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Every year during the holy Hindu month of Kartik, a big mass of people take up a pilgrimage on from their villages scattered across Maharashtra and converge at Alandi on Ekdashi. This pilgrimage on foot is the Alandi Jatra (yatra to some of us), and is almost as important as the celebrations at Alandi on the final day. The people who take up this pilgrimage are called varkaris.
I came across a group of pilgrims as I was on my way to Manchar from Pune for work, and couldn't resist the temptation to stop the car and interact a bit with them. It was really amazing to be a part of this group where everyone was singing Bhakti songs and actually were walking at a brisk pace to make sure they reach on time to their destination, a good two days away still on foot.
To understand this better we need to understand the local customs and Gods a little bit better. Let me give a highly simplified version of it for easy understanding. There is a group of people called xyz, and they have three key Gods that they worship. Now these gods are not mythological, but lived among us only a few centuries ago - Sant Dnyaneshwar, Sant Tukaram and Vitthal & Rukmani. Each of them also have a special town which is dedicated to them - Alandi, Deodaon and Pandharpur, in that order.
Now each year has two holy months when special processions take place, and these are Ashaad maas and Kartik maas (month). In the Ashaad maas, the biggest such Jatra takes place and its called Pandharpur Wari wherein pilgrims from Alandi as well as Deogaon converge at Pandharpur after weeks, and often months of walking. For both Sant Dnyaneshwar as well as Sant Tukaram, Vitthoba (as Vitthal & Rukmani are fondly called by their followers) were their main Gods, so all their followers take up this pilgrimage to Pandharpur.
In the second holy month of Karthik, Alandi Yatra takes place where everyone converges to Alandi, which is where the samadhi of Sant Dnyaneshwar is located. There is a huge festival at Alandi and that's the culmination of this walk. Thousands of people converge together for the celebrations and it's an event to be seen!
You may also ask, but why walk so much? Well, walking has an important religious significance as it shows your dedication as well as love for your God, plus this is how it was done centuries ago and walking is also a cultural bond to the past.
It's also interesting how these Yatras are organised. Often people from one village, or a few neighbouring villages, walking together as one group. Each group can be 20-30 members or a few hundred also. The group has an organiser from their village itself who plans the yatra for them, whcih includes food on the way as well as places to stay.
The varkaris do not carry food with them, and are hosted everyday by someone on the way. It's considered a good deed to feed the pilgrims as they walk up to their destination that many are willing to take it up. Of course this needs to be organised in advance. There are also at least two guards - one in the front and one at the end who are meant to protect the group. The guards are the most traditionally dressed, in the same style as they were when the region was ruled by the Peshwas before the British overthrew them.
There are multiple other tasks which are given to specific members. You might also notice that women carry a plant on their heads - it's the Tulsi plant which is very sacred in Hindu households. Each day these are also worshipped.
This year the Ekdashi is on 25th November, and is you are in and around Pune, it's a fantastic time to visit Alandi and join in on the festivities :)