There is something very magical about the walk leading to the Vitthal temple of Pandharpur in Maharashtra. The
fragrance of tulsi, abir, kumkum, mixed with the sweet aroma of prasadam, has an instant calming effect on your nerves. As the devotees break into impromptu chanting en route to the main temple, you are filled with a sudden burst of energy, nevermind how long your journey may have been to get here.
The Vitthal temple in Pandharpur is said to be the most visited temple in Maharashtra. Situated around 200 km from Pune, it comes under the Solapur district with Solapur railway station being the nearest at 70 km. The temple attracts devotees of Vitthal, believed to be a form of Lord Vishnu and Lord Krishna. The God is also referred to as Vithoba Mauli or Panduranga.
The legend has it that when Lord Vishnu came to bless his devotee, Pundalik, latter threw a brick for him to stand on, hence the name — vit means brick in Marathi and thala is believed to have originated from Sanskrit word sthala, meaning to stand. The temple is said to have been built in the middle of the 13th century, but no date has been ascribed to Pundalik’s tale.
As per the legend, Pundalik and his parents lived in Dandirvan forest. After marriage, he got so involved in the matrimony that he started neglecting his duties towards his aged parents. Tired with that, the parents decided to leave for Kashi, the city that assures salvation to those who die there. Upon learning about the plan, Pundalik and his wife decided to join them on the pilgrimage, but continued with their ill treatment.
En route, Pundalik met sage Kukkutswami at his ashram and underwent a radical transformation thereafter. He became completely devoted to his parents. Pleased by his efforts, Lord Vishnu decided to bless him. When he knocked at Pundalik’s door, Pundalik was serving food to his parents. Though he realised the Lord’s presence, he chose to complete his duties first. Since it was raining and it got muddy, Pundalik threw a brick for Lord Vishnu to stand on so his feet could remain dry. All the more impressed with him, Lord Vishnu granted Pundalik a wish. Pundalik requested Lord Vishnu to stay on Earth and bless his devotees. The God then agreed to take the form of Vitthal, or God who stood upon a brick and the temple was built there later.
The Vitthal temple has three entrances each on the east and the west side, and one each in the south and the west. However, there is only one main entrance — mahadwara — on the east side. It is also referred to as Namdev Darwaja.
The first step to the temple is called Namdev Chi Payari (step of Namdev). Child Namdev was an ardent devotee of Vitthal. One day when his mother asked him to offer food to God before the family ate, he dutifully waited for the deity to appear and consume the offerings. He prayed fervently and when he received no answer, he started banging his head at the idol’s feet. Seeing his utmost devotion, God appeared, ate the offerings and granted Namdev his wish of being present in the first step where he could receive the touch of devotees’ feet. This step is thus sacred to all who come to the Vitthal temple. And they take care not to step on it.
To get to the sanctum sanctorum, devotees have to traverse through a six-storey building. At the time of huge rush, and during festive season, the crowd has to pass through every floor. This sometimes takes them three to four hours to get the darshan of the deity. While passing by each floor the devotees can purchase garlands from the vendors sitting there or grab a quick bite. One can buy prasadam, incense sticks and coconut for offering. Beautiful Vitthal idols, manjeera and many more items are also available at these shops.
Once you reach the main temple, you can see a porch that houses drums and other instruments of the temple. After crossing the courtyard, you get to a 16-pillared hall. You have to cross through a silver door to reach the shrine of Lord Vitthal. About threeand- a-half-feet tall, the idol is beautifully adorned with the fine clothes and jewellery. The crowd breaks into loud cheers and chanting as soon as they get the darshan of the deity. There is also a separate temple for Lord Krishna’s wife Rukmini, called Rakhumai, on the campus.
Ashadhi Ekadashi is the most important day in Pandharpur. It is when the Varkaris — devotees of Vitthal, gather from all over Maharashtra for this annual pilgrimage called Vari. The day generally falls between late June and July. They walk in groups all the way from their homes to Pandharpur to get the holy darshan of their beloved deity on that auspicious day. Also, a dip in the holy river Chandrabhaga on Ashadhi Ekadashi is believed to wash off all the sins. Pandharpur is situated on the banks of Chandrabhaga.
Text and photos: Yogendar Singh