On a rain-soaked evening, a handful of devotees gather inside the Vitthal Mandir in Wadala to recite the Dnyaneshwari, a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita written by Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar in the 13th century. The sonorous voice of Nivrutti Lokhande, who belongs to the warkari sect, rises above the din of the main road traffic as he deconstructs a verse written in the Modi script by the saint at the age of 16.
Devotees seen reciting the Dnyaneshwari — a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita — written by Marathi saint-poet Dnyaneshwar at Vitthal Mandir in Wadala. Pic/Datta Kumbhar
Two weeks hence, this regular temple scene will take on a different colour, when over three lakh devotees from across Mumbai will flock to the 400-year-old Vitthal Mandir for Ashadi Ekadashi.
Ashadi Ekadashi is celebrated on the eleventh lunar day of the bright fortnight (Shukla paksha) of the Hindu month of Ashadha (June and July). This year, it will be observed on July 15.
A week before the festival, pilgrims from various parts of Maharashtra head out on foot towards Pandharpur, a town in south Maharashtra, which is situated on the banks of Chandrabhaga river. Devotees from Mumbai and the nearby areas, who cannot be part of these celebrations, visit Vitthal Mandir instead. Several dindis or processions also make a pit-stop at the temple before proceeding to Pandharpur.
“We have the parayan [recital] and kirtans all year. But, from the first week of July till Ekadashi, you will see a jatra [festival] at the temple,” says Lokhande, who has been giving sermons at the temple for the last 16 years.
According to Sashikant Naik, the chairman of the Vitthal Ganpati Mahadev Trust, the temple sees the second highest footfalls after Pandharpur during Ekadashi, and is also popularly known as Prati Pandharpur (Pandharpur's replica). Serpentine queues, which begin at the temple, extend all the way up to the main road at Jerbai Wadia Marg.
“The crowd has been increasing with each year. This year, we are expecting close to four lakh people,” Naik said.
Unlike the temple in Pandharpur where the idols of Vithoba and his consort Rukmini are housed separately, in Vitthal Mandir deities are placed in the same room. The Rukmini idol was constructed later, although the date is not known. The 4,000 square-metre temple area also houses the temples of Ganpati and Shiva within its premises.
However, the place is historically significant because of Sant Tukaram, the 17th-century poet-saint of the Bhakti movement, who first laid the foundation of the temple here. “Back then, there was nothing here but wada (banyan) trees. Sant Tukaram, who travelled to the city for his salt business, would preach sitting under one of the banyan trees, which is now situated inside the temple premises,” said Naik, who has been in charge of the temple since 1986. This banyan tree, which still stands here, is believed to be older than the temple itself.
Legend has it that the Vithoba idol in Vitthal Mandir was first fished out of Chandrabhagha river by a few locals from Wadala, when they were visiting Pandharpur. “It is speculated that some locals from Pandharpur must have thrown the idol into the river to protect it from being vandalised by the Mughals,” Naik says, adding that in the absence of written records, it is difficult to verify the claim.
Wadala resident Jyoti Surve and her husband Sameer, have been visiting the temple since their childhood. “It’s not always possible to visit Pandharpur, hence, we come here as the temple has the same feel,” says Jyoti, who works in the administration department at Kohinoor College of Hotel and Tourism Management, Dadar. “This place offers a sense of serenity,” she says.