One of the most revered pilgrimage sites in Maharashtra is the holy land of Pandharpur, which is 65km from Sholapur on the banks of the River Bhimarathi (also known as Chandrabhaga). The main centre of worship for the Hindu deity Vithoba, who is believed to be a local form of Lord Krishna or Vishnu and his consort Rakhumai is the Vithoba temple at Pandharpur. Vishnu devotees consider Vithoba to be a manifestation of Lord Vishnu, devotees who worship the sun consider him to be a manifestation of Lord Surya, Buddhists consider him a manifestation of Avalokiteshwara, and the Jains consider him, a manifestation of Neminath. The Supreme Lord is worshipped in many forms in India, in Andhra Pradesh as Balaji, in Kerala as Guruvayurappa, in Karnataka as Udupi Krishna, in Gujarat as Dwarkadish and Ranchhod Raya and in Maharashtra as Lord Vithoba.
History of Pandharpur
There are several theories regarding the stages when Lord Panduranga was regarded as a distinct deity. The hymn attributed to Adi Shankara in the 8th century “Pandurangashtaka Stotra’ indicated that the worship of Vithoba might have already existed from early times. According to the Western scholar and historian, Richard Maxwell Eaton of the Arizona University, who authored ‘A Social History of the Deccan’, Lord Vithoba has been worshipped as a folk God in the 6th century with the iconography of the position of his arms similar to the cattle God of a tribe of Bihar. Since the temple of Pandharpur is surrounded by Shiva temples, Lord Vithoba was probably identified with Lord Shiva and assimilated into the Shiva pantheon in ancient times. Other historians state that Vithoba worship dates back to the pre-Vedic or Vedic times even before the worship of Krishna, and was first worshipped by the cattle owning castes of Maharashtra, who often praise Vithoba as the protector of the needy and poor.
The name ‘Vittala’ is said to be derived from ‘Vishnu’ in Kannada. The idol is lovingly called names like Panduranga, Pandarinatha, Vithuraya, Vithumauli, Pandariraya and other such names by his devotees. Panduranga is said to be the Sanskritised form of Pandarga, the old name of Pandharpur. The word ‘Vi’ in Lord Vithoba’s name denotes knowledge while ‘Thoba’ denotes shape implying that He is the shape (idol) of knowledge. Another interpretation is that ‘Vithoba’ is derived from the Marathi word ‘Vit’ meaning brick and ‘Ba’ denoting father in Marathi. The poet -saint Sant Tukaram, stated that Vitthala is composed of the words ‘Vittha’ meaning ignorance and ‘la’ meaning one who accepts innocent people who are devoid of knowledge.
Historical records show that the temple at Pandharpur had been renovated a number of times. According to records, the earliest renovations were carried out by the Shalivahana rulers in 83 AD. The name Panduranga was found dated 516 on a Rashtrakuta copper plate inscription implying that Vithoba’s worship was carried out as early as the 6th century. The chief temple at Pandharpur is believed to be the earliest Vithoba temple dating back to the 13th century Yadava period, with some records stating the worship predates 1189. A stone inscription dated 1237, mentions that a village was donated by the Hoysala King for the expense of ‘Bhog’ (Prasad) for Lord Vittal. Another inscription on a copper plate dated 1249, records the granting of the village Paundarikshetra to one of the generals by Krishna, the Yadava King. A stone inscription mentions dates from 1272-1277, when gifts were donated to the temples by various donors.
Reference in scriptures
The Padma Purana and the Skanda Purana contain references to Panduranga Kshetra and Paundarikakshetra. There are stories related to various places in Pandharpur. Some archaeological excavations show similarities between Shri Venkatesha and Shri Vithoba. Both the icons have their hands on their waist (Katinyasta Kara)
Pundalik is credited with the bringing of Lord Vithoba to Pandharpur. He is also said to be the founder of the Varkari sect which propagates the worship and devotion of Lord Vithoba. The legends are classified into three traditions, namely the Varkari tradition, the Brahmin tradition and the third which is an amalgamation of both traditions. The Varkari texts are Bhaktalilamrita, Bhaktavijaya, Pundalika Mahatmya and Namdev abhanga written in Marathi, the Brahmin texts are Panduranga Mahatmya from the Skanda Purana, another Panduranga Mahatmya and Bhima Mahatmya from the Padma Purana and another Panduranga Mahatmya from Vishnu Purana in Sanskrit and the third tradition are written by Brahmins Sridhara and Prahlad Maharaj but in Marathi.
Legend of Pundalik
There are three versions of the legend of Pundalik with two of them mentioned in the Skanda Purana.
The first version states that ascetic Pundarika (Pundalik) was a great devotee of Lord Vishnu and a dutiful son who served his aged parents well. Lord Krishna came as a cowherd to meet Pundarika and enraptured with his divine form Pundarika asked him to sanctify the place and make it a holy Thirtha Kshetra, or pilgrimage site by remaining there in the same beautiful form, on the banks of the river Bhima. This image is said to be the present day image of Lord Vithoba and the holy place is identified as the modern day Pandharpur.
The second version of this legend states that Lord Vithoba appeared before Pundalik in the form of infant Krishna (Bala Krishna) which is found in some of the manuscripts of the Puranas.
The third version is the most popular legend which stated that Pundalik was the son of Janudev and Satyavati. They lived in a forest called Dandirvan and he looked after them well. However, after his marriage, he spent all his time with his wife and began neglecting his aged parents. His parents decided to leave for Kashi in order to attain salvation as was believed by many devout Hindus. Pundalik and his wife too decided to accompany them. They made their journey comfortable by riding horses, but his parents were made to walk and perform all the chores during the journey. On the way they reached the ashram of a revered sage named Kukkuta, who hospitably gave them shelter. That night when they were all asleep, Pundalik had a remarkable vision. He saw a group of beautiful women in soiled clothes entering the ashram and after performing chores for the sage like cleaning the ashram, washing his clothes and fetching water they entered the prayer room and after prayer they emerged with clean clothes and disappeared. Pundalik remained as if in a trance with a great sense of calm and decided to witness it the next night too. He approached the women and asked them who they were and the significance behind their actions. They informed him that they were the holy rivers of India, who were defiled when people took a holy dip in their waters to wash away their sins. They then stated that he was the greatest sinner due to his ill treatment of his parents. Pundalik was shocked and suddenly there was an inner transformation in him. He then began to serve his parents dutifully and lovingly. Impressed with him, Lord Vishnu decided to test him and approached him, but Pundalik wished to complete his duties first and throwing a brick he requested Lord Vishnu to stand on it and wait for him until he finished his service. Some legends state that Rukmini was displeased with Krishna and left him, so Lord Krishna had come searching for her. After he had found her, they reached Pundalik’s house, where he asked them to wait while he served his parents. He then rushed to the Lord, thinking that the Lord would be angry at the tardy reception but the Lord impressed with his unflinching attitude of service and devotion to his parents granted him a boon. Pundalik requested him to stay back on earth and bless all his devotees. The Lord agreed and the temple of Lord Vithoba came up there along with his consort Goddess Rakhumai.
Past life of Pundalik – Story of Muchukunda
In the Ikshvaku (Suryavamsha) dynasty, there lived a King named Mandhata, who had a son named Muchukunda, whom he later crowned King. Once, in a battle between the Gods and the demons, the Gods were defeated. They rushed to King Muchukunda and asked for his help. He assumed the role of an able commander and protected the Gods until Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva, could assume the mantle. Lord Indra and the other Gods then thanked King Muchkunda, who had spent time in heaven, where one year equalled three hundred and sixty years of earth. In the meantime, his kingdom and family had all gone due to the passage of time. Indra, then pleased with him, granted him to select any boon (except liberation). Muchukunda was very tired as he had been on guard all the time and unable to get any sleep so he requested the boon for unlimited sleep with the clause that if disturbed, the person who disturbed him would be burnt to ashes. Indra granted him his boon and Muchukunda descended to earth and selected a cave where he could sleep without disturbance. Meanwhile, there was a great Yavana warrior King named Kalayavan, who became vain and cruel as he was unmatched in battle. He learnt that Lord Krishna was the only person who could defeat him in battle and hence challenged him to war. When they faced each other in battle, Krishna dismounted from his chariot and proceeded to the cave where Muchukunda was sleeping. Kalayavan was surprised and began to follow him. Entering the dark cave, he mistook Muchukunda for Krishna in the darkness and attacked him. Muchukunda was rudely disturbed, and his gaze fell on Kalayavan, who was immediately burnt to ashes. He then saw Lord Krishna, and was thrilled by this sight. Krishna blessed him and advised him to observe penances to cleanse himself of all sins, and promised him that his next birth would be his last one after which he would get liberation (Moksha). Muchukunda was reborn as Pundalik which was his last birth, after which he achieved Moksha at the feet of Lord Vithoba of Pandharpur.
Temple Architecture and Layout
The temple at Pandharpur is located on a small hill and enclosed by high stone walls. It comprises of high pinnacles and low domes. It has eight gates, three on the Eastern side with the main door called Mahadwara or Namdev Darwaja (Namdev’s door). There are three doors to the North, one to the South and one to the Western side. The front portion of the Vithoba temple is called ‘Gad’ or fortress. Near the Mahadwara, one has to climb twelve steps to reach the Samadhi of Saint Chokhoba. The first step is Namdevchi Payari or Namdev’s step. There is a mandap or porch at the beginning of the temple that serves as the drum room or Nagar Khana for the instruments of the temple band. The wooden mandap has a small shrine each of Hanuman and Garuda, with the Hanuman image being installed by Samarth Ramdas.
Next, is the temple courtyard or the Chowk, which has many rooms or Owaris framed in wood, to provide accommodation for resident devotees and visiting pilgrims. On the Western side of the mandap, there are two stone pillars where lamps or Dipamalas are lit on festive occasions. Next, are the images of the deities who protect the temple Jaya and Vijaya, and from here one enters the Solakhambi Mandap (sixteen pillared hall). The pillars have carvings of scenes from Krishna Leela, decorative floral designs and images of the various Avatars of Lord Vishnu. This mandap was said to have been constructed in the Muslim era. The most important pillar here is the Garuda Khamb which is covered with silver and gold plates. Garuda was the vehicle of Lord Vishnu besides being a very great devotee of his, and pilgrims embrace this pillar lovingly and proceed for the darshan of Lord Vithala.
To the west, is the entrance to the shrine through the Rupyacha Darwaja or Silver door. The Chowkhambi Mandap or four pillared porch can be reached on crossing this door. To the south is the Hathi Darwaja or elephant door with carved elephants on both sides. If one enters the temple from the Southern door, an image of the woman saint Kanhopatra can be seen in a niche on the wall. To the North West behind the Vithoba shrine is the shrine of Rukmini, the Consort of Vithoba, referred to as Rakhumai with shrines of Rahi (Radha) and Satyabhama close by. One of the unique features of the temple is that the shrines of Lord Vithoba and Rakhumai are separate. There are images of other deities like Rama, Vishwanatha, Kalabhairav, Shiva, Narsoba and Dattatreya in six different rooms. Between the rooms and the Solakhambi Mandap, there is a narrow walk which has at its Eastern end a piece of inscription known as Chauryanshicha Shilalekh (eighty-four).
The Image of Lord Vithoba
The image of Lord Vithoba is slightly smiling, black complexioned and three and a half feet tall with the Kaustubh Mani around his neck and the footmark of his devotee (Bhrigu) on his chest known as Vatsalanchhana. The image bears a Shivalinga on the head and a decorative silver plate or Prabhaval forms the backdrop of the image. The image is generally dressed in yellow coloured clothes, with a Vaijayanti or tulsi mala around his neck. He holds a lotus flower in his right hand and a conch shell in his left. His ears have shark shaped earrings and his forehead sports a big Tilak mark.
Legend behind separate shrines
The Dhangar community comprising herdsmen, shepherds and wool weavers relate the interesting story of their permanent parting. Vithoba’s wife whose real name was Padmavati was fondly called Padubai. She was very busy with her household chores. One day Maliraya, a guest of Vithoba arrived and being extremely tired, she refused to serve him. This made Vithoba angry and he cursed her saying that she would be separated from him and go mad. His curse came true and Padubai went away to the forest and subsequently died. When her parents Kamalaja and Janakoji shocked at the turn of events ran to see her, Vithoba blocked their way by assuming the form of a snake. Vultures and kites began eating up her corpse, but he refused to allow anyone to go near it. He then made showers fall from the sky which washed away Padubai’s bones to the sea. Meanwhile, Vithoba’s friend Maliraya felt that he was the cause of the entire tragedy and upset and sad he undertook penance by the seashore for twelve years. Pleased with his penance, the sea agreed to return Padubai’s bones as per Maliraya’s request. With great reverence, Maliraya then immersed the bones in the Padmatirtha lake by the Chandrabhaga River, and a beautiful lotus emerged from the waters. Meanwhile, Vithoba was wandering restlessly, tormented by the pangs of separation from Padubai, when he spotted the lotus in the Padmatirtha lake. He plucked it and Padubai appeared before him in the form of Rakhumai. But Vithoba’s words were final and irrevocable and they decided to meet and communicate every day but not under the same roof and instead devote themselves to spending their lives in the welfare of their devotees.
Lord Vithoba symbolises non- attachment and the conqueror of desire and wealth. Vithoba and Rakhumai represent humans with divine qualities, who lead a life of duty, forgiveness and devotion and live only for the upliftment of their devotees.
Other temples at Pandharpur
Around the river bank are fourteen ghats or bathing places. The other temples are dedicated to Pundalika, Takpitya Vithoba, Vishnupada, Muralidhara, Gopalakrishna, Rama, Mallikarjuna, Tryambakeshwara, Ganesha, Chandrabhaga, Shakhambari, Maruti, Ambabai and many others. There are also Samadhis of many holy saints.
The temple’s first step is called ‘Namdevchi Payari’ (step of Namdev). Namdev was a great poet saint of Maharashtra. He was born in the 12th century to a family of tailors and they were great devotees of Lord Vithoba of Pandharpur. One day, as a child, Namdev was asked by his mother to complete the ritual of naivedya or holy offering of food to the Lord. Namdev took the plate of offerings and with prayers and rituals placed it before the Lord. However, he was disheartened to see that the Lord did not appear to accept the offerings in spite of his prayers and entreaties. Finally, he started banging his head at the feet of the Lord. Seeing the love and innocence of the child, the Lord’s heart melted and he appeared before Namdev in person and ate the offerings. He then blessed Namdev to ask for a boon. Namdev requested that he(Namdev) should be present in the first step of the temple so that all devotees would step on him before the darshan of the Lord and thus liberate him. A brass image of the saint is installed in this step which has been named Namdevchi Payari.
Varkari or pilgrims of the Vaishnava Sampradaya include the worship of Krishna, in the form of Vithoba and the tradition was formed during the Bhakti movement, when love for God was the Ultimate Truth. It was propagated by the Marathi saints, who emphasised on God realisation through devotion and virtuous conduct to mould the attitude of the common people, including lower castes while sharing a common belief and practice. Varkari is derived from ‘Vari’ meaning moving or going on pilgrimage and ‘Kari’ meaning one who undertakes it.
The Varkaris or pilgrims undertake an annual pilgrimage (vari) on the 11th Ekadashi day of the holy month of Ashadha (June – July) during which the pilgrims carry the palanquins or Palkhis of the saints from their places of Samadhi to Pandharpur walking hundreds of miles and singing abhangas or devotional songs composed by the saints. Legends state that it was started by the son of Tukaram in the 16th century. The Varkaris wear tulsi malas or rosary beads, tulsi being dear to Lord Krishna, observe ekadashi fasts, prayers, worship, read holy texts, adhere to truth, practise detachment and consume only Sathvic food and refrain from non vegetarian diet and alcohol.
Daily Worship at the temple
The Vithoba temple includes two distinct traditions of worship, the daily ritual worship by the Brahmin priests of the Badve family and the Varkari way of spiritual worship. The daily worship includes five rites namely Kakad Arati at 3 am to awaken the Lord followed by Panchamrita puja or bath with five substances after which the image is dressed before morning darshan. The second rite is another puja with redressing the image and lunch known as Madhyanapuja. This is followed by afternoon darshan known as Aparahnapuja and the fourth rite at sunset for dinner referred to as Dhoop Arati. The last rite is the Shejarati or arati for putting the Lord to sleep.
The most important festivals celebrated are Ashadi Ekadashi (June-July) and Kartik Ekadashi (November). Pilgrims travel from far and near, barefoot, fasting, chanting and singing the holy name of Lord Vithoba culminating in the darshan of the Lord. Holi, Navratri and Diwali are also celebrated with great pomp and splendour.
The temple is maintained by the Shri Vittal Rukmini Mandir Samithi elected by the High Court on the advice of the Maharashtra Government. The Samithi owns a forty acre agricultural land in Pandharpur where, wheat and vegetables are grown and utilised to prepare Mahaprasad for the devotees. Cows are kept in the Goshala and the milk procured is used for temple purposes. All ornaments, lamps and various articles used for the temple and its images are carefully recorded, stored and used.
How to reach
The nearest airport is the Lohegaon airport at Pune which is at a distance of 204 km.
Solapur station is the closest at a distance of 132 km. Pandharpur station is on the Kurduwadi – Miraj – Latur line and is at a distance of 330 km from the temple.
The distance by bus from Pune to Pandharpur is 207 km and Mumbai to Pandharpur is 359 km. Solapur is the closest at 73 km. State transport bus services are available from Pune and Solapur. Taxis are also available from Solapur.
MTDC lodgings are available and Maths or dharamshalas are also available or pilgrims can stay in comfortable lodgings in Pune and hire taxis or cars to visit the temple.
The Pandharpur temple and the idol of Lord Vithoba and Rakhumai have ruled the minds and hearts of devotees particularly the Marathi people for hundreds of years. It is known as the Kuldaivat of Maharashtra and the Southern Kashi of India. Poet saints of Maharashtra like Tukaram, Namdev, Jnaneshwar, Eknath and many others idolised and worshipped Lord Vithoba in Pandharpur and portrayed the characteristic medieval Vaishnava Bhakti. The soulful ‘abhangas’ composed by them constitute the real ’scriptures’ and they are worshipped and idolised as proponents on the road to salvation and as embodiments of the Lord’s grace.