This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Varun Maturkar. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Rising Above Caste, Patriarchy And Religion: Maharashtra’s 800-Year-Old Pandharpur Wari

More from Varun Maturkar

On July 23, the eleventh day of the waxing moon period in the month of Ashadh, the spiritual procession of Varkari commences in the holy village of Pandharpur on the bank of river Chandrabhaga. In this devotional Pandharpur Wari, more than half a million devotees follow the cradle holding paduka (footwear) of Sant Tukaram and Sant Dhyaneshwar from Dehu and Alandi respectively to Pandharpur for 21 days. The devotees come from about all parts of Maharashtra and Northern Karnataka thus bringing together the essence of Marathi culture to the holy site of Pandharpur, the refuge of Lord Vitthal. A noted Marathi litterateur Durga Bhagwat said in one of her books, “Somewhere there exists some inner link between Pandhari and every Maharashtrian… The kind of inner attachment one has for one’s family and ancestors one feels also for Pandharpur.”

However, for me, the Pandharpur Wari is something beyond regular ritual code. This Varkari culture is very different from many patriarchal, casteist, hierarchical and aristocratic religious sects in India. Although the procession is organised by the government, there involves no official registration of devotees either by the government or by temple authorities. The tradition remains untouched for nearly eight centuries.

Devotees participate in the procession during Girgaon Varkari Sampraday Dindi Palkhi Sohla. The Varkaris believe that Lord Vitthal awaits them at the end of this walk, and see the journey itself as the reward. (Photo by Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

There are three peculiar things about this culture that I want to share. The first thing I appreciate is the absence of the caste system. Everyone is the same in the eyes of Lord Vitthal. In fact, the cult of Varkaris was evolved by saints from varied caste backgrounds. The spiritual guru of Varkaris Sant Dhyaneshwar was a Brahmin who didn’t patronise his caste. Other saints include Sant Tukaram – a farmer, Sant Namdev – a tailor, Sant Narhari Sonar – a goldsmith, Savtoba – a gardener, Sant Gora – a potter, Sant Chokhamela  – a Dalit man, and many more. The Varkaris are also religion tolerant as they include the teachings of Sant Kabir and Sikh Gurus in their philosophy. This system is not hierarchical – unless and until one doesn’t follow their rules and regulations, they won’t be identified as Varkari even if their parents are senior Varkari devotees. This feature draws a line between Varkaris and many other castes and hierarchy-based religious institutions in India.

The second feature is the involvement of women in the evolution of Varkari culture, unlike others where women are forbidden to even enter the temple’s sanctum. Although in Hindu culture there is almost an equal number of Gods and Goddesses, women are absent in various sectarian histories. Poet saints like Muktabai, Janabai and Bahinabai make this religious movement an example of inclusiveness amongst various patriarchal sects. Even Lord Vitthal is called as ‘Vithu Mauli’ and Sant Dhyaneshwar is called ‘Dhyaneshwar Mauli’ where mauli means mother. This comparison of Lord Vitthal and Dhyaneshwar with a mother instead of a father indicates that Varkari respect a woman’s role and position and thereby directly compare God with her.

Thirdly, the origin and evolution of the Varkari tradition doesn’t involve any royal families as it was entirely started by saints and practised by the entire society, predominantly farmers. Even in current times, Varkari doesn’t form any political pressure group. Many kings, noble families, political leaders have instituted various ritual codes. The Maratha Sardars are said to have introduced the Kumbh Mela in Nashik. The other Kumbh Melas in Allahabad, Haridwar, and Ujjain are also said to have a princely origin. In order to show united Hindu strength, Lokmanya Tilak started Ganesh Jayanti festival in Pune. However, the Pandharpur Wari was started by saints without any influence from noble families.

Among few bhakti traditions, the Varkari clan has developed entirely by the aegis of people. It is generally observed that local politician-run mandals manage the festivals of Ganesh Jayanti and Janmashtami with a motive of competing with other rival mandals. The Varkari tradition is free from petty politics, thus making it a tradition by the people, of the people and for the people.

While I am not even a manikin Varkari devotee, I have developed a huge admiration for this culture in recent years. Our incumbent Prime Minister should take a clue from the Varkari tradition followed during Shivaji Maharaj’s reign. He used to take spiritual advice from Sant Tukaram and non-Varkari gurus like Ramdas Swami. However, neither Tukaram nor Ramdas lobbied with Shivaji Maharaj to imbibe their ideology in society with the help of administration. The Varkari culture was at its zenith under the leadership of Sant Tukaram but he never asked Shivaji Maharaj to homogenise the society with his teachings. The incumbent government entertains and worship those who want to homogenise the Hindu society with their principles. The Varkari culture and ruling behaviour of Shivaji in the medieval age encourage separation of faith and politics. Shouldn’t the ruling party learn from them?

You must be to comment.

More from Varun Maturkar

Similar Posts

By Mallika Khosla

By Prabhanu Kumar Das

By Mallika Khosla

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below