Hinduism Varkaris
by
Aditya Malik, Chandan Bose, Tuhina Ganguly
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0182

Introduction

Varkari can refer to an individual or group who undertakes a pilgrimage to the temple of Lord Vithoba or Vitthala in the town of Pandharpur in the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Lord Vithoba himself, and the pilgrimage to Pandharpur can, in many respects, be considered the most important, popular deity and pilgrimage in Maharashtra. Indeed, in some manner, the pilgrimage itself defines the idea of Maharashtra as a distinct region as pilgrim processions from the different cities and towns converge on this sacred center. Deleury 1960 (cited under General Overviews) considers the etymology of the word to consist of “vari” and “kari.” “Vari’ is derived from “var,” which means occurrence or periodic schedule. Thus “Vari” signifies the regular occurrence of the pilgrimage to Pandharpur. “Kari,” on the other hand, implies “doer.” Thus a Varkari is someone who regularly, that is, at least one or more times annually, “does” the journey to the holy town of Pandharpur. The journey to Pandharpur commences from various cities and towns in Maharashtra, each retracing the path embarked upon by important poet saints of the medieval period who were staunch devotees of Lord Vitthala. The towns and cities include Jalgaon, Paithan, Daulatabad, Alandi, Dehu, and many more. Each city or town is associated with one or more saints of the bhakti movement in Maharashtra such as Muktabai, Eknath, Janardanswami, Jnanesvar, and Tukaram. The bhakti movement in Maharashtra can be considered a regional expression of a social and religious protest movement that gathered momentum in different parts of India mostly during the medieval period. The leaders of this movement, which included both women and men, emphasized social equality and a denial of caste and gender hierarchies; an immediate experience of divinity unmediated by ritual or priests; and the composition and dissemination of short, sung, pithy religious poetry in vernacular or regional languages and dialects that were easily accessible to non-elite communities who were not familiar with the language Sanskrit and its religious scripture. The bhakti saints and poets many of whom belonged to lower, “untouchable,” or Dalit communities regarded an intimate, personal relationship to a chosen deity to be paramount. The saints, whose journeys the Varkaris retrace, chose to form such a relationship to Lord Vitthala whom they considered to be a manifestation of Lord Viṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa. Since retracing the journeys of these saints is so important, the ground upon which the saints walked is considered sacred, and the religious significance of the saints’ feet as a repository of their spiritual strength becomes vital. Large groups of devotees departing from the hometowns of the saints thus also conduct the journeys on foot, while carrying silver footprints of the saints in palanquins or palkhis.

General Overviews

There are not many detailed overviews of the Varkari tradition and the cult of Vithoba. While a number of articles refer to aspects of the pilgrimage and to the deity, it is only Deleury 1960 and Dhere 1984 that provide a comprehensive introduction and in-depth description and analysis of the complex pilgrimage to Pandharpur. The Jesuit priest G. A. Deluery’s sensitive account focusing on the worship of Lord Vithoba is a pioneering work in this field. He painstakingly traces the history of the Varkari movement through the biographies and compositions of the poet saints like Jnanesvar and Tukaram. Similarly, the recent translation into English by Anne Feldhaus in 2011 of the monumental Marathi work by one of the foremost Maharashtrian historians of religion, R.C. Dhere, provides a finely nuanced history of the Varkari movement and the multilayered religious meanings of Lord Vithoba himself (see Dhere 1984). This translation of R.C. Dhere’s comprehensive Marathi work based on years of research gives English-speaking readers a well-scripted, easy access to a complex body of thought with regard to the origins and multiple religious meanings of the cult of Vithoba and of the central importance of Pandharpur within the religious history of Maharashtra. The extensive bibliography includes many other references to Marathi language research. For those looking for an entry point into the history of Varkari tradition, its practices, and customs, the encyclopedia entry Keune and Novetzke 2011 provides a succinct introduction to the Varkari Sampraday including a detailed historical account of bhakti tradition of Western India, and its location within contemporary politics.

  • Deleury, G. A. The Cult of Vithoba. Poona, India: Deccan College, 1960.

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    Deleury’s pioneering work is undoubtedly the most exhaustive study of Vithoba and the Varkari tradition written in English. Examines the history of the “Varkari Panth” through the lives and work of poet saints. Contains translations of several abhangas or devotional poems composed by the saints as well as descriptions and maps of the annual pilgrimage and the temple town.

  • Dhere, Ramchandra Cintaman. Srivitthal: Ek Mahasamanvay. Pune, India: Srividya Prakasan, 1984.

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    Indisputably the most comprehensive and meticulous study of the multiple religious meanings of the cult of Vithoba and of the significance of Pandharpur within the religious history of Maharashtra. With great insight his work shows the convergence (samanvay) of pastoralist, Vaishnavite, Shaivite, Nāth, Buddhist, and Jaina religious elements in the making of the “cult” of Vithoba. Translated from Marathi into English by Anne Feldhaus as The Rise of a Folk God: Vitthal of Pandharpur. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

  • Keune, Jon, and Christian Lee Novetzke. “Vārkarī Sampradāy.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Vol. 3, Society, Religious Specialists, Religious Traditions, Philosophy. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, 617–626. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    Well-researched entry on the Varkari Sampraday outlining its history and key tenets including bhakti and annual pilgrimages with brief sections on Vitthal and the most important poet-saints. Discusses Varkari practices in terms of caste and gender, the genres of Varkari devotional expression, and interpretations of Varkari tradition within modern politics.

  • Mokashi, D. B. Palkhi: An Indian Pilgrimage. Translated by Philip C. Engblom. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

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    An eloquent translation of a skillfully composed Marathi text, Palkhi brings together the genius of Marathi literary figure Digambar Balkrishna Mokashi and Philip C Engblom. The monograph is a comprehensive rendition of Mokashi’s experience during his two-week walk of 150 miles to the town of Pandharpur. The book narrates a sensorial and sociological account of the journey, ranging from a vivid description of the landscapes and spaces which the pilgrims encounter, to a critical appraisal of the location of religion and faith among the urban educated middle class of Maharashtra.

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