On Friday, leaders from seven prime sects of the God Vitthal pilgrimage announced their support to the Maharashtra government’s plans of conducting pilgrimages without people. The meeting took place in Pune under the chairmanship of Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar. This year, all the festivals in state will be celebrated without people on the roads. It includes iconic festivals such as Ganesh Festival, Pandharpur Pilgrimage and Dahi Handi.
'The Wari', (pilgrimage) for the blessing of God Vitthal, situated in Solapur district, has been tradition for almost 700 years. People across Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana walk down to Pandharpur, the city of God Vitthal's temples, in huge numbers. As per estimates from the Pandharpur temple administration, around 20 lakh people visit every year. The pilgrimage goes on for 21 days and it is one a traditional celebration of equality and devotion.
There are seven prime sects, each named after a saint from medieval Maharashtra. The chiefs of the sects were present in the meeting in Pune on Friday. It has now been decided that the 'Palkhi' which these sects took to Pandharpur, will either be transported by helicopter, bus or in special vehicles. There will be appeals to people for not gathering. Five persons from each sect will be taken to Pandharpur to complete the rituals there. The move will result in avoiding the gathering of lakhs of people in Pune, Solapur and in surrounding districts. As of now, Pune is a red zone and Solapur is an orange zone due to COVID-19. On Friday, there were 3,484 active COVID-19 patients in Pune, and 393 in Solapur.
"We welcome the state government’s efforts to help us keep the long-standing tradition going while avoiding public gatherings. We will follow all the rules of the state government. The tradition of saints in Maharashtra has been to champion people's welfare. So, supporting the government’s efforts is our duty," said Madhukar Maharaj More, chief of Dehu Sansthan.
Wari takes place on the eleventh day in the month of Ashadh as per the Hindu calendar. This year, the said date is July 1.
As with Wari, the other challenge for the state government will be the Ganesh festival, which falls on August 22 this year. Mumbai is known for large gatherings during the Ganesh festival. However, the state government has started talking to various mandals and committees that organise the Ganesh festival, to keep the affair low-key.
As per the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, the authority which gives permission to Ganesh mandals, there are about 12,000 committees in the city alone. All of them try to outdo the other in pomp and show. The BMC and the state government is now talking to the Mumbai Ganesh Festival Committee, the umbrella body above all mandals.
Naresh Dahibanvkar, the chief of this committee, has already made contact with all the mandals regarding the celebration of the festival this year. "It takes almost one and half months for some mandals to prepare for the eleven days from Ganesh Chaturthi. So, we have started calling people to know their suggestions about how this year’s celebrations can be done on a smaller scale," said Naresh.
The umbrella body has also prepared a suggestion note for all the mandals. It has requested them to not pray or establish the Ganesh idol in public places, but in offices of mandals. Also, the smaller idols have been called for this year so that more people are not required to pull the rath (chariot). Instead of organising entertainment programmes during the festival, all mandals have been requested to arrange for blood donation camps which follow all the rules of physical distancing.
During the bubonic plague of 1896, the ganesh mandals of Mumbai had not celebrated the festival in public. The festival celebration had been started by Lokmanya Tilak in 1893. He used the public gathering against British Rule.
"We have assured the state government that we will follow all the guidelines strictly. We are responsible committees and will not create issues for the BMC or state government. We are waiting for the guidelines of the state government now," said Dahibavkar.
Since the lockdown, three major occasions that had public gatherings in the past, have been successfully handled. First was Gudhi Padava (first day of Hindu calendar), the second was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary and finally there were Ramzan and Eid. Now, Wari, Dahi Handi, Ganesh Festival, Muharram and Bakri Eid are major challenges for the state government till the end of August. These are iconic festivals of the state. This year however, social distancing rules need to be followed in light of COVID-19.