One of the first terms that I learned upon my arrival in India was the term “lakh”. It is used to quantify numbers, and is the equivalent of 100,000. I heard this term off and on, in reference to money or population, but on Sunday, this word came to life.
The annual Ashadhi Wari walk is a 700 year old pilgrimage from Dehu or Alanadi to Pandharpur in which people march with a Palkhi, a chariot-like float pulled by oxen. The Palkhi is filled with replicas of saints’ shoes. The walk with the mission to reach Pandhapur and offer their respects to The Lord Vitthal. Lakhs and lakhs of people participate in the walk, and it is estimated that there were about seven to ten lakhs in all, walking together for 21 days (700,000 to 1 million). Never in my life have I seen more people in one place. And by people, I mean all different types. People of every age (from babies to 80 year olds), social status, and background participate in this walk, including a few out of place Americans. There is no stereotypical pilgrim. Here, everyone is equal. Equal to the extent that while on the walk, everyone has the same name: Mauli. Mauli literally translates to mother, but everyone who walks receives that name. I walked with my host dad (Baba), some of his friends, and Joelle, a fellow NSLI-Y student.
The dedication of the Maulis is truly unparalleled. About 90% of the pilgrims are farmers from rural Indian villages, and they give up 21 days of precious work time, to devote themselves to their Hindu beliefs. I was continuously amazed to look down at the sea of feet walking in rhythm around me, and notice that many of them were calloused bare feet. I thought about my own aching feet and tried to imagine walking 33 km on pavement without shoes. And most of the ones who did have shoes, wore flimsy flip flops or “chapals” (sandals). All of the woman wore colorful traditional Maharastran nine yard saris, and many of them balanced small bags on their heads. The men wore white kurtas with pants and clog-like shoes.
However, their lack of proper equipment did not effect their vibrant spirit and excitement. Initially Joelle and I were overwhelmed, not only by the insane amount of people (I like to compare it to a gumball machine with all of the gumballs trying to fit through the one tube that releases the candy), but also the energy of the crowd. One would think that walking would be exhausting enough, much less dancing, chanting, singing, and playing instruments.
The most difficult thing for me to get used to was all of the pushing. In the United States, we have a strong underlying concept of personal space, which I never noticed until coming to India. But in the Palkhi, personal space is nonexistent. People would literally grab my arm and push their way through me and others. And it isn’t just a quick push, its a “hold on to your arm and move you so they can go through” kind of push. At first I was annoyed by this, as it is easy to mistake it as rudeness. But as the walk progressed, I realized that it is not meant to be taken as a rude gesture. Instead it is simply that the people are so passionate, and in this fervor they will not let anything stand in their way. I came to admire this dedication and excitement, and I realized that this is the entire point of the walk. That people are willing to give up everything, exhaust themselves and their bodies for the sake of their religious beliefs. Everything else is insignificant because everyone is there for the same reason. Nothing else matters. Just lakhs and lakhs of people who all share the same belief walking together.