Saturday, August 21, 2010

Gnostic Embrace of Warkaris in the Monsoon Season around Pune: I Early Worship

In the early parts of July the main arterial roads in Pune would have been blocked for vehicular traffic because of the Sant Dnyaneshwar palkhi procession from Alandi to Pandharpur the number of worshippers being huge and counted in hundreds of thousands . It’s a wonderful sight (see,, for instance) even when you are caught in the traffic because of the procession of "warkaris". The tradition of these warkaris is to emphasize community service and they empathize/harmonize with each other through musical group worship, the ektara or dotara being their most common instrument.

The warkari procession from Alandi goes via Pune where it stops for a night and then goes on to Saswad for another halt before it goes on to Pandharpur. The route to Saswad is taken by the Dive ghat when the image of 100s of thousands of worshippers (warkaris) in very simple clothes, carrying saffron flags, and shining brass vessels with tulsi plants, singing songs of devotion and dancing to it remains etched in your minds.

You long to participate in it.

By the time the palkhi comes to Pune, the monsoon has usually set in. The warkaris walk regardless in the rain. The green hills and the wet drizzle adds to the atmosphere. You promise yourself to join the procession the next year each year, the palkhi procession moves on.

The warkaris could perhaps be better described as gnostics even though they may not themselves have heard of gnosticism. During this period the warkari literally frees himself from the material world and seeks only spiritual awakening. They are not agnostics. For the duration of the palkhi they became very lovable people. It may not matter what became of them after they leave the palkhi when they have to lead their daily lives.

Before and after the palkhi procession groups of warkaris carrying their most simple living essential and their most congenial/spiritual essence would be converging from (they always walk) or diverging toward various parts around Pune where they live. These fragments form the living parts of the swarm intelligence of the united palkhi and they are as bewitching to see as the palkhi itself.

There are three blogs planned in this series and trisects my earlier blog. I have removed that blog from the site as my daughter insists that it was impossibly long. These three blogs will deal with the a-religious gnostic aspects of pre-religion and will not deal much with the syncretic aspects. The words Gnostic, Gnosticism, gnosis, used here do not seem to have a definite meaning. Among the definitions I intuitively like is that in the first paragraph of the website at I think Gnosticism is based on Gnosis which is based on personal religious experience which transcends the trained language of theology or philosophy and depend on narrating stories that take the form of myths. It is, I think, similar to the panchali or katha tradition that I will allude to later in the blog.

The blog (click to expand images) will start with a simple prelude with vada pav and dargah then go on to stone worship on the Marimmai ghat where we will hear of a 60,000 year old Brahma mandir which we would see and make some interpretations here and later.


It is always of interest for self-imagined hyper-educated/hyper-civilized people like us to find out what their background are that make them what they are. To us self-styled “hyper-people”, it seems almost certain that modern politics/television would soon reduce to nothing these ways; it would be called modernization or uplifting by the advertising agencies who would love to sell them instant noodles rather than their native jawari bhakris. So much more would be gained we would say if they had applied themselves to their fields of labour instead of indulging in the “opium of religion”. But ... this is no religion! It is their way of life with a long history behind it!

Some of these swarm-parts are seen on the way from Pune to our hill-house near Varve gaon in Khed. Many of them emerge from the hills beyond our farm house. I had no idea of what Maharashtrian life existed beyond the hills. Maybe the soul of the warkaris would be better understood if we visit more those places.

There is a lesser-known road which slinks off into the hills to the left while going away from Pune. This is another of the road to Saswad although it is less frequented and therefore more likely to preserve the warkari style. On the right is the road to Simhagad and another to the should-be-famous for the dargah on the tomb of Hazrat Kamar Ali Darvesh from north-india who settled in Shivapur more than 800 years ago (so it is said). This dargah (see for instance) is better known as the place where there is a heavy stone that can be lifted by a group of 11 people with their little finger working simultaneously while shouting the name of the saint.

In the rainy season, the stream by the side of the tomb looks especially beautiful. One can appreciate the wisdom of this saint on choosing his final resting place there.

Mariammai Ghat and Temple

Among the simple pleasures of life of the Puneri people is the vada pav which is best enjoyed piping hot in the rain. One of the shops we like particularly is the Shri vada pav shop just after Shivapur on the way back to Pune. Whenever we stop at this shop and look at the hills we see a rather flat range with a prominent dip and the tower of a temple in the gap (Fig 1, click on figure always to expand image). The road to Saswad goes through this gap. On the rainy season of this year 2010 we chose to drive up this road to the inviting silhouette of a temple. Once we reached the top the view down was not spectacular there being too much industrial development of the non-conserving kind. The highway was distant and not straightforward to locate (Fig 2 left).

The temple silhouette turned out to be that of a new structure made with cement and concrete and probably of political import; it did not and could not emanate an essence of god that the old temples do with their incense-burning and their chanting. There was however a (what looked like ficus variety) tree by the side. Beneath this tree there is a smaller structure of brick and mortar. On the other side of this small structure lay some worship stones which were daubed with orange colour of the enamel (certainly not vermilion) kind that is so common to these parts of modern Maharashtra.

We did not examine the structure closely the first time but came back the next day. There was a man cleaning the temple site (Fig 2 right) the second time we visited it. It seemed quite romantic , if that is the right word. There was a crutch resting by the side of the temple. The man had obviously used the crutch to come to the temple from a distant village. He had spectacles. He was in no hurry and when he looked at you over the top of the rims of his spectacles (Fig 3, left) he seemed fully at peace with himself. For some reason, he reminded me of my late brother who in turn had always reminded me of Peter O’Toole in Goodbye Mr. Chips.

The inside of the structure held a orange stone (Fig 3, left) to which the man had offered coconuts (he gave me a piece) and had lit an agarbatti (incense stick). There were some plastic garlands hanging on the wall and covering an image inside a glass frame which I did not go close enough to examine. The goddess is that of Mariammai, the location and the stone is several hundred years old, which we have to accept even if the man said it himself.

The road by which we ascended the hill is known as the Mariammai ghat. It is probably named after the temple.

Mariamma is a family deity for a very small percentage ( ~ 1%) of families in Maharashtra which have a family deity; this would seem to be reasonable considering that she is the goddess of death by cholera, small pox and so on.

It is very likely that Marimmai is of Tamil origin, when mari could come from marai which means rain in Tamil. If this is true it shows the Early Dravidian influence on the Deccan. In india it is usually seen that the earlier the history of a tribe the lower is its allotted caste, by succeeding invaders. By this logic the Mariamma deity would have an older and more natural ideas of worship. She is thought to be worshipped primarily by a lowly untouchable caste descended from the ├žandala or Matanga tribes of history.

Mariamma (amma means mother in Tamil), is a name by which Tamil Christians used for Mary, mother of God. I heard it first in my school St. Marys’ (started for European orphans in old Madras in early 19th century) at George town Madras.

The name “Mariamma” had been in use before the Portugese at least. In Kosambi’s “Introduction to Indian History” there is a footnote for Mariamma in which he adds “ A comic, unintentional, but historically justified tribute was paid to this goddess at Calicut by Vasco da Gama and his companions. They entered the local Mariamma temple, were sprinkled with holy water by the priests, genuflected before the image, under the impression that they were paying homage to the Virgin Mary.”

Who came first, Mother Mary or Mariamma? Does it matter? Mariamma! Of course?

The worship stone painted in saffron colours inside clearly has, what seems to be, a pair of eyes (see bottom inset of Fig 3 left). Carvings with such fixed staring eyes are characteristic of 5000 years old pre-Egyptian styles (see top inset in left of Fig 3). Kosambi writes about such worship stones “The aniconic image has a pair of eyes which are not in the stone, but in the red coat which has reached a thickness of about 30 millimetres. Sacrifices are occasionally made here too by those who do not mind the hard walkup a steep hill and a couple of miles into the scrub jungle.” Pune has such worship stones with eyes implanted in the red coat in primordial temples spread all over the city. The various deities which include Vetala, Mhasoba (a demon to some), Kalubai (“which later becomes Kali”), Mariamma (goddess of death by cholera) are all coated with red and one cannot tell whether the stone is a god or goddess.

Kosambi calls these stone deities as “lower deities” as presumably the higher deities are housed as recognizable human figures in "properly" built temples with an architectural plan and so on.

Deities represented by various stones, with or without eyes, look alike to the eye and are only identified by the worshippers, says Kosambi. This lack of grammar in our worship, is typical of our countrymen who improvise is all kinds of ways, the most sublime of them being in their music.

This freedom to worship a deity without recognizable shape or form and with an identity chosen by you is the true freedom of worship that seems to characterize the indomitability of the pre-religion Indian mind which is so difficult to shake.

There is a fear of the unknown when we choose to worship.

The deities we choose to worship would depend on the nature of the fear; the stone would represent the deity. The only point of importance is that we worship for the moment for the fear of the moment. This would be our ingrained secularism, where the physical identity of the god we pray to and the actual prayer we offer is not the dominant factor.

With every worship we syncretize until it becomes commercially powerful to idolize the worship. Then kings and priests and higher deities come in quite anti-agnostically in a metamorphosis of the religious bent.

Chaturmukh Mandir

The man at the temple told me about a chaturmukhi temple a kilometer or so into the hills away from the road. This temple, he said, is more than 60,000 years old. It is the place, he said, which is the Southern version of Uttarakashi (in the Himalayas), and which my wife interpreted later as the kashi of Benares. He pointed the way to the Chaturmukhi temple.

We took a left turn a kilometer down the road going to Saswad. This left turn was towards the village of Warwadi, we learnt later. The chaturmukhi temple was about a kilometer away, I was told. We saw a freshly painted temple tower about a kilometer away and went towards it. On the way we saw a small neat freshly painted Shiva temple with a painting of what seemed to be a man riding on a Garuda (sworn enemy of snakes since they had enslaved his mother), the kite-like or eagle-like bird which is the mount of Vishnu. The features of the man riding the snake seemed to be that of Tukaram, the much loved, admired, venerated, early seventeenth century Marathi poet who left for “Vishnu’s abode” on a garuda-like bird. The painting on the temple may have borrowed from a celebrated Ravi Varma Press print of early twentieth century.

The presence of a Krishna-devotee riding Vishnu’s vamana (vehicle) on the walls of a Shiva temple is not at all perplexing to an all-embracing warkari. They embrace every good thing just as they do Tukaram and his public discourses in song (kirtaney) that came in his poetry that emphasized love for fellow human beings and his environment rather than the mechanical following of orthodox rituals. The greatness of Tukaram is his awareness and resonance with the greatness of the warkaris. Many religions have later incorporated Tukaram’s teaching, including Gandhi who, translated some poems of Tukaram during the fortnight he was in Yerawada jail during a fortnight in October of 1930.

In a verse entitled Pavitra te kul paawan to desh jethe Hariche daas janma gheti Gandhi’s translation has… 'The Puranas have testified like bards without reserve that those called untouchables have attained salvation through devotion to God. Tuladhar, the Vaishya, Gora, the potter, Rohidas, a tanner, Kabir, a Momin, Latif, a Muslim, Sena, a barber, and Vishnudas, Kanhopatra, Dadu, a carder, all become one at the feet of God in the company of hymn singers. Chokhamela and Banka, both Mahars by birth, became one with God. Oh, how great was the devotion of Jani the servant girl of Namdev! Pandharinath (God) dined with her. Meral Janak's family no one knows, yet who can do justice to his greatness? For the servant of God there is no caste, no varna, so say the Vedic sages. Tuka says: I cannot count the degraded'.

It was very soothing to sit by the temple with a stream flowing by its side. There were obvious burning piers of stone in front with evidence of a recent ritual. The stream prevented my access to its interior, and a local resident informed me that it was a kalubai (Kali) temple although a later investigation of Wikimapia showed a kalubai temple at a different location in that region.

We thought (wrongly) that the chaturmukhi temple was further down the path behind the trees and guessed it to be the pink-painted tower which we could make out. We were directed elsewhere when we reached that spot going through a happy neat village.

The drive to the chaturmukhi temple was very pleasant skirting two hills that act as landmarks at a distant. When we reached the spot, it was terribly disappointing. There was a modern structure (Fig 4 left) very much like the structure at the marimmai temple earlier.

There is a quasi-saffron painted figure (Fig 4 centre) probably representing (in the imagination of a local official) the saint 60,000 years ago, flanked by two photos in a glass frame who reminded me of vaishnavite Ramakrishna missionaries (probably bengali).

In another enclosure of very recent origin there is a new shaivaite lingam decorated with fresh shiuli flowers from a tree which grew nearby (not more than ten years old).

I could not find any four-faced evidence for chaturmukhi which indicates a Btahma origin. It was disappointing even if we should not have really expected anything else.

What was interesting was the enthusiasm of the caretaker who said he was the assistant to the head priest. He spoke only Marathi and I understood virtually nothing. Lalitha understood a bit. He and the head-priest had plenty to tell us and they did. We understood what little we thought we could.

The assistant pointed to a tree behind the modern structures (Fig 5 left)with some obviously old carved figures at the base. That tree, the assistant said, was 60,000 years old. The assistant was perhaps privately worried that we would ask him why the ficus tree had no large aerial roots like the large banyan trees (ficus benghalensis) near the temples in the plains. Without our asking he said that there were no aerial roots because of a curse.

Among the four sacred trees (Nalpamaram) trees which are planted near temples, I thought the cluster fig tree (ficus racemiosa) which has little or no aerial roots most closely resembled the tree. The ficus racemiosa grows in the Deccan plateau. For a ficus racemiosa tree, the tree behind looked old; it certainly perhaps looked much older than the rest of the trees around.

There were very few other big trees around. There were some recent eucalyptus trees planted invariably by the forest department because of their deep concern for the rayon industry. Perhaps the oldest living species there was the head priest (Fig 5 middle) who had appeared by this time. The oldest tree had perhaps been recently felled or had fallen (Fig 5 right).

There is a shiuli (to Bengalis) or paarijaata (night-flowering jasmine) tree from which the flowers (Fig 6 left inset) for the shivlinga obviously came; there was a flowerless frangipani or Indian temple tree (Fig 6 left).

The shiuli flower is much loved by Bengalis certainly. The flowers are commonly used by the worshippers in the east of India; the medicinal properties of these plants are also mainly exploited by the tribal populations of the east. I mention this here since it may be important to find a bengali connection with this place when I discuss the Kanifnath shrine later

At the monsoon time of the year, the place had a lovely undulating country side (Fig 6 left) that our dog (Bruno) loved, especially when he had the opportunity running around chasing his ball.

The hills around the chaturmukhi temple are seen from the NH4 highway as one comes out of the new Katraj tunnel (Fig 6 right). The flattish hill on the left is actually a bent ridge and the chaturmukhi mandir is located in a dip in the ridge at the bend. The conical hill on the right (Fig 6 left) actually looks like a volcanic hill with concentric rings round its peak and starting from its base in the wikimapia figure (Fig 7, left; the figure is large so that the claimed crater-like features can be seen better). The diameter of the major semi-circular vehicular path is nearly 150 m. The dark strips are ploughed land awaiting planting.

There seems to be a few crater-like objects in the wikimapia map which are about 10 m in diameter. These circular object could be shadows of trees or brushes. That would not be interesting. If there are four such crater-mouths one could call them chaturmukh, I suppose. That will be interesting!!!

Otherwise there is little that is directly suggestive of a four-mouthed evidence for chaturmukhi near the spot.

The senior priest was very keen to communicate to us about the miracles of the place. He could not convey anything that he wanted us to hear and believe. The first point I think, that he wanted to impress upon us is that the spot is like kashi of Benares. It is even more sacred, he said, since you require to visit this spot only once to get your sins washed while your require visiting kashi of the north thrice for the same purpose. This story was also told to me earlier by the man at the marimmai temple.

One story that we got some gist of is that the rishi of 60,000 years ago took some of the stones from the hill to Brahma and told him that there is no gold in those hills like Brahma had said there will be. Brahma then turned the rocks in the rishi’s hand to gold.

There are some evidences for an older monument there. Some pieces of sculpture like those under the “60,000” year old tree (Fig 5, left) look like sculptures that can be dated back to at least a few hundred years. Somewhere around there is a cluster of stones which seems to be well-weathered pieces of some decorative stone panels as well as perhaps even of a face (Fig 8 left). I guess they would be called swayambhu stones (sculptured stones that appear by themselves without human intervention) at some later religiously proper time after some orange colour is placed on them (why not?) . There is also a collection of stones covered with a few slabs of rock (Fig 8 middle) with gaps through which the sun shines through. There are signs of recent worship. The small bottle (much smaller than a “quarter” bottle of spirits) at the bottom of the picture was used for oil, the priest informed us. Icould not figure out the identity of the deity or deities represented by the stones.

The junior priest took us to a shrub behind (Fig 8 right). There is a copper vessel typical of a kalash suspended on a stone hung over a siva lingam as in Fig 4 right. The place has several very-weathered stones buried in the ground which could be imagined to remains of ancient lingams exposed to nature. There is a cluster of such objects (see also inset of Fig 8 right). The assistant said that the mud due to the rain water has covered up the stones. He started digging out the mud with his hands, but we stopped him. The covered stones in Fig 8b, middle, would then be another lingam. I did not remember to find out the orientations of such lingams. These clusters of shiva lingam and the peethams (circular base supporting the lingam) as a manifestation of parasakthi representing the creative power of the almighty. In this case these lingams would be Swayambhu, which is likely since there could have been a flowing stream there. Could these be the chaturmukh?

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