I wonder about the concept of “faith” sometimes. Faith in a belief, faith in a religion, faith in people, faith in relationships, faith in God… Faith. An abstract, nebulous concept for some; yet, a strong, clear path for others.
My faith in the concept of faith was tested during my recent trip to Pune, when the annual Palkhi Festival of Sant Tukaram and Sant Dnyaneshwar passed through the city on 5-6 July 2010. The palkhi or palanquin of Sant Dnyaneshwar carries his footwear on a silver bullock cart; I am not sure what the palkhi of Sant Tukaram carries.
According to the Maharashtra Tourism website, the Palkhi Festival is a 1,000 year old tradition where devotees/pilgrims, known as varkaris accompany the palkhis on foot to Pandharpur over 22 days in June (the Hindu month of Jyeshta)–July (the Hindu month of Ashada). The Palkhi Festival ends on Ashada Ekadashi.
Thousands of devotees make this annual trip every year. This year, the ToI has estimated that 3 lakh varkaris joined the 2010 Palkhi Festival. On the day the palkhis pass through Pune, roads get blocked, traffic diverted, and schools and colleges declare a holiday.
Even though, I studied in Pune for 7 years, I had never seen a procession or dindi of varkaris, till this year. I was really lucky to see them before the roads got blocked and the traffic piled up.
After seeing hundreds of varkaris, singing or chanting or dancing or even resting, I had only one question to ask. Why?
I mean, why do the varkaris undertake this annual pilgrimage? Most of the varkaris—as you can see in the photographs—look poor and are probably poorer. Many of them would be daily wage labourers or vegetable or fruit sellers, whose daily income is absolutely essential for themselves and their families. Why would they want to lose 22 days wages or income to walk to Pandharpur in the rain or heat? The number of varkaris who can afford to take 22 days off from work are a miniscule minority.
I kept mulling over this question throughout that day in Pune, through my return trip to Mumbai, through the days after my return, till yesterday. The answer was right there in front of me. It had always been there, and it was an easy answer. Faith, and not economics.
Yes, faith. It is faith in the centuries-old tradition of the Palkhi Festival, faith in Lord Vithoba (the resident deity of the Vitthal Temple in Pandharpur and a manifestation of Lord Krishna). Faith that the Lord will take care of them, sustain them, nurture them. Faith in an annual pilgrimage that their ancestors had probably undertaken. Faith that the pilgrimage would provide them hope for yet another year to come—a kind of spiritual solace.
Faith. Such a small word but it packs in a punch, doesn’t it? I wonder why many of us go hunting for complex answers by analysing questions to death, when the answer is right there staring at you.
Perhaps, it is to make people like me less “I” centric, and more humble and accepting.