They come in numbers beyond count, singing, dancing, laughing, and walking all the way from all corners of Maharashtra – from Dhule, Nashik, Pandharpur, Khandala. (All these places are in different districts, separated by a few more districts). They walk through the rains, enduring the blistering afternoons and the cold wet nights. Some of them are mere children, sometimes piggybacked by their parents; some are really old, having seen 7 decades or so. Yet they all walk, to meet their God who chose to live in this small town in a godforsaken district of Vidarbha.
The men are dressed in white, the women in saffron, sometimes in bright shades of pink and green and red. They play manjeera, lezims, dholak and a variety of folk instruments as they walk, singing Abhang and bhajans and dancing together to those tunes as they sing. Somewhere you see two girls playing fugadi, while a dholak beating beside them spurs their momemtum and the rest of the girls clap around them egging them on to play faster. At some other place you see 8 to 10 year old boys playing Lezim rhythmically as taught by their instructor who is supervising them. Its a sight that can make a dead heart leap.
You might be wondering whether these people have nothing else to do. No, thats not the case. These people aren’t rishis who have renounced all worldly life. They are normal people, having a family, a house and a neighbourhood just as much as we do. They aren’t people who have someone to earn at home while they are here. They live hand-to-mouth, mostly farmers and labourers and ‘lower class’ representatives. They are people who have seen the worst of life – poverty, illiteracy, famines, droughts, sickness, maybe even suicides. And yet here they are, their faith in their God undaunted by all that life has shown them.
Exhilarated, we watch them as they move, enjoying the music, the noise, even the blaring of the loudspeakers. We have lived with their God since we were born, yet their devotion is an example to even the most dedicated of us. Its a devotion that can spur a belief in the most atheistical of all beings, a devotion that will bring a tear to the eyes of the staunchest non-believer. In their simple yet profound beliefs, the legacy of Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram remains alive. In their earthly, yet unearthly presence, we find the God who is believed to live in the heart of every human being.
Every year, 5-6 lakh such pilgrims, called Varkaris in Marathi, come to my hometown Shegaon to pay their respects to Shri Gajanan Maharaj, a saint contemporary of Sai Baba. A salute to you, Varkari!