The Wari, Maharashtra’s most important pilgrimage, walked by lakhs every year will culminate at Pandharpur on July 9. The writer recounts walking the road.

In 2013, the DRDO designed and manufactured what must be the most sophisticated bullock cart ever made — a chariot built of carbon composite covered with embossed silver, equipped with sensors that ensure that a battery-powered motor kicks in if the bullocks are straining. This chariot would hold a palkhi or palanquin, which in turn would contain a diminutive pair of 700-year-old silver-sheathed wooden sandals.

The sandals belonged to Sant Dnyaneshwar, the first in a long line of poet-saints of the Warkari tradition in Maharashtra. His followers probably carried his sandals round their necks and walked in a small group from his samadhi at Alandi, near Pune, to the Vitthala temple in Pandharpur. Over the centuries, this walk has grown into a massive march in which followers of various saints in the tradition — significantly Tukaram, but also many others — walk there from different places with their guru’s sandals enshrined in palanquins and push-carts. The various processions unite as they near Pandharpur and then inundate the temple on the ekadashi of the Hindu calendar’s Aashaadha month. The temple is merely the culmination; walking there is the pilgrimage.

The year, 2012, I walked with the Dnyaneshwar palkhi, there were eight lakh people registered to walk in the main procession. Many others walked unofficially. As the palkhi entered Pune, one of the bullocks pulling the three-ton chariot (with at least 10 functionaries in it) collapsed and died. “Oh, it has attained moksha,” people said. But then they made a chariot in 2013 that would ease the bullocks’ work. This co-existence of an abiding faith with the modern and pragmatic is characteristic of the Wari. The pilgrimage seems to simultaneously occupy a span of hundreds of years, just as the carrying of sandals of long-gone gurus renders them here and present, walking with those still corporeally living.

The Wari’s unit of organisation is the dindi — a group of anywhere from a few dozen to a thousand men and women, often from the same village or community. These days, each dindi has a truck (or several) with luggage and supplies, and staff who move ahead in the small hours of the morning to set up camp and cook at pre-appointed rest stops while the pilgrims walk in the day.

In its present form, the Dnyaneshwar palkhi procession includes a pilot bullock-cart followed by two ceremonial horses, 27 dindis, the chariot, and a couple of hundred more dindis. Each dindi marches four or five abreast, the men dressed in white with a Gandhi cap, the women bringing up the rear, carrying pots of water and tulsi plants on their heads. Several of the men carry three-quarter-kg cymbals; a few carry a pakhawaj; at least one carries a been — a tanpura-like instrument symbolising the poet-saints of the tradition, whose compositions called abhang are sung while walking. The three-week march is punctuated at different places by rituals and events for entertainment, all keeping to a tight schedule. If it all feels a little like a marching army, it’s probably because the plan was drawn up by a early 19 century devotee called Haibat Baba who was also a chieftain accustomed to mobilising troops.

The Wari is an impactful event in Maharashtra, so exalted that people fall at the feet of those who are doing the pilgrimage (something I found very awkward to be at the receiving end of). Political parties, other organisations and individuals stand by the road to hand out water and food to the pilgrims. It is possible to simply set out without money or supplies and be taken care of for the three weeks of the pilgrimage.

Poet-saints associated with the tradition — Dnyaneshwar, Tukaram, Eknath, Namdev, and others — are towering and almost iconoclastic figures in Marathi culture. The Wari is imbued with a caste-busting halo: Dnyaneshwar wrote a Marathi commentary on the Gita, a move generally credited with demystifying the text and liberating it from orthodoxy. Dalits were restricted entry to the shrine at Pandharpur, until a protest by activist Sane Gurji in 1947 which ensured access for all. Most recently, the temple has been in the news for inviting applications from women for the position of priest.

The Wari passing through is the signal annual event for many villages and towns along the way. The pilgrims camp in tents, or in godowns or people’s yards. Sellers of food and trinkets at those stops do dramatic business. But the Wari can also leave places ravaged with a trail of plastic plates and bottles, and with the surroundings having turned into a giant open toilet.

For the first few days of the Wari, I thought the food-stalls and the pushcarts of tea along the road were being set up by people from nearby villages. But when faces and names began to reappear, I realised that they were actually travelling with the Wari. They’d move ahead in the night and ply their trade in the day. The concentration of people was a huge economic opportunity. Accompanying the Wari were cobblers — what better place for one than amid lakhs of walkers — and barbers, and sellers of pain balms, and people who’d charge your phone in the middle of nowhere from a car battery. This last service was particularly important in 2012 to check whether it had rained back home: most of the walkers are farmers who set out every year having finished sowing after the first rains, and that year the monsoon had failed.

But the cares of life are temporarily suspended on the road. The deity at Pandharpur is referred to as mauli (meaning, roughly, mother-sir). Dnyaneshwar is referred to as mauli. And since his spirit can descend on anyone walking, everyone is called mauli. So, in the jostle, people pray, praise or abuse a mauli, and there’s no telling who it might be. With everyone dressed identically, singing and walking towards Pandharpur, there’s a dissolution of personal identity. Stepping outside oneself, walking many miles in one’s dissociated shoes, there is only the road to Pandharpur.

Srinath Perur is the author of If It’s Monday It Must Be Madurai, a book about travelling with groups.