Photography Exhibition

Waari – A Pilgrimage of Joy

by Sandesh Bhandare

‘Pilgrimage’ in Marathi. There are many traditional pilgrimages in Maharashtra, but one, in particular, has attained a mythical status. This is the Waari to Pandharpur, a tradition for more than 700 years. 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. India itself has hundreds of pilgrimages. What is it then that makes the Pandharpur Waari so unique?

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. They were men and women. 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-group 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 in 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; they sing and 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 have carved this tradition. 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.

The Waari has been studied by historians, anthropologists and ethnologists. Scholarly tomes have 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. There will also be 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.