Sri Vittala Rukmini Temple, Pandharpur, Maharashtra

The Vithoba temple, officially known as Vitthala Rukmini Mandir is a Hindu temple located in the holy town of Pandharpur in the Bharatiya state of Maharashtra. It is one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in Maharashtra and attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. The number of pilgrims increases to a million during the main festivals of Aashadi Ekadashi and Prabodhini Ekadashi.

The presiding deity is 3 ft 9 inches black basalt murti of Sri Panduranga or Vithoba,standing on a brick with his arms akimbo, holding the Chakra and Shankha with Maa Rakhumai or Rukmini by his side as a devoted queen and wife.

Itihasa

Pundalik is one of the central figures from the Varkari denomination who is credited with bringing Vithoba to Pandharpur. He was known to be a devoted son to his parents. But after he was married, he started ill treating his parents, making them do all the chores even when they were old. Tired of his attitude and behaviour, they decided to go to Kashi, the ageless city on a pilgrimage.

However, Pundalik and his wife followed them too and the misery continued. On the way to Kashi, the group reached the ashram (hermitage) of a pious and venerable sage, Kukkutswami. Exhausted, the family decides to spend a few days there. That night, when all were asleep, Pundalik by chance is awake and sees a remarkable vision.

Just before dawn, a group of beautiful young women, dressed in soiled clothes, enter the ashram; they clean the floor, fetch water and wash the venerable sage’s clothes. After finishing their chores, they go to the prayer-room. When they reappear after prayer, their clothes are spotlessly clean. Then, they vanish as inexplicably as they had appeared.

Pundalik was not moved to raise an alarm, but felt a deep sense of peace witnessing the scene. It remained on his mind the whole day and he resolved to remain awake the next night, and confirm it was not merely a dream. This time, however, Pundalik was very curious. He approached the beautiful women and asked their details. They replied, they were the Ganga, Yamuna and other holy rivers of Bharat—revered for their holiness. Pilgrims wish to take a dip in their holy waters to wash away their sins, which in fact are soiling their clothes. Then, the women said: ‘But O Pundalik, you, with your ill-treatment of your parents, are the greatest sinner of them all!’

Pundalik was utterly shocked and his consciousness transformed. He realized his misdeeds, became entirely devoted to his parents and ensured their comfort, even risking his own.

Devotion in any form reaches God swiftly. Impressed by Pundalik’s devotion to his parents, Krishna planned to bless Pundalik immediately. So, he left his abode for Pundalik’s ashram. Krishna knocked at Pundalik’s door, when he was busy serving his parents food.

Pundalik realized that Bhagwan is at his door. But such was his devotion to his parents, he wanted to complete his duties and only then to the visitor. Then, Pundalik did something strange but out of real devotion. He threw a brick outside for Bhagavan to stand on and wait for him until he finishes attending to his parents. It was the first day of monsoon so it was wet and muddy outside. If Krishna stood upon a brick, his feet would remain clean and dry.

Seeing this act, Krishna was extremely impressed and the ever-loving God waited for his devotee. When Pundalik came out, he begged for pardon but far from being displeased, Krishna was taken over by Pundalik’s love for his parents and granted a boon. Pundalik requested Krishna to stay back on Earth and bless all his true devotees. He agreed to take the form of Vithoba, or God who stood upon a brick, and a temple came up there. Along with Vithoba, Rukmayi (Rukmini, the consort of Krishna) is also worshipped here.

Architecture and Festivals

The main entrance of Bhagwan Vittala’s Temple is facing towards the Chandrabhaga or Bhima river. Samadhi of Namdev and Chokhamela is at the entrance. Pilgrims first pray to these Devotees and then enter the temple. A small Ganesha Shrine is present inside the temple as the first Shrine. Then, a small hall where bhajans are performed.

A small Shrine for Garuda and Hanuman. Then, after climbing a few steps, we can see the face of Bhagwan Vittala. We can have this Mukha Darshan any time without standing in queue. For Padha Darshan, there is an entrance which leads to the queue complex outside the temple. It will lead to many small shrines of Bhaktas, then towards Panduranga. We feel best when we touch his lotus feet.

There are Shrines for Rukmini Devi, Sathyabhama Devi, Radhika Devi, Bhagwan Narasimha, Bhagwan Venkateshwara, Devi Mahalakshmi, Nagaraj, Ganesha, Annapoorna Devi. There is another mandapa where all devotees play like Krishna had played with Gopikas. It is a great experience. The temple was built by King Vishnuvardhana of Hoysala Empire between 1108 – 1152 CE.

An interesting tale is that of the temple’s first step called “Sant Namdev Maharaj Payari” (step of Sant Namdev Maharaj). As a child, Namdev was an ardent devotee of Vithoba. One day his mother asks him to complete the ritual of “naivedya” (any food made in the house is first offered to God, the ritual comprises placing the offering plate before the deity and sprinkling water around the plate and with a prayer to God). Namdev faithfully does “naivedya” and waits for God to appear and take the offering. But he is disheartened.

He keeps praying and requests God to come in person and accept the offering. With no answer, the child starts banging his head at the feet of God. Seeing this utmost devotion and innocence of a child, God appears, eats the offering and blesses Namdev.

Namdev asks for being present in the “first step” at His temple, so that innumerable devotees will touch him before having the “darshan” (view). So, this first step is called “Sant Namdev Maharaj Payari”. It is also believed that Tukaram, a 17th-century devotee of Krishna spent his last days in the temple

In the sanctum sanctorum, the presiding deity image is a black basalt sculpture that is 3 feet 9 inches (1.14 m) tall. Vithoba is shown standing arms-akimbo on the brick thrown by the devotee Pundalik. He wears a necklace of tulsi-beads, embedded with the legendary kaustubha gem, and makara-kundala (fish-shaped earrings) that the poet-saint Tukaram relates to the iconography of Vishnu.

Pandharpur’s Vithoba holds a shankha in his left hand and a chakra or lotus flower in his right, all of which are symbols traditionally associated with Vishnu. Rukhmayi or Rukmini is standing by his left side in the same posture and manner.

Ashadi Ekadasi is a religious procession and is celebrated during the months of June- July (Aashaadh Shukla paksha). It consists of a beautifully decorated Palkhi having the “padukas” of Bhagavan and the palkhi procession consists of people collectively walking, singing and dancing the glory of the deity in what are called as ‘Dindis’. This is said to be the World’s largest and oldest people movement where people gather on a specific day every year and perform a walk of a distance of around 250 km.

Pandharpur Ashadi Ekadashi Wari journey has been honoured by World Book of Records, London under the title ‘One of the most visited places in a day’.

The Palkhi procession has remained unbroken since it began despite wars, famines and floods. More than fifty Palkhis of famous saints assemble at Pandharpur every year. In Maharashtra “Varkaris” (predominantly simple farmers) are a big community. They usually undertake a 21-day walk after they have completed the sowing of seeds in their fields. In the Ashadi Ekadasi festival, people from every faith and religion participate. Learned sages also come for it. Jnyaneshwar preached the Gita which is considered the highest religious text in Maharashtra.

The ‘Bhakti Marg’ (the path of devotion) as propounded by Sant Jnyaneshwar, teaches us to forget the physical self in pursuit of Bhagwan. When the Varkaris sing and dance during the pilgrimage, they forget the material world around them.

Along with the Dindi procession, seva to the poor and needy is done reflecting that Bhagwan is in all forms. This is called ‘Seva Dindi’. During the Seva Dindi, the people on pilgrimage undertake selfless service to the poor and needy like Amrut Kalash (Annadhan), Narayan seva, vaidya seva, building and repairing rural infrastructure etc.

Participation in Ashadi Dindi and Seva Dindi helps an individual in many ways by bringing good health, peace & prosperity in his life. Chanting the continuous glory of the God in the Ashadi Dindi procession and Seva Dindi purifies an individual, there is an inner cleansing that takes place in mind, body and spirit and the participants tend to lose their individual identities and experience bliss. It develops all aspects of human personality and helps us understand the true purpose of life.

Prabodhini Ekadashi is also linked with the god Vithoba – a form of Vishnu. Varkari pilgrims throng the Pandharpur temple of Vithoba on this day. The celebrations in Pandharpur continue for five days, till the full moon day (Kartik Poornima).

On Prabodhini Ekadashi, the chief minister or a minister of Maharashtra state performs ritual components of worship on behalf of the Government of Maharashtra. This form of worship is known as sarkari-mahapuja. The ritual marriage of Tulsi to Vishnu is also performed.

Unique Features

1. The deity and his consort have been standing for over 28 yugas on end which is highly unusual.

2. It is not advised to touch the Payari of Namdev Maharaj as it is very sacred.

3. The Chandrabhaga or Bhima river is so holy that even a few drops of its water can relieve people of their sins.

4. Vithoba is said to go into deep sleep on Ashadi Ekadashi and wake up four months later on Prabhodini Ekadashi.

5. Pilgrims are allowed to touch the feet of the murti unlike other pilgrimage centres such as Tirupati, Badrinath, etc., where only the archakas can touch the murti.

6. It is believed that the deity ate the naivedyam or food offerings from the hands of Namdev Maharaj when he was a child.


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