Chugging up to Pune
|The might of Fascist Italy captured in Milano Centrale|
The last train journey I made was in October 2013 when I was travelling through Italy. My travelled from Milan to Venice on a “slow” train which was still faster than the Deccan Queen I was scheduled to travel on last Friday .
I can never forget that grand Milano Centrale, which had a distinct WW2 feel to it and I was immediately reminded of those war movies I used to see as a child and kept thinking that any minute there would be a Kraut shouting “Achtung” making us all freeze in our tracks. How different it was from Mumbai’s CST which though equally grand and awe inspiring had a distinct scent of Eau de Toilet that is peculiar to Bombay. The trains too were vastly different. While the train to Venice was not the poshest of posh trains, it still was much cleaner and better than our famous DQ which seems to have become shabbier by the year. Truly it is now no longer the reigning queen but a fusty dowager who should be retired. I used to look forward to chuffing away to Poona on a Deccan Queen which was truly regal. Apart from the deliciously soft and gooey scrambled egg on a thick toast oozing with butter, I enjoyed looking out of the windows as the fields rolled by, rushing out for a hot Batata wada at Karjat while the engine was added on and crunching into a chikki at Lonavala station. Alas! Gone are those days for not only does the train not need an additional engine, but darkened windows with smelly curtains flapping in your face greatly mar the experience of looking outside. Eating too is vastly different with surly waiters selling jaundiced omelets and teabags dipped in tepid water in thumbelina sized paper cups.
But, despite these changes, I still feel train journeys are preferable to bus rides so I was looking forward to my Friday trip to Pune. And I wasn’t disappointed because I had a very pleasant ride : I didn’t have to squash into my seat because I had no co-passenger digging his elbow into my stomach. Nor were there any children screaming, nor were there any boring business travelers “discussing” business in monotonous voices too loud to let you sleep. So I managed to catch up with most of my deprived sleep over the past month and reached Pune Station fresh and ready to seize the next day.
Now or Never
The next day or Saturday was the main reason for my trip to Pune – it was the day when finally this pilgrim was going to make a trip to Pandharpur to see the Temple of Vithoba or Vishnu on a Brick. This was a long pending trip – for almost twenty years. All those years ago, while filling up some forms one day, I realised that both my children were born on either end of Chaturmas, the four months when Vishnu is on holiday( starting on Ashadhi Ekadashi and ending on Kartiki Ekadashi). In Maharashtra these ekadashis are celebrated with fasting and feasting and devotees of Lord Vishnu finish their 15-20 day trek at the feet of the Lord at his Temple at Pandharpur. Somehow, almost illogically I thought there was some cosmic plan in their birth days and decided that their fates were inexorably linked with Vithoba and I wanted to go visit. Initially my mother and I had planned to follow the traditional pilgrim path – on foot. Those were the days of strong and young knees and boundless enthusiasm. They were also days when both of us were caught up in getting on with our daily lives and going on a pilgrimage was as far removed as travelling to the moon. But suddenly last month my mother said that it was now or never and that we should make the trip before the summer set in.
There are many gods in Hinduism and hundreds of temples dedicated to them more and literally millions of devotees who throng to these places of worship. However, there is a strange belief that most of us hold that despite one’s intention and devotion, one can only visit a temple when there is a divine invitation. I have heard of several instances where a person as had to cancel the visit at the last minute, sometimes as late as at the temple door despite elaborate arrangements made for the visit. Thus when my mother told me to make this trip I felt that my moment had come.
We set off at 6.30 my father, mother and I in a Mahindra Xylo driven by Abhijeet, the owner of a private taxi service based out of Pune. My father is a firm believer in non-ritualistic worship and can be best described as one who tolerates his wife’s religious beliefs. He was coming along just for a “jolly” as he termed it, mainly to meet up with a classmate whom he had seen last at their graduation 58 years ago! “You folks go ahead and finish your darshan,” he told us “while I go and visit my friend.” I must say I had visions of my pilgrimage becoming a picnic but was surprised to find how God works in strange ways. Halfway through our journey when we were nearing Pandharpur far earlier than we had anticipated, my father called his friend only to find that he was out of town and perforce he’d have to enter the temple! So without his intention to visit the temple, he came and prayed before Vithoba.
The Temple of Vishnu on a Brick
Thanks to a beautiful (in most parts) new 6 lane highway , NH 65 , which takes you all the way to Solapur from Pune, we covered this distance of 250 Km in three hours! So shocked was my mother with this early arrival that she kept asking if we had really reached Pandharpur despite us crossing the calm blue river Chandrabhaga. Once we reached the town we were dropped off around 100 m away from the Western Gate of the temple and were told by the driver not to entertain any touts. I had my reservations but the driver turned out to be right. We made our way to the entrance of the temple and climbed up the first step or the Step of Namdev. Behind us were some ardent worshippers who insisted on displaying their devotion through loudly sung tuneless hymns and I would have pointed out the sign asking for silence but for the fact that the woman bellowing out those hymns was a huge, black woman with a fierce expression on her face.
All temples these days have long snaky lines to manage the crowds that throng on special days and this temple was no exception. But since it was not a holy day, it moved fast enough and we were in front of the deity. Despite the over zealous attendant urging us to be “quick about it”, the priest allowed us more than a second before the idol and even allowed us to put our heads at its feet. As I bowed down I could feel Lord Vithoba smiling down at me. We had to then make our way to his consort’s temple further down the complex and my mother wondered why Gods and Goddesses have separate temples even though they have happy marriages. I joked that may be they couldn’t stand the snores of each other as is the case with many old married couples!
This visit was by far one of the most peaceful and satisfying visits I’ve had in a long time. Rukmini looked equally happy to see us and a glance at the other goddesses Satyabhama and Radhika Devi convinced me that happy women are truly well endowed…
Unfortunately the temple prohibits the use of mobile phones and cameras so I couldn’t take any pictures of the temple. But I did manage to capture this interesting facade of one of the numerous guest houses in this temple town. The people you see on the balcony are actually sculptures!
It took us just about four hours to complete our pilgrimage – three to get there and one for the temple. If you want a complete guided tour it would possibly take longer but the good thing about this town is that there is nothing really worth buying so once one has finished the darshan, one can make a quick exit and return home.