HYDERABAD: Religion plays a major role in the lives of most Indians hence religious tourism is big in India. I always wanted to explore this aspect of travel as well. Ever since I heard about Daiwik Hotels (India’s first pilgrim hotel chain) I wanted to visit their 'Sai Sanjivani' at Shirdi. Going from Hyderabad to Shirdi was absolutely smooth. We boarded Ajanta Express at six in the evening. With like-minded people for company, cracking jokes and opening various food packets brought by each food enthusiast, tasting and passing it on to others, only to open the next parcel, it went on till we fell asleep. At six in the morning, we got down at Nagarsol, and were picked up by the hotel’s cab. Cold wind blew as we covered 40 kms.
Daiwik Hotel is conveniently located right next to the temple (just 5 minutes walk) and comes with a blend of luxury, service and security. In the three days that I spent in Shirdi, I made a number of visits to the temple complex, every time accompanied by Digambar Thrombe, the trusted staff from Daiwik Hotel. He would take me for darshans and shopping, as he knew the ins and outs of the place. My daily routine was a short walk that would land me right in front of ‘Chavadi’ and ‘Dwarakamai’ closely followed by ‘Samadhi Mandir’ etc. Though many are familiar with these places, my aim is to explain their significance and the role played by them in Sai Baba’s life.
This ancient mosque is where Sai Baba lived for sixty years and all the momentous episodes of his life were played out here. Here Baba solved problems of the people, cured their sickness and worries. Before Baba's arrival in Shirdi, Dwarkamai was an old mosque in a dilapidated condition. It houses a portrait of Baba, the big stone on which Baba used to sit, a chariot and a palkhi, a square stool made of stone which Baba used for taking a bath, an oil painting of Sai Baba sitting in a carved wooden shrine, and also the grinding stone and the wooden vessel called kolamba in which Baba used to keep the bhiksha brought from the village.
The Chavadi in Shirdi is a simple rectangular building with a porch. It is now sacred because in the last decade of his life, Sai Baba began sleeping here every alternate night. It was originally a place wherein taxes were collected, village records kept and visiting officials put up. At present, the village offices have been relocated and Chavadi Mandir is recognised as a shrine of Sai Baba.
It also has a bed wherein the saint was given his last bath after he passed. This bed is considered as sacred and is covered with a palanquin and is taken out every Thursday. There is an unused wheelchair of Sai Baba placed near the bed.
When Sai Baba first arrived at Shirdi he took shelter under a neem tree in the outskirts of the village. This place is now called Gurusthan, also where, according to Baba, the tomb of his own Guru is located.
The shrine, which houses Baba’s tomb, is built on some land that Baba had tended as a garden. At the tomb where the idol sits is considered powerful and intense. Here, devotees offer prayers, beg for help, give thanks for prayers answered and wishes fulfilled. The life-like statue, which has become a universally loved image of Baba, was installed in 1954, sculpted beautifully by Balaji Vasant Talim, almost thirty-six years after Baba’s Mahasamadhi.
One day Digambar took me to Khandoba Temple, which is just across the road from the hotel. Mhilsapathi, the hereditary priest of Khandoba temple, spent forty to fifty unbroken years with Sai Baba, and was considered among the foremost of his devotees. We met Manohar Marthand Nagare, grandson of Mhalsapati, who retired as a teacher in 2000 and ever since started looking after the temple matters. He was too happy to share whatever he knew of his grandfather and his association with Sai Baba. Pointing to an interesting old black and white photograph on the wall, he said, “That is my grandfather Mhilsapati with Sai Baba and the child resting in the lap of Sai Baba was my father, Marthand.
A blessing by Baba, he was born in 1890, after three daughters and served as a priest in the same temple and died in 1986. My grandfather Mhalsapati was superstitious and Baba always had him by his side, taking his advice on all matters.”When Baba arrived for the first time in Shirdi (this place was a forest then), just as the bullock cart stopped outside, Khandoba appeared to Mhilsapati and gave him the message that there was an aulia in the group that had just arrived. When Mhilsapati saw Baba, he welcomed him, saying “Aao Sai”, giving him the name Sai; till then no one knew where he came from or his name. Baba blessed our family with good fortune. We have in our house, the three coins given by Sai Baba and his padukas (footwear). I wrote a book in Marathi,” says Mhilsapati Charithra.
For many, who come to Shirdi, attending the aarti is a unique experience when they feel the power of Baba’s presence. Some say that this is the time when Baba comes “alive” for them and answers their questions and prayers. When I attended the aarti, I could feel the stirring emotions of the group – of faith, longing and devotion. The atmosphere became highly charged and there was a palpable sense of the numinous. Maybe the all-pervading belief that Baba is still alive and present, contributes to the mystique and magic of Shirdi.
(The author is a documentary filmmaker and travel writer; blogs at www.vijayaprataptravelandbeyond.com)