While describing its sanctity, the holy city of Pandharpur is extolled by the saints of Maharashtra as ‘Dakshina Kashi’. Pandharpur is situated on the right bank of the meandering Bheema, known as Chandrabhaga, curving gently along its banks crowded with shrines and temples. It lies at the junction of several important lines of communication. The roads coming from Ahmednagar, Pune, Kolhapur, Bijapur and Solapur converge at this place.
The oldest mention of Pandharpur is recorded in a copper plate grant of 516 CE of the Rashtrakuta king Avidheya. It is in Sanskrit and its script is Kannada. Jayadvitthala, a Brahmin, was the recipient of a donation mentioned in the grant. Later, in 615 CE, the Chalukya king Pulakesin II conquered this part of Maharashtra and assumed lordship. It remained under the Chalukyas at least until 766 CE. Pandharpur was ruled successively by Rashtrakutas, Later Chalukyas and the Yadavas. It was also under the Hoyasalas for a short time which is evident from an inscription of 1237 CE, found in the temple of Shri Vitthala. The epigraph of 1249 CE records the name of Pandharpur as Pundarika Kshetra.
The visit of Hemadri to Pandharpur is recorded in an inscription of 1273 CE. This is of importance due to the fact that the renovated temple of Vitthala was of Hemadpanti style, architecturally known as the Bhumija style. Pandharpur had to face many vicissitudes, ups and downs during the medieval period, when the region was attacked by the iconoclast alien rulers. It was constantly under stress and strain from the beginning of the 14th century CE to the Peshwa period. During the period when Pandharpur and the regions surrounding it were under the Bahamanis, Nizamshahi and Baridshahi, continuous warfare took place among these rulers which disturbed the life of the people to a great extent. In fact with its unfortunate geographical situation and religious importance in the midst of these destructive activities, Pandharpur and the region around it was utterly ruined.
This resulted in the disappearance of Pandharpur in the cultural history of Maharashtra during this period. The fate of Pandharpur region during the 16th and 17th centuries was the worst. Repeated plundering acts by the Muslim armies, including that of Aurangzeb who was stationed for a few years near Pandharpur, further deteriorated the situation. At last in 1719, Balaji Peshwa obtained the recognition of Maratha Swaraj by the court of Delhi and it was for the first time after 1325 that the town of Pandharpur again came under a Hindu ruler. The endless bickering between the Nizam and the Marathas still continued. However, in spite of these rivalries, due to political pressures and the dilution of the prejudices of religion and race, the condition of the people improved a lot.
In the second half of the 18th century, Maratha power was revived and Pandharpur rose from the ruins. The golden age dawned on the holy city. New temples were built and new buildings arose on the banks of the Chan-rabhaga. The Shindes of Gwalior, Holkars of Indore, Pawars, Peshwas and the Sardars commenced the task of beautifying the town with shrines in their palatial buildings and from 1770 to 1800 CE seven such ghats were built. The important ones among these are the Mahadwara, Haridasa, Kumbhar as well as temples like that of Gopalkrishna, Vishnupada, Lakhubai, Padmavati, Belicha Mahadeo, Takpithya Vithoba, etc. For a while Pandharpur belonged to the Patwardhans of Miraj state. It was given by the Peshwas because of the fame acquired and valour exhibited by them. The Patwardhans wisely made many improvements and additions to the holy city when they were the governors of the region. Unfortunately, Peshwa Bajirao II was defeated by the British army at Bassein (Vasai near Mumbai) and signed an ignominious treaty which practically put an end to Maratha Swaraj. Pandharpur had to admit the British troops in its precinct. Later on a treaty was signed at Pandharpur in 1812 CE as a result of which the British power assigned the city again to the Patwardhans of Miraj. It remained peaceful then onwards. During the last two centuries, the Pandharpur village of 516 CE grew first into a town and then as a city of today.
A Holy Abode
Pandharpur earned its importance as a sacred place due to the temple dedicated to Lord Vitthala. Epigraphic evidence of the presence of Vitthala right from 1237 CE onward, if not earlier, has been found. However, due to the formation of the warkari panth at the end of the 13th century and the arrival of Jnaaneshwar, along with a group of saints, Pandharpur emerged as a sacred town and a seat of the warkari sampradaya (cult or sect). This event brought about a cultural revolution in the history of Maharashtra in particular and in India in general. Its importance as a centre of pilgrimage increased. It became a centre of spiritual learning. In the meanwhile, during successive periods, due to the onslaught of Muslim invaders, the glory of Pandharpur vanished. The warkaris lived in continual fear of persecution. But, the sampradaya remained alive. There arose a star on the horizon of the Bhakti movement – Sant Eknath of Paithan. He saved the cult from destruction of the glorious inheritance of the former saints and initiated a new fervour amongst the warkaris so that the glory of Vitthala continued to be celebrated. He was the rejuvenator of the sampradaya in more ways than one. For instance, he brought out an authenticated text of ‘Jnaaneshwari’ which was prepared by him in 1584 CE. The contemporaries of Shri Jnaaneshwar like Sant Namdeo (tailor), Sena (barber), Gora (potter), Narhari (goldsmith) and others like Chokha, Mahar and Samvat formed the mandiyali (group of saints) who together embarked on the mission of disseminating the philosophy of the sampradaya. This mission was continued in the 16th century by Sant Eknath and Sant Tukaram. It is said, and rightly so, that Sant Jnaaneshwar laid the foundation of the Bhakti cult and Sant Tukaram became the pinnacle of it.
Pandharpur has grown around the great temple of Vithoba, which is its geographical centre as well as its raison d’être. In fact the history of the town is the history of the temple itself. Vithoba is often called the ‘Lord of Pandhari’. The temple is located on top of a small hillock facing the east and the river Chandrabhaga. After ascending several steps, one enters the mukhamandapa. The lowest step of this temple is known as the ‘Namdevo Payari’ on which is installed a bronze bust of Namdeo. It is said that he took samadhi at that very place. In front of this step, at a distance of two meters, there is the samadhi of Chokhamela. Beyond the big quadrangular wooden hall having deepmalas and a Maruti shrine is a narrow vestibule which is to be approached by a flight of steps. The vestibule has three openings leading to the sola khambi i.e. a square hall, the ceiling of which is shouldered by 16 pillars, beautifully carved with the designs and figures in relief. The sanctum and the ante-chamber are small structures, plain and simple. As we know from various epigraphs found in the temple and its vicinity, there was a lahanaa maadu (small shrine) at the beginning which later on was enlarged. In the Yadava period, it was constructed in the Bhumaja style which was known as Hemadpanti.
Exactly after 84 years, the present structure was built which is clear from the epigraph known as ‘Chauryanshicha Lekh’. The temple complex has accommodated various small shrines, halls, cloisters, etc in the course of time. Thus, the ‘great temple’ as it stands today is a composite ensemble of various buildings erected during the 16th through 18th centuries CE. This was the period of Maratha enaissance. This process suggests the continued interest and devotion of the bhaktas (the faithful) which is everlasting. Vithoba’s popularity can be attributed to the warkari pantha. The warkaris, in turn, owe their existence to the saint Jnaaneshwara, whose fame spread through literature and the annual pilgrimage undertaken by the devotees i.e. the wari. One cannot think of Vithoba without reference to this pantha and vice-versa. The veneration is deep and as Jnaanaba rightly says, “When my eyes rest on your image, my beloved, I become overwhelmed with happiness.” In the words of Tukaram, “This image is my happiness. I look at the beautiful face with love.”
The image of Vitthala is an installed one and therefore an achala or immovable icon (dhruva bera). He stands erect with rigid and straight legs, feet together in the samacharana pose, hands akimbo, holding a conch in the left and a lotus in the right hand. Vithoba stands with no movements of hands or feet. Kalidasa describes such a position as ‘steady as an unflickering lamp’. Such an image is called a Yogasthaanaka. Lord Vithoba of Pandharpur has never been prayed to for the fulfillment of mundane purposes or worldly pleasures. The prayers to him, in fact, have been of a different sort, seeking liberation from the worldly bonds. Says a devotee, “Whether this corporal body exists or not, my devotion to Vitthala will remain steadfast. I vow never to leave his feet.” The image also reflects yogic aspects. No wonder then that Jnaanadeva describes Vitthala as, “I like Shri Vitthala as Yogiraja very much”. Probably because of Vitthala being Yogiraja, Adishankara describes his seat at Pandharpur as Mahayogapeetha. Shri Vitthala is clad with a lower garment. He is shown wearing a linga-shaped mukuta (crown). The saints with their eyes of knowledge (jnana chakshu) look at him as Hari-Hara (combination of Vishnu and Shiva). Being Yogiraja he is shown standing alone in the Garbhagriha.
Later on another temple was constructed in about the 14th century CE enshrining Rukhminimata’s image. It is in the north-west corner of the complex.
Pandharpur owes its grandeur and glory to the temple of Shri Vithoba and to the annual pilgrimage from Alandi. The pilgrimage, undertaken in the month of Ashadha, is the most spectacular activity of the warkaris. In fact it is a sine-qua-non of the cult. Hundreds of abhangas are composed by the leading warkaris of various sects describing the way, the nature and the importance of the pilgrimage.
Literally hundreds of palkhis (palanquins) from every nook and corner of Maharashtra can be seen on the road leading from Alandi to Pandharpur. The most important as well as the oldest of these is the palkhi of Shri Jnaaneshwara which starts from Alandi. This is at the centre of the pilgrimage. It leads the other palkhis, converging at a village called Wakhari near Pandharpur.
Earlier, when this tradition began, the annual pilgrimage was more like a rivulet because of the limited number of warkaris. It slowly became a large river, getting inundated every year due to the addition of an increasing number of palkhis. There is no other pilgrimage which consists of lakhs of devotees who travel such a long distance on foot – a journey that takes them 17 days. Singing of the abhangas while in the dindis is mandatory and dialogues, conversation, etc of any kind are strictly prohibited when the procession is on. The warkaris also follow a disciplined lifestyle – they are absolute vegetarians and do not drink alcohol or consume tobacco in any form. The pilgrimage takes the warkaris to Pandharpur from wherever they join the dindi. And finally, the warkaris face their Lord Vitthala, fulfilling an aspiration nursed through the year, until it’s time to re-visit Pandharpur the next year.
Author: Dr G B Deglurkar Photographs © Sunil Piske, Ram Jeurkar, Painting: Ravi Deo Source: July 2012, Vol. 1 | MAHARASHTRA UNLIMITED