals – all finally followed by the men folk usually dressed in white, a veena player and a lady carrying the Tulsi plant with the rear being brought up by the women folk in colourful sarees. The dindi also organises trucks for carrying luggage. There are volunteers who cook, there are doctors who walk along. The days marked for rest are spent in kirtans, pravachan, haripat and Bharud.

The Warkaris address each other as mauli (ma) irrespective of gender. And that equality manifests itself across several other interactions as well. For example, when we played ‘phugdi’ both partners would touch each other’s feet, irrespective of gender, age, or status.

One day I got talking with a veteran Warkari, Mr Shinde was 70, and a former AGM with Tata Motors. He told me there were broadly five kinds of pilgrims he had seen during his many yatras Those who were spiritual-minded, those who sought to escape domestic stress, some who were in it to transact with God, then there were vagabonds who joined for the free food and the ride, and finally those who were in it for pure adventure. As I heard him I wondered about my own motives for being a part of this river of people. Perhaps, I was there out of curiosity and to seek adventure.

Surprisingly, I didn’t meet many people who were re-evaluating their life or looking for personal transformation or trying to find some deep existential meaning. No one bleated about physical, mental, spiritual, auras needing to align. While everyone’s reasons for participating differed, the easy joy of the faithful was infectious and invigorating.

(SUB HEAD) The ardous part

Admittedly though, the joy came a bit later. The first three routes -- Alandi to Pune, from there to Saswad and eventually to Jejuri, roughly 80 kilometres—were the toughest. While there are days of rest in between, the body starts protesting pretty early on. By day 5 there were many who reported fever, cough and cold, blisters, body ache and pulled muscles. Walking barefoot under the blazing sun on hot or mucky roads when it rained, added to the discomfiture.

The final day’s journey from Wakhari to Pandharpur was only three hour long but it poured relentlessly. Despite that, we sang and danced with an even greater gusto than usual. The Tukaram Dindi and the Dnyneshwar Dindi, of which I was a part, converged and the crowds were staggering. We reached our resting place at Pandharpur the night before Ekadashi. The Warkaris, instead of being exhausted seemed infused with greater vigour. They went to take a dip in the Chandrabhaga river that night, changed into their finery and then all of us went to stand in the line for Vithoba’s darshan. It was fascinating to see the pilgrims dressed up as if they were going to a wedding. It was cold, it was raining, but a collective euphoria seemed to have descended upon us as we sang and chanted, buoyed by the prospect of darshan.

As I write this account of the journey, the lines between the real and the surreal already feel blurred. For three decades of my working life I had been a part of the get-up-and-go life of any big city, I had seen at close quarters, and been a part of cutthroat competitiveness-- it became the only life I knew. But here suddenly, in the space of 3 weeks, I saw human capital play out in its rawest, most primal form. The power of faith is something that we all dismiss as a figure of speech but to see it physically lift the human spirit above survival, ego, competition, classism, ageism, materialism and almost every other ism is spectacle like no other. It’s almost like life was telling me, ‘You think you’ve seen reality? Hold on, I’ll show you reality.’

And suddenly, the life I’ve lived so far, seems like a long surreal dream from which I’ve now woken up.

Nandini Dias is former CEO of Media Lodestar UM

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