Mere words cannot suffice to describe the intense spirituality that Pandharpur is associated with. Revered for its temple dedicated to Lord Vitthal, it is one of the most sacred towns in Maharashtra and is also the seat of the Warkari sect which has given the state a unique cultural and social dimension. Located in Solapur district, it has been named after a merchant who achieved self-realisation here.
One of the most important pilgrimage places in Maharashtra, Pandharpur is located on the banks of the river Bhima, which is alternatively known as Chandrabhaga because of its half-moon-like shape. It is here that devotees come in huge numbers to pray at the temple of Lord Vitthal or Vithoba, also known as Pandurang and Pandharinath. Vithoba is regarded in Hinduism as a form of Lord Krishna. The worship of Vithoba in the Pandharpur temple is based on the contents of the Puranas and the contributions of the Vaishnav saints of Maharashtra and Karnataka during the 13th through 17th centuries.
The oldest mention of Pandharpur is recorded in a copper plate grant of 516 CE of a Rashtrakuta ruler. In 615 CE a Chalukya ruler, Pulakesin II, conquered this part of Maharashtra and it remained under his reign till 766 CE. The town had to face many vicissitudes during the medieval period when it was attacked by various rulers. It was this unrelenting warfare in this region that destroyed Pandharpur and almost wiped it off from the cultural history of the state. The situation changed at last in 1719 when Balaji Peshwa obtained official recognition for Maratha Swaraj. In the second half of the 18th century, Pandharpur rose from its ruins.
New temples and other structures were built and the Peshwas of Pune, the Shindes of Gwalior and the Holkars of Indore where among those who helped reconstruct the town with shrines and palatial buildings. However, the primary factor that firmly put Pandharpur on the socio-cultural map of Maharashtra was the establishment of the Warkari sect and the temple dedicated to Vithoba. Located on a small hillock facing the east and the river Chandrabhaga, the temple can be entered after ascending a few steps. The main entrance leads to the ‘mukhamandapa’. The lowest step of this temple is known as ‘Namdevo Payari’ on which is installed a bronze bust of Sant Namdeo. It is said that he took ‘samadhi’ at that very place. In front of this step, at a distance of 2 meters, is the samadhi of Sant Chokhamela.
Beyond the big quadrangular wooden hall with ‘deepmalas’ is a shrine of Lord Hanuman in a narrow vestibule that has three openings leading to the ‘sola khambi’ i.e. a square hall, the ceiling of which is shouldered by 16 beautifully carved pillars. The sanctum and the ante-chamber are small structures, plain and simple. The temple complex accommodates various shrines, halls, cloisters, etc. As such, the temple, as it stands today, is a composite ensemble of various buildings erected during the 16th through 18th centuries CE.
The installed image of Vithoba stands erect with rigid and straight legs, feet together in the ‘samacharana’ pose and hands akimbo, holding a conch in the left and a lotus in the right hand. Poet Kalidasa describes such a position as ‘steady as an unflickering lamp’. A unique aspect of this temple is that devotees never pray for the fulfillment of material needs. Rather, the prayers are to seek liberation from worldly bonds. Pandharpur and the temple of Vithobha is also significant for the annual pilgrimage that begins at Alandi and culminates here with thousands of warkaris participating in this marathon walk of 250 kilometers that comprises ‘palkhis’ and ‘dindis’. The warkari movement is not only about the worship of Vithoba but also the implementation of a duty-based approach towards life emphasizing moral behaviour, strict avoidance of alcohol and tobacco, a vegetarian diet and fasting twice a month along with the reading of holy texts and singing of ‘kirtans’ and ‘bhajans’.