Friday, June 08, 2007

At the doors of faith

I had seen him for the first time in a movie, with the quiet demeanor, the saintly appearance, the love of humanity and giving a helping hand to every human and animal that came along.Sai Baba, a saint loved by all. It was the actor that I had watched, who had emoted Sai's life so well that as a child, I had been deceived into believing that he was the real one. It was a long journey for me as I reached only in the year 2003. That year means a lot to me, for with that trip, I discovered that he had attained a far higher position in 1918. I got on the night bus to Shirdi at 9 pm from Western Mumbai suburb Borivali.
A very comfortable journey, but I was too excited to sleep, for I kept opening my eyes to look out of the window. The bus stopped outside Thana for a quick stop for a cuppa and a visit to the cloakroom. A good, quiet stop with the cool breeze blowing across the open air restaurant. The bus moved on. It continued at a steady pace, only stopping to drop passengers and pick some up at designated stops.I slept quiet well and opened my eyes to catch a glimpse of a road island which was a tableau of sorts with a mock jungle, and tigers. We had reached Nagpur. Shirdi was just half-an-hour away. I closed my eyes and tried to remember all the details I had read on the Net about Sai.
Born, when and where is yet unconfirmed, it is approximated to be around 1838. For any questions that referred to his parents and relatives, he always replied: "It’s been a long time". Seen for the first time at the age of 19 under a neem tree, he was enchanting everyone with his looks and habits in 1854. He disappeared for another three years and came back with a wedding party in 1858. How did he get his name? It is said that when Bhagat Malshejpati saw him get off the bullock cart near the Khandoba Mandir, he went forward and invited him saying, "Welcome Sai". He wore white clothes and always a long flowing robe like a shirt over a lungi and tied a scarf on his head in a single knot which is called a kafni.
His journey as a saint had begun, and people found solace in his words and deeds. All difficulties seemed to melt away in his presence. Jealous individuals tried to have him removed from the village and insulted, but would reach the formidable and unshakeable wall of his personality and faith. Slowly and steadily, he won all those against him, till the entire village was won over. Now, they serve him completely.
Entering Shirdi is quite a surprise. It appears completely different from what it was you have imagined it to be. Shops abound all around the main temple. They sell phulmalas, coconuts, prasad of different types, photographs, paintings, trinkets, all to do with Sai. Getting off the bus after an eight-hour journey, I trudge tiredly towards the hotel. Walking the streets after a downpour is a little difficult, since the road is kacha, and had turned to mush. The shopkeepers call out asking if you need rooms, or prasad or flowers and Sai Bhajans resound from every other shop.
The entire town has developed around the temple: The Sai is for his people and they for him.After resting a couple of hours, I walked towards the temple. Also called by its original name Lendi Baug, the temple is surrounded by monuments from Sai’s time and connected to him in one way or other. Lendi Baug was bought by Rao Bahadur in 1918 and presented to the Sai Sansthan to make a temple there. The trees in the premises have been planted by Sai himself.The mosque or Dwarka Mai was the place where he lived -- a hut covered with a tin roof to protect it from the elements. As you stand in line to take a peek inside, you can buy loban, or get some from your hometown, with sandalwood etc. to put in the dhuni, installed by iand which has been burning since then. The line moves up and you can touch the small wooden pillar which he leaned against while sitting to cook at the sigri close by.
The east of the compound also has a marked niche, where Sai kept a brick and regularly touched it. Closed and behind doors lies the cart in which he travelled and is, to my knowledge, kept there safe and never removed. Now so close to the dhuni, a square space entirely covered with steel grills on all sides, I could feel its heat and smell the loban, sandalwood, incense that was being poured by the devotees as they passed. Many collected a little bit and put them in envelopes or put it on their foreheads. Behind the dhuni lay the black earthen pot which Sai would fill with water and serve everyday to the visitors and the thirsty.
The north wall has a niche with two brass lamps and close to it lies the small stone grinder, which Sai used to grind wheat. He used this wheat flour to draw a line around Shirdi to protect it from the cholera epidemic. This line still survives, but has been covered with buildings, shops and farms and you will have to really go out of the town to catch a glimpse of it, if you are lucky. Here in the Mai, you can also touch his silver padukas and the black stone where he sat and bathed. Every noon, prasad in the form of puri, bhaji, dal or chaval is served to those present at that time, or you can also serve yourself if no one is there to do it. This place also has replicas of Sai’s horse and the tiger, which are said to have died just before Sai left for his heavenly abode. I felt it is a rare opportunity that any human being gets to be so close to such a great personality, individual and saint.
Close to this mosque lies the Chavdi. This place is where Sai is supposed to have said his prayers and meditated. Here also lies his smoking pipe and palanquin, taken out for a procession every Thursday. Sai would walk in a procession till his last days, with his close companions Tatya, Bayjabai, Chandorkar, Laxmibai and others. This is the only place where women are not allowed to enter the enclosed section. Opposite to it lies the small house with three rooms, one of which contains a dargah of Chand Bhai, the man Sai arrived with accompanying a marriage party. A quiet and completely ignored place, it is worth a visit for you will find a great collection of original pictures of Sai Baba and the wooden sandals he wore till the last days. Well, it has been quite a day, tiring yet satisfying.
All the unanswered questions about Sai were answered and knowing him through the places where he stayed and visited. I chose to rest, the remainder of the day before visiting the main temple the next day. I had just taken two days off to visit Shirdi, but it felt as if I have been for ages, for time means nothing, except when you have to reach on time for the arti.
The itinerary of the temple begins early at 5am in the morning with a Bhupali, Abhishekam at Gurusthan, 5.15 (morning) Arati, Naivedyam of butter and sugar to Baba in Samadhi Mandir, Oil offered to the lamps in Dwarkamai, 5.40 Bhajan in Saibaba Mandir, 6 am Mangal Snaan (washing) of Statue and Samadhi in Samadhi Mandir, 7 am Darshan begins in Samadhi Mandir, 9 am Naivedyam in Samadhi Mandir and Dwarkamai, 10.30 Satyanarayana Pooja, 11.30 Dhuni Pooja with rice and ghee in Dwarkamai, 12 Mid day Arti, 12.30 Naivedyam in Samadhi Mandir, Dwarkamai and Gurusthan, 4 pm Pothi (Devotional reading/Study) in Samadhi Mandir. At sunset: Dhoop (evening) Arti, 6.30 pm Naivedyam in Samadhi Mandir, Dwarkamai and Gurusthan, 8 to 9 pm Devotional Songs in Samadhi Mandir and other Cultural Programmes (if any), 10 pm Shej (night) Arti, after this, a shawl is wrapped around the statue in the Samadhi Mandir, a Rudraksha mala is put around Baba's neck, Mosquito net is hung, and a glass of water kept there. At 10.45 pm, Samadhi Mandir closes after night Arti. An entire day just goes at the temple so you will be better off, if you do sightseeing one day and visit the temple on the next day, checking out all the programmes if you want. The lifelike marble statue was put in this place in 1954. For a Sai Bhakht, this is the most beautiful sight he can see. After the gifts are offered to Sai and devotees receive prasad, they are directed to give the gifts to the Sansthan office, which will later be auctioned so the money can be used for charitable work. The temple is also his samadhi which lies right in front of the marble statue.
Sai had said: “I will stay as my devotees want me too.” Three days are the most important in the entire year at Shirdi: those of Ramnavmi (March/April), to celebrate the birth of the son of Gopal Gund, born after many years with the blessing of Sai. The second, Guru Purnima (June/July) and Vijaydashmi or Dassehra (This year on October 23), the day Sai took his samadhi.The office, at one of its windows, gives out the sacred ash and coconuts and the famous ladoos. Close to the office are the three small temples made in black stone of Lord Ganesha, Shani and Dattatraya, constructed at the behest of Sai and offer puja everyday.
The Sai Sansthan has grown over the years from just taking care of the temple to doing a lot of charitable work in and around Shirdi. After attending the arti and visiting the temple, and collecting prasad for my family and friends, I stepped out into the market close to the back of the temple. Well, here was a surprise waiting for me, for I had missed seeing the Gurusthan - the neem below which Sai was seen for the first time. Here, the new shoot of the tree has also grown to quiet a height beside the old one. I walked into the market feeling blessed. Though people were poor, they seemed satisfied. I picked up silver rings with picture of Sai, some photographs, lockets, and a small marble statue of Sai. This statue now occupies the pride of place at my table in the office, complete with a crown, shawl and garland.

Fact File The temple can be visited year round though it is a little hot in summer and a little cold in winter and wet in the rains. The Dassehra festivals will begin on October 21, 2004 and continue till the 23, with the rath and palanquin yatra each of these days.Address: Shri Saibaba Sansthan, Shirdi. Tal- Rahata, Dist- Ahmednagar Pin-423 109 MS(India)It falls on Ahmednagar-Manmad State Highway No.10 at 83 Km. from Ahmednagar, and 15 Km. from Kopargaon.You can catch a bus from Mumbai. Get in touch with the private bus owners/ST Bus Stands for details of the time and expense.


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