Amid strong discontentment shown by ‘warkari’ outfits and devotees over COVID-19 restrictions for the second consecutive year, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, along with his family, performed the annual ‘mahapuja’ (worship) at the Vitthal-Rukmini temple in Pandharpur in Solapur district on the auspicious occasion of ‘Ashadhi Ekadashi’ early on Tuesday.
He prayed for an end to the pandemic and for the good health of all the people of Maharashtra on the occasion.
On Monday afternoon, Mr. Thackeray, along with wife Rashmi and son, Shiv Sena MLA and State Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray, drove down from rain-hit Mumbai and reached the temple town of Pandharpur with a select retinue.
As per custom, the Thackeray family performed the ‘Mahapuja’ at 2.15 a.m. on Tuesday, said officials. In keeping with a time-honoured tradition, a ‘warkari’ couple — Keshav and Indumati Kolte, residents of Wardha — were given the opportunity to participate in the official worship alongside the Chief Minister.
Expressing regret that the pandemic had compelled the administration to disallow devotees at the Vitthal-Rukmini temple, Mr. Thackeray said: “Let the social estrangement brought about by the pandemic be bridged… ‘Warkaris ’ are thirsting for a sight of Pandharpur again. I pray to Lord Vitthal that the temple town resounds once more with an ocean of devotees, carrying saffron flags, full of joy…I hope they can perform the ‘wari’ on foot again.”
Each year, lakhs of ‘warkaris’ (devotees) converge from various parts of the State on foot at the Vitthal-Rukmini temple in Pandharpur carrying ‘palkhis’ (palanquins) bearing the ‘padukas’ or footprints of saints Dnyaneshwar and Tukaram.
Thousands set off from the religious spots of Alandi and Dehu outside Pune city with the Ashadhi Ekadashi — one of the most important and auspicious festivals of Maharashtra — marking the culmination of the ‘wari’ at Pandharpur.
However, with the State government forced to keep restrictions in place following the lethal second wave of COVID-19 (and in order to prevent the onset of a third), the ban on the pilgrimage on foot has sparked intense disgruntlement among heads of ‘warkari’ outfits as well as ordinary devotees.
They have questioned the logic behind the government’s prohibition of the annual pilgrimage on foot, observing that similar restrictions seldom neither applied to political gatherings nor liquor shops, which continue to see the most disorderly public congregations.
Last year, Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar had announced that the ‘padukas’ of the legendary saints would be carried by road or air to Pandharpur on June 30. This year, in wake of the lethal second wave, Mr. Pawar ruled out any procession by foot, while permitting only 50 devotees to convey the ‘padukas’ by bus.
Mr. Pawar had earlier remarked that the State government had no intention of transforming the ‘palkhi’ event into another Kumbh Mela.