The Varkari Pilgrimage and its Ingrained Connect with Architecture

Classics
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A verbal survey carried out in the year 2015 published on a leading website stated that the word vibrant is the most used term to describe India, especially by travelers and tourists. A seemingly appropriate term, as vibrant is a singular adjective which enfolds in itself the indication that therein lies a wide range of features. Every year, as a celebration of our nation becoming a republic, there is displayed an array of customs, cultures and contrivances, which showcases the aforementioned ‘vibrancy’.

A practice inculcated since the early years of childhood, viewing the spectacle that is the Republic Day gradually became and exciting as well as enlightening habit, as awaiting the yearly tableaux brought forth by the states and ministries of the nation portrays elements of the nation, somewhat unknown, in a way that instills a sense of pride. As a note of celebration for this year’s Republic Day, and a mark of anticipation for this year’s tableaux, the mind reminisces the proceedings of last year, where the state of Maharashtra was granted the honor of presenting the best tableaux, after a gap of twenty years, wherein they showcase the thousand year old tradition of the ‘Varkari pilgrimage’.

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A religious movement within the Bhakti spiritual tradition, the Varkaris, or pilgrims, make an annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur, in worship of the presiding deity, Vithoba. Located along the banks of Bhima river, in Solapur district, Pandharpur has been duly associated with pilgrimage since the thirteenth century, and with the main temple of Vithoba therein, the region exudes a sense of historic and religious importance, especially in the architectural heritage context.

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The most frequently visited temple in the state of Maharashtra, the Vithoba temple, known in folklore as ‘Vitthalrukmini mandir’, is serenely situated along the banks of the holy river Bhima, also known as river Chandrabhaga. An old practice according to Hindu tradition, the sanctity of the river and temple complement each other. The planning of the temple complex is such that the entrance itself faces the river, in a bid to invite the devotees taking a dip in the holy waters. The entrance comprises of ‘Samadhis’ or shrines built in order to pay respect to noted devotees of the lord and the temple in history, such as Namadev and Chockmela, indicative that respect be paid to them before entering the inner confines of the temple complex. The planning of the temple complex is according to the Hindu philosophy of the central shrine being the heart of the temple, while shrines dedicated to other gods, encompassing the same. The first shrine upon entrance is dedicated to Lord Ganesh, which precedes a ‘mandapa’ or hall wherein communal prayers and ‘bhajans’ are performed. Succeeding the ‘mandapa’, is the entrance to the main shrine, built upon ‘adhisthana’ or a base platform, and steps to the level eventually lead to the ‘antarala’ or vestibule of the temple, from where one can view the deity, situated in the sanctum sanctorum. Other shrines encompassing the main shrine, forming a circumambulatory passage include those dedicated to Rukmini Devi, Satyabhama Devi, Radha Devi, Lords Narsimha, Venkateshwara, who are linked to the folklore surrounding Lord Vitthal.

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The temple is built according to traditional Hindu temple architecture, but has a region specific style called ‘Hemadhpanti’, which had been founded by the Prime Minister of Hemadpant, a Yadava Kingdom. The distinctive features of this style of architecture are the materials employed, which include black stone and lime, both indigenous to the surrounding, exemplifying the ideal of vernacular architecture in historic India. The craftsmanship and carving observed in the temple building is noted for its ornate features. One of the features about the temple which deviates from the strictest traditional sense is the dedicated entrance structure, which comprises of the temple’s first step. The step is referred to as ‘Namdev chi Payari’, or the step of Namdev, who was an ardent devotee. Legend says that as a child, Namdev sought the presence of the Lord to the extent that he repeatedly stuck himself on the foot of the deity.

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The beauty of architecture lies in its innate ability to relay stories lost in the sands of time. The records relating to the history of the temple state that it was built before the thirteenth century by the King Visnuvardhana of the Hoysala Dynasty. Folklore states that Lord Vitthal descended to the earth when touched by the devotion of Pundalik, a man reformed after realising his sins against his parents. Pundalik requested that the Lord situate himself on the earth for his devotees, and his deity took form, as Lord Vithoba, literally the one standing on a brick. Years thereafter, the deity stands, surviving the test of time, and inviting millions of pilgrims throughout the year.

The essence of architecture is depicted within the notions of all aspects it touches thereafter. Where once a legend brought forth a deity, and the ideals it stood for, the devotion of the people and patrons of the traditions established an abode for the same, which stands till date as a testimony of devotion of people to the same ideals which have been withstanding the test of time for all ages. The temple built in the 13th century boasts of more than its materials and its craftsmanship. It speaks of heritage in the true sense, of a kinship all pilgrims feel with each other. Where the temple speaks of true dedication to God, recent instances have shown how the heritage ingrained has reflected unparalleled notions of humanity. In 2014, the temple became the first to employ a ‘Caste and Gender No Bar’ philosophy, inviting women as well as Non-Brahmins to become priests and be associated with the temple. Moreover, in 2015 the date of the annual pilgrimage coincided with the date of Eid, but as a mark of respect to the thousand year old tradition, the Muslims in the region opted to celebrate Eid at a later date. This shows the mark of true heritage, which stands its ground, inspires for years to come, and yet invigorates a sense of adaptation, eventually weaving a never ending tale.

Devashree Vyas ,Volume Zero
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