KAshi maraNAn mukti dvArakA dahanAn mukti
PanDharI darshanamAtrENa dayAhOya mukti
To achieve salvation, one has to die in Kashi or be cremated in Dwaraka. Salvation can be achieved by simply visiting Pandharpur.
Thus goes an ancient parable.
The very name Pandharpur conjures up images of devotion at its simplest best. Lord Vishnu tells Narada that He exists wherever His devotees chant His name. Going by this statement, Pandharpur is where the Lord ought to be all the time.
Pandharpur though synonymous with the rise of the bhakti movement and the bhajans that came as its offshoot, has a much greater tradition, both mythical and historical behind it.
In mythical times, the area was known as Dandirvana and was a thick forest. Here lived Janudeva and Satyavati with their son Pundalik. After his marriage the son became so besotted with his wife that he began neglecting his parents. The old couple decided to go on a pilgrimage to Kashi and die there. Pundalik?s wife on coming to know of this cajoled her husband to take her on the same pilgrimage. The young couple rode on horseback, while the aged parents struggled on foot. Each night when the party rested, Pundalik?s parents were forced to do all the domestic chores that included the grooming of the horses. One night the group having lost its way, arrived at the ashram of Kukkutaswami, a venerated sage. Pundalik asked the sage the way to Kashi, to which the sage replied that he had never been there and hence did not know. This earned him the ridicule of the arrogant Pundalik who demanded to know what kind of a holy man was he if he had never been to Kashi. The sage kept calm and offered the pilgrims food and shelter. Early next morning Pundhalik awoke while it was still dark and stepping out of his tent, saw a group of women clad in the shabbiest of rags washing the doorstep of the sage. As they completed the task, they were transformed into great beauties robed in rich garments and jewels. Pundalik was amazed at this and fell at their feet and requested that they reveal their identities. The women replied that they were the holy rivers of the country and that they became hideous in appearance at the end of each day due to the sins that the bathers left behind in their waters.
In order to regain their true form, they washed the doorstep of the sage each morning. When Pundalik enquired as to how Kukkutaswami had the power to cleanse the rivers of their sins, they replied that he had acquired it by serving his parents with devotion. This shocked Pundalik greatly. He returned to the camp and told his wife all that had transpired. The couple underwent a complete transformation. The pilgrims continued to Kashi, but this time the aged parents went on horseback while Pundalik and his wife walked the distance. On return to Dandirvan, they continued serving their aged parents with love and affection.
Coming to know of Pundalik?s love for his parents, Lord Krishna decided to pay him a visit. He came to the house when Pundalik?s father was sleeping with his head on his son?s lap. Pundalik, on seeing the Lord, regretted his inability to get up, as he did not want to disturb his father. He asked the Lord to wait and since a deity required a pITha or pedestal, requested the Lord to stand on a brick that lay nearby. This pleased Krishna immensely and He stood on top of the brick till Pundalik?s father had finished his nap. The word for brick is vit in Marathi and hence the Lord here came to be known as Vitthala or Vithoba. His consort is Rukmini or Rakhumai.
Pundalik is said to have created Pandharpur around Lord Vitthala. The Gods helped him in creating the city and it is said to have Vishnu?s Sudarshan Chakra as its base. The ancient name for the town was Pundalikapura, the city of Pundalika. There is a shrine to the founder in the city.The deity is also known as Panduranga and hence the town is called Pandurangpura. Other names for the town include Pandurangpalli, Pandharga, Pundalika Kshetra and Pandhari.
The Town and its History
The image of Vitthala dates to around the 5th century AD. It is believed that the cult of Vitthala is of Kannada origin and later it was adopted by the people of Maharashtra. The town came up over the centuries on the banks of the river Bhima. The river bends in the form of a crescent around the town and is hence called the Chandrabhaga. 6th century copper plate inscriptions mention munificent grants made by the Rashtrakutas. By the 13th century AD, the idol and the temple find mention in grant records of the Hoysala kings. In the medieval period, Muslim invasions necessitated the removal of Vitthala for several months at a time. The hereditary priests of the temple, the Badavas, secreted the idol to a village called Deogaon whenever circumstances warranted the idol?s removal. Sometimes Hindu chieftains and mercenaries too stole the idol for various reasons. When a Vijayanagar King did this, Saint Namdev?s father cajoled him into returning the idol. But in 1657 one Raghoji abducted the idol and demanded a hefty ransom for its return.
Stability returned to the region with the Mahratta rulers and the temple and its environs began to develop and acquired the shape that we see today. The Bhonsle rulers beginning with Chatrapati Rajaram made munificent grants. When the Mahratta court shifted to Satara, the Peshwas continued to support the temple from Pune. However this period saw numerous disputes arising between the various categories of priests attached to the temple. Finally a settlement was brokered by the ruling king at Satara in 1838. The procedure for worship and the share in revenue arising from it was laid down in great detail in this ruling and is followed almost intact till date.
Under the Peshwas, the town acquired its present shape and size. The Peshwas began the practice of conducting the rath yatra or the chariot procession. Numerous ghats were constructed by them as also many temples. The Vitthal temple also underwent considerable expansion during this time.
The Principal Shrines
The shrine to Pundalik exists in the bed of the river Bhima. It is a small temple with a five storeyed spire. The main deity here is Shiva, worshipped in the form of a linga. Elaborate pujas are performed during Shiva ratri. The temple has a steady throng of devotees throughout the year. The temple of Vithoba or Vitthal is the principal shrine of the city. The temple is best approached from the Mahadwar Ghat on the river Bhima. The shrine is constructed on a high plinth with huge walls and covers an area of 350ft by 170 ft. It has eight entrances of which the eastern or the Namdev gate is the most important. There are twelve steps to be climbed to come to this gate. The first step is covered in brass and has the figurines of the members of Saint Namdev?s family on it. The first figure is that of Namdev himself. It is said that Saint Namdev attained Samadhi at this step and it is thus customary not to put one?s foot on it. Priests of the Shimpi community, to which Namdev belonged, worship his shrine nearby. Close by is the samadhi of Chokha Mela, yet another saint of the Bhakti movement. The Mahar community from which this saint came manages this. Devotees then cross an arched pathway that houses the Naqar Khana or music room above it. Drums are beaten in this room to signify the various hours of worship. The passage encloses a shrine to Ganesha. The passage opens into an huge quadrangle in which there are shrines for Garuda and Hanuman. Next is a mantap which has the divine the dvArapAlakas Jaya and Vijaya flanking it. Following this is the hall of sixteen pillars, which is succeeded by a hall of four pillars. This leads to the sanctum sanctorum.
Vitthala as an idol is around four feet in height. The deity is made of black stone and sports an unusual headgear. It has two long makara kuNDalas on the ears. The hands hold a conch and a lotus and rest on the hips. The base of the idol is square and is said to be the brick that Pundalik offered the Lord. Close by is the bedchamber of the Lord. The sanctum dates to the 16th century while the exterior, which is highly carved, was completed in the 1830s by the king of Bhor state. Rakhumai is housed in a shrine close by. An unusual feature of the temple is the highly regulated manner in which the various services are divided and assigned to members to various communities. No community can infringe on the rights and responsibilities of others.
The Vishnupad temple, like the Pundalik shrine is also in the bed of the river. It is submerged by floodwaters during the rainy season and even during the dry season has water lapping its sanctum. A low causeway approaches it. It houses the footmarks of Krishna along with those of his cow. It is believed that during the month of Marghashirsha (Dec/Jan), Krishna goes from the Vitthal temple to the Vishnupad temple and picnics there. His sandals are taken in a procession from the main temple to the Vishnupad temple on the first day of the month and brought back on the last day. pilgrims offer piNDa or rice offerings to ancestors at this temple throughout the year.
Pandharpur is perhaps best known for the Varkari Sampradaya. With the development of the place as a pilgrimage center, it became the practice for people in neighbouring towns to go on foot to Pandharpur in large groups chanting the name of the Lord and singing His praise. This is called the Dindi and even now the largest such group proceeds from Alandi near Pune to Pandharpur. This pilgrimage was something that all devotees of the Lord desired to perform once in their life and legend has it that when the harassed housewife Sakubai was unable to do so, the Lord took her place in her household, enabling her to proceed on the tour. It was considered particularly auspicious on all Ekadasi (11th day from the full/new moon) days, more particularly on Ekadasis occurring in the months of Ashada (June-July) and Kartika (October-November).
Such a traveller was called a Varakari, vara meaning frequent and kari meaning performer. A Varakari is one who is a strict vegetarian, of humble speech and action and ever engrossed in singing Hari?s glory. The singing of Marathi abhangs, written by saints like Gnaneshwar, Ekanath and Thukaram is known as ?VARAKARI SAMPRADAYA?. This colourful festival continues till date.
Large fairs are held on the banks of the Chandrabhaga in the months of Chaitra, Ashadh, Kartik and Magh.
Saints and Savants
Historically, the Varakari Sampradaya appears to have begun around the 12th Century. This was the time when people had begun to question the importance of Sanskrit as a means of communicating with God. At the same time, the Mohammedan influence was rising and many were being converted. Time was propitious for the birth of the Bhakti cult that stood for building a relationship with Godhead through devotion, love and absolute surrender. Prayers were addressed in everyday language. The harbinger of this change was Sant Jnaneshwar (1271-93AD) who composed the Jnaneshwari, a 9000-verse commentary on the Gita. Set in simple language, it questioned the caste system and declared the equality of all men before God. Though he was ostracized, the Bhakti movement had begun. Jnaneshwar?s siblings, Nivritti, Sopana and Muktabai were all to leave their imprint on the Bhakti cult. Namdev (1270-1350AD), a tailor, Vishobha Kechar, a grocer, Janabai, a maid servant, Goroba, a potter and many others from diverse backgrounds began composing songs and verses in praise of their Vithoba.
In the 16th Century appeared Sant Tukaram(1588-1649AD). Born at Dehu, he preferred a life of poverty dedicated to worshipping Vitthala and composed a number of songs called the Abhangs ? meaning indestructible. These strengthened the Namasankirtana and Varakari sampradaya immensely. Sant Eknath (1548-99 AD) too did the same. Many miracles are ascribed to Tukaram and it is believed that he was taken to heaven in his corporeal form. The Abhangs became a means of prayer as the devotees trekked their way to Pandharpur. They were set to simple tunes and were meant for singing in chorus with a leader. Sant Ramdas (1608-82AD), who was Shivaji?s Guru, took the Abhangs to South India, where the leader of the Bhajana Sampradaya, Sadguru Swamin absorbed them and made them integral to the tradition in the South.
Pandharpur thus forms an important link in the Hindu tradition of worship and also the arts as a means of worship. Verily it is an important Kshetra that extols bhajana as a means of attaining salvation.