On the 18th of July, the largest event of Phaltan's religious and social calendar passed through Phaltan. 400,000 people are walking for over fifteen days and 250 km from a town near Pune to a temple in Panderpure on a journey called the Palki. They follow the path of the 13th century Saint Nyaneshwar (literally: god of wisdom) who was a religious child prodigy. After writing a poetic companion to the Bhagavad Gita and purportedly performing a number of miracles, including causing a bull to speak from the holy scriptures, he chose to starve himself to death at the Panderpure temple when he was only 22 years old. The procession has been in existence since the time of Chaucer and is only one of several parades leading to the same holy site.
The procession, which carries symbols of the god's footprints on a silver chariot, passes directly in front of Maxine's home, so I camped out for the day and watched people sing and dance from before 9 am to nearly the same time at night. I also walked with the parade in the afternoon and joined in as men played tiny cymbals called "tara" and women led the call and response. I got some fairly odd looks at first, but as soon as I started singing they laughed or smiled and accepted the new Pilgrim into the fold. The women carried all of their clothing, bedding, and often food on their heads in giant parcels, as wide as they are tall. They also balanced holy basil plants to give to the god upon arrival.
The road was this full all day and the sleeping tents for the Pilgrims lasted for miles. I am amazed at how well organized every piece of the trip is in terms of timing and location. Not only does each town have a set day, but it has a set time when the main chariot should arrive. At 5:30 pm on the dot it showed up in Phaltan and everyone rushed in to touch the carrier for the saint affectionately called "mouli" or "mother."
Not only did I get to travel with the vast sea of people on Wednesday, but my family had a close encounter on Tuesday night. We accidentally came back from Pune by the same road being used by the pilgrimage and, as such, landed right in the middle of 400,000 people and all the cars/ trucks/ rickshaws which had found similarly bad luck. For over three hours we couldn't do anything but watch the squirming, swarming mass squeeze past the cars and motor bikes still singing and jumping like the sun was high in the sky. They kept up with their groups leaders like American speedwalkers and all with either thin sandals or nothing at all on their callused feet. While walking with them I soaked in their infectious devotion, and laughed with the women who adopted me into their groups. However, in that car, depending on the mood of the moment I either enjoyed watching their enthusiasm or longed for the opportunity to run over a pilgrim.