Hinduism Pandharpur and Vitthal
Erik Reenberg Sand
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0224


Pandharpur, with its main deity, Viṭṭhala (hereafter Vitthal), alias Viṭhobā or Pāṇḍuraṅga, is the most popular pilgrimage site in Maharashtra. Every year it is visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, first of all in connection with the Āṣāḍha and Kārttika festivals of the Vārakarī (hereafter Varkari) Sampradāya. Vitthal is a manifestation of Viṣṇu in his Krishna incarnation (avatāra). According to local tradition Vitthal arrived in Pandharpur attracted by the filial devotion of the seer Puṇḍalīka, or, according to another, later tradition, while looking for his wife Rukmiṇī. Since then he has established himself there for the favor of his devotees while Puṇḍalīka is considered to be the founder of the devotional cult known as Varkaris. The real explanation of Vitthal’s arrival in Pandharpur is another matter. Although many scholars have taken the myth about Puṇḍalīka to reflect a story about an actual person credited with bringing the worship of Vitthal to Pandharpur, some modern scholars believe that the myth is inspired by Purāṇic traditions legitimizing the establishment of Śaiva liṅgas. In fact, the idol of the Puṇḍalīka samādhi, one of the oldest temples in Pandharpur, contains a Śiva-liṅga. This, taken together with the fact that some of the oldest temples in the town are devoted to Śiva, suggests that Pandharpur was originally a Śaiva place that was later Vaiṣṇavized with the introduction of Vitthal, who may have been of pastoral origin and come from Karnataka to the south. When exactly this Vaiṣṇavization took place is not sure but it seems to have more or less coincided with the earliest historical inscription mentioning Pandharpur and Vitthal dating from the end of the 12th century when a temple of Vitthal was founded. At the end of the 13th century the cult was attracting support from the northern Marathi-speaking area when it was probably visited by the Yadava king Rāmacandra and his chief minister Hemādri as well as by Jñāneśvara, the “founder” of the Varkari Sampradāya. Literary sources for the study of Pandharpur either belong to the devotional Varkari tradition and are in the vernacular Marathi or they belong to the local Brahmanic tradition in the form of Sanskrit māhātmyas. Since the latter have either been unedited or are difficult to access, a characteristic of the research on Pandharpur until the 1980s is that it has mainly been based on literature in the Marathi language.

General Studies

Unfortunately, no comprehensive modern scholarly work on Pandharpur as a “sacred complex” on the lines of L. P. Vidyarthi’s studies of Gayā and Kāśī or others is available. The most comprehensive works are the Maharashtra State Gazetteer (Government of Maharashtra 1977), Khare 1963, Deleury 1960, Dingre 1968, Vaudeville 1974, Mañjul 2008, and Dhere 2011. Almost all of these general studies deal with the early history of Pandharpur and the cult of Vitthal as well as with the main temple and its rituals. Some also deal with the most conspicuous devotees of Vitthal, the so-called Varkari Sampradāya (see the Oxford Bibliographies article “Varkaris”). On the whole, it is characteristic of these general studies, apart from Dhere 2011 and Kane 1973, that they do not take into consideration the Sanskrit literature on Pandharpur and Vitthal. Apart from the works cited, several surveys or popular works could not be included in this article.

  • Deleury, G. A. The Cult of Viṭhobā. Poona, India: Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, 1960.

    First comprehensive English-language study of Pandharpur and the cult of Vitthal by a sympathetic Jesuit scholar. Deals extensively with Pandharpur history, the iconography and origin of Vitthal, the temple, important sub-shrines, and the Varkari pilgrimage. Apart from epigraphical sources, it is mainly based on Varkari poetic sources, whereas the various māhātmya texts in Sanskrit and Marathi have been used very sparsely, if at all.

  • Dhere, Ramchandra Chintaman. The Rise of a Folk God: Viṭṭhal of Pandharpur. Translated by Anne Feldhaus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199777594.001.0001

    Originally published in Marathi in 1984, this collection of essays by one of the foremost scholars of folk religion in Maharashtra is the first work to combine serious studies of the Sanskrit and Marathi māhātmyas with the literature of the Varkari tradition. As the title indicates, the essays in the book deal mostly with questions of origins and contain important contributions to questions regarding the origin of Vitthal and Puṇḍalīk.

  • Dingre, Gajanan Vitharao. “A Study of a Temple Town and Its Priesthood.” PhD diss., Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute, 1968.

    Unpublished thesis by a native of Pandharpur. Seemingly inspired by Milton Singer and L. P. Vidyarthi, in trying to deal with Pandharpur as “temple town” and “centre of communication.” Although not always elucidated clearly, the thesis is full of new information especially about the local priesthood, their administration of the Vitthal temple, and incessant legal battles and conflicts as well as the composition of the population of the town. Available online.

  • Government of Maharashtra. Maharashtra State Gazetteer. Rev. ed. Bombay: Gazetteers Department, 1977.

    See pp. 879–966. Revised and enlarged version of the chapter on Pandharpur in Vol. 20 of the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency (Sholapur District) from 1884. This old work is an authoritative introduction to Pandharpur, the Vitthal temple, the Vitthal image and its worship, and the most important subordinate temples and sacred places. It concludes with a chapter on the pilgrims, their rituals, and the fairs of Pandharpur.

  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman. “Pandharpur.” In History of Dharmaśāstra: Ancient and Mediaeval Religious and Civil Law. Vol. 4. 2d ed. By Pandurang Vaman Kane, 712–722. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1973.

    This article by a prominent scholar offers a brief survey of facts about Pandharpur and Vitthal, partly in the form of a summary of the Bombay Gazetteer, Vol. 20 (Sholapur District) (see Government of Maharashtra 1977), and partly in the form of brief discussions regarding the date and originality of the image and the names of Pandharpur and Vitthal.

  • Khare, Geṇeśa Harī. Śrīviṭhṭhala āṇi Paṃdharapūra. 3d ed. Puṇe, India: Geṇeśa Harī Khare, 1963.

    Originally published in 1938. Important compendium containing a survey of the Vitthal temple, its rituals, and the various subordinate temples and sacred places, followed by an exhaustive survey of various modern, medieval, and ancient sources and references relevant to Pandharpur, along with chapters dealing with the nature and faith of Vitthal and his image as well as of the names of Pandharpur.

  • Kulkarni, B. A. “Sholapur District: Pandharpur Fairs.” In Census of India, 1961. Vol. 10, Maharashtra. Part VII-B, “Fairs and Festivals in Maharashtra.” By B. A. Kulkarni, 153–160. Delhi: Manager of Publications, 1969.

    The brief article contains a general introduction to Pandharpur, the temples important for the Varkaris, and the Vitthal temple and its worship, followed by a description of, especially, the pilgrimages in the months of Ashadha and Kartika. The chapter ends with a retelling of the myth about Pundalika and the advent of Krishna in Pandharpur, under the name Vitthal as found in the (Marathi) Pāṇḍuraṅgamāhātmya of Śrīdhara.

  • Mañjul, V. L. Paṃḍharapūracyā Alakṣita Kathā. Puṇe, India: Utkarṣa Prakāśana, 2008.

    Study in Marathi by a long-time student and native of Pandharpur. Contains, among other things, interesting surveys of the rituals of the Vitthal temple, the seasonal festivals of Pandharpur, and the various subordinate temples and inscriptions in addition to some new references to Pandharpur, a list of not commonly known, and many unpublished, works of a māhātmya nature in Marathi and Telugu, and a chapter about foreign scholars of Pandharpur.

  • Mate, M. S. “Pandharpur.” In Temples and Legends of Maharashtra. 188–219. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1962.

    This brief introduction to Vitthal and Pandharpur mentions important inscriptions, gives an extensive summary of the founding legends of Pandharpur according to the Marathi version of the Pāṇḍuraṇgmāhātmya, followed by a description of the main sacred places and rituals. It ends with an overview of the Varkari tradition.

  • Vaudeville, Charlotte. “Paṇḍharpūr, the City of Saints.” In Structural Approaches to South India Studies. Edited by Harry M. Buck and Glenn E. Yocum, 137–161. Kingsport, TN: Wilson, 1974.

    An influential article by a leading scholar of Hindu tradition. It is one of the first to focus on Pandharpur as a sacred place (kṣetra). Apart from taking in the well-known epigraphical material, it also treats the mythology of the advent of Vitthal to Pandharpur and its connection with specific sacred places in the town and concludes that the history shows that Vitthal and Vaisnavism represent later layers superimposed on an original Śaiva cult.

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