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He ranks, quite unequivocally, among the most celebrated spiritual figures in the world today. There have always been saints at any given point in human history, as there are today, but few command devotion of quite the same magnitude as Sri Sathya Sai Baba. For an ever-burgeoning tribe of devotees - estimated at over 80 million and spread over 98 countries in the globe - he is not merely a mystic. He is an incarnation of God himself.

The sceptics are, of course, also legion. Is Sri Sathya Sai Baba a gigantic hoax? The question lurks obstinately in many an inquiring mind that doesn't want to confuse receptivity with gullibility.

Indeed, there is very little about the Sathya Sai Baba phenomenon that can be accommodated within the rationalist's comfort zone. He is far too popular and at 75, far too alive and dynamic for those who prefer their spiritual mentors to be low profile or safely entombed.

Besides, the miracles he performs daily with an effortless throwaway air are breathtaking, confounding, casually extravagant. He produces ceaseless streams of sacred ash, rings, even watches, with a mere wave of his hand; cures ailments ranging from cancer to AIDS, rescues disciples in difficult situations in the far reaches of the globe; and is even said to have restored life to the dead on several occasions. That seems a bit much even for those willing to suspend disbelief up to a point!

But consider the facts dispassionately. The gospel he preaches is a non-exclusionist one of love and truth, peace and unity. The thousands who flock daily for his darshan daily constitute a bewildering pot pourri of faiths, but none feel it incumbent on them to renounce their religions.

And then consider this achievement alone. In less than a lifetime, this man has transformed a dozing hamlet in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh into a vibrant town that boasts of a general hospital, a state-of-the-art super specialty hospital, a flourishing university, secondary and primary schools, a stadium, a planetarium, a museum, an ashram, scores of hotels - even an airport!

When do I go? Try Christmas at Puttaparthi; it's celebrated with great pomp and the weather is pleasant in December and January

How To Reach

There are flights to Puttaparthi from Mumbai and Chennai on certain days of the week. The frequency decreases, however, in Baba's absence. There is an Indian Airlines reservation office in the Ashram (North Building 2) that can be consulted for flight schedules and ticket rates.

The closest station to Puttaparthi is Dharmavaram (40 km away) that can be accessed by the South Central Railway. There is a regular bus service from Dharmavaram to Puttaparthi (4.30 am to 9 pm). Taxis are also available. Train bookings (Tel: 87355) can be made in the bus station.

Most tourists prefer to go to Bangalore and take a state bus (KSRTC) from Bangalore's Majestic Bus Station, or take a private bus or hire a car to make the 168 kilometre journey to Puttaparthi. Bus reservations can be made at the Bus Station a minute's walk from the Ashram (Tel: 87210).

Puttaparthi History

The history of Puttaparthi, as far as the world is concerned, began on November 23, 1926. Until then it was an obscure speck in the Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh State. Set in a narrow farming valley, the village was apparently called Gollapalli, the home of cowherds, before it became Puttaparthi.

The life story of Sai Baba, as documented by his many disciples, is so spectacular that it is difficult to know where biography ends and apocrypha begins. On the other hand, as the believers would counter, the lives of saints are meant to be extraordinary - to stretch the limits of our rational daytime understanding, as it were.

The advent of Satyanarayana Raju, the fourth child of Eswaramma and Pedda Venkappa Raju, seems to have been predicted by several sources, and is said to have been attended by a series of extraordinary phenomena. A snake apparently appeared and shielded the infant, and musical instruments in the house started playing of their own accord!

Satyanarayana Raju appears to have been an exceptional child on all counts. His gentleness and compassion were legendary in the village. He liberally distributed food and clothes to the needy, miraculously manifested chocolates, notebooks and pencils from an empty bag to share with his schoolmates, and materialised every conceivable fruit on the tamarind tree that can still be seen on the hill near Puttaparthi.

Perturbed by the extraordinary behaviour of their son, his parents took him to a local witch doctor who perpetrated various painful bodily procedures on the young boy to drive the "evil spirit" away. It was to no avail, however. At the age of 13, on May 28, 1940, Satyanarana materialised some sweets and flowers, distributed them among his family members, and made his famous declaration, "I am Sai Baba". Not many at this point knew of the earlier Sai Baba, the legendary mystic of Shirdi (more than 1,000 miles from Puttaparthi), who had passed away in 1918.

On October 20, 1940, Satyanarayana apparently threw away his schoolbooks, left his house for good, seated himself on a rock, and burst into the now well-known Sai bhajan, Manasa bhajare guru charanam dustara bhava sagara charanam. A local photographer who captured the moment on his camera was shocked to see a picture of Shirdi Sai Baba (in his classic pose of right ankle over left knee) when the negative was developed.

That day marked the beginning of the Sri Sathya Sai Baba mission. He now dedicated himself entirely to spreading a message of sathya (truth), dharma (righteousness), shanthi (peace), prema (love) and ahimsa (non-violence) - the substratum of every religion in the world - and performing miracles for his ever-increasing tribe of devotees in an effort to remind them of their inner divinity. The mission continues to this very day.

The pir of Puttaparthi may make few forays into the outside world. However, the world today is only too anxious to visit Puttaparthi.

Puttaparthi Location

Located in Anantapur District of Andhra Pradesh state, Puttaparthi is a small village about 800m above sea level at a latitude of 15 degrees north and a longitude of 70 degrees east. The township that is adjacent is named Prashanthi Nilayam which is where the ashram is located. The population of Prashanthi Nilayam (including Puttaparthi village) is approximately 8,850.

Sights to Visit

Prashanthi Nilayam
This is the township that abuts the village of Puttaparthi, and it is here that the Ashram is located.

There is undeniably an air of serenity about the Ashram - an atmosphere that is scrupulously maintained by the volunteers who manage it. The Ashram comprises a series of concrete buildings with multiple domes, spires and turrets within a large enclosure. It is entered through a large archway with seven golden miniature spires over which are engraved the words: "You are in the Light. The Light is in you. You are the Light."

Ganesha Temple
The first structure you hit upon as you enter the Ashram is the Ganesha temple, which is evidently the most popular shrine in the place, as shrines everywhere dedicated to this endearing elephant-headed deity are wont to be. The USP of this particular figure in the Hindu pantheon has traditionally been to remove obstacles from the path of his devotees. Not surprisingly, many flock here for the special morning prayer.

Subramaniam Shrine
Constructed in 1997, this is to the south of the Ganesha shrine and is dedicated to Lord Subramaniam - or Kartikeya or Muruga, as this younger son of Ganesha, and the second son of Shiva and Parvati, is often known. Subramaniam is a particularly popular deity in South India, propitiated for the grace and protection he bestows.

Gayatri Shrine

The goddess, Gayatri, a manifestation of the goddess Durga, is worshipped in a small shrine in front of the Round Building No 4. The idol of this five-headed, ten-armed goddess of intelligence and wisdom was installed in October 1998 during the Paduka Mahotsava.

Prashanthi Mandir
This is the main temple in the Ashram, consisting of a two-storey structure built in granite. Constructed in 1950, it has a central prayer hall where bhajans (or devotional music, so strong in the Sathya Sai tradition) are held daily. The omkar (chanting of the sacred mnemonic, Om) and the suprabhatam (morning invocation to Sai Baba) are also held here in the early mornings at 4 am.

Ornately decorated with silver and gems, the shrine contains large images of Shirdi Sai Baba (interestingly his robes here are saffron instead of white) and Sathya Sai Baba. These are flanked by columns displaying the symbols associated with the major religions of the world. There is also a large marble idol of Shirdi Sai Baba on a silver throne to one side, and an empty gold throne representing the seat of the living deity to the other side.

It is particularly moving to visit the place during the omkar and bhajan when the air is resonant with the cadences of human voices united in a spirit of yearning and devotion. The morning prayers are followed by a two-minute meditative silence after which the congregation disperses and the temple lights are switched on.

However, the blue and pink décor - muted, it is true - may be somewhat disconcerting to the aesthetic sensibilities of some visitors. Pink, blue and yellow does seem to be the colour code of all the major buildings at Puttaparthi and Whitefield. If the truth be told, the look is somewhat reminiscent of a Telugu potboiler film set. And yet, the fervour that permeates the place is undeniable.

Shirdi Sai Baba Statue
This 7 foot tall statue of Baba's earlier incarnation is located on a rock that is more than 10 feet high, en route to the General Hospital from the Ashram.

Sai Kulwant Hall (Darshan Ground)
Situated between Baba's residence at Poornachandra Hall and the Prashanthi Mandir, this vast enclosure can accommodate over 20,000 devotees at a time. The white-domed, multi-coloured, somewhat excessively festooned two-storeyed sanctum contains the prayer hall on the ground floor, and a few rooms flanked by a balcony on the second. On a large pair of silver doors in the balcony are inscribed the symbols of the major faiths of the world.

As queues of devotees gather every morning for darshan, the atmosphere is charged with anticipation and an almost palpable yearning. One of the most remarkable features of Sathya Sai worship is its air of quiet discipline. Unlike the quintessential Hindu shrine that is invariably characterised by a clamour of voices, Sathya Sai devotion is a peaceful affair, and there are volunteers appointed to keep it so. As pilgrims huddle close, cross-legged, one is struck by the breathtaking diversity of cultures and religions that are represented here.

Soft instrumental music heralds the arrival of Sai Baba. The focal point of every gaze in the hall, he glides down the rows of devotees, stopping to bless one, smile at another, accept a letter of fervent appeal from a third.

Although he may have reached mythic proportions in his lifetime, Sathya Sai Baba presents a small and slender figure in physical terms, not more than 5 feet 3 inches, barefoot in his orange gown, his distinctive blaze of hair adding inches to his otherwise diminutive frame. He sometimes picks out a few people for an interview (highly sought after by everyone present), after which he disappears into the temple. The music slowly fades out.

The hushed silence, the music and the near-tangible adoration of those congregated may have something to do with it. But most agree that there remains a lingering feeling that one has been in the presence of no ordinary man.

Poornachandra Auditorium
Built in 1973, this large auditorium (60 metres by 40 metres) can seat well over 15,000 people. Situated behind the office block, this grand hall - somewhat baroque in its lushness - with its many domes and balconies is used for discourses, cultural events and conferences.

The unique feature is the absence of a single pillar to support the structure, making it ostensibly the only example of its kind in Asia. To the right of the platform where Baba sits are murals and sculptures of the avatars of Vishnu, and on the other side are images of the myths associated with other faiths. Engraved all around the hall are the many aphoristic utterances of Baba himself. Baba's more austere living quarters are evidently upstairs above the stage.

Sarva Dharma Aikya Stambha
This 50 foot high column of blue reinforced concrete stands in the garden near the Sai Kulwant Hall. It represents the essential unity of all faiths in the world, and was built on the occasion of Sathya Sai Baba's golden jubilee celebrations and the World Conference of Sathya Seva organisations held in November '75.

Vata Vruksha
Located on the hill behind the Prashanthi Mandir, it is possible to find several devotees meditating here. The sapling of this tree was apparently planted by Baba himself. He also materialised a metal plate with a ritual diagram (yantra) which was placed under the roots in 1950. It is believed that this encourages a contemplative spirit among those who meditate here. The place is designated as a silent zone, and men and women are seated separately on either side of the tree.

Samadhi of Baba's Parents
The samadhi or memorial shrine that houses the mortal remains of Baba's parents is built of black stone and is situated off the main street down Samadhi Road.

Kalpa Vruksha
It is believed that as a young boy, Baba materialised a variety of fruit on a tamarind tree on the hillside near the Chitravathi river. This gave it the name of kalpa vruksha or wish-fulfilling tree. There are several devotees who have testified to this miracle. The tree exists to this day.

Eternal Heritage Museum
This three-storey museum is dedicated to the perennial interior journey of mankind. Scriptural extracts representing all the faiths, audio and video material, a reading room with a wide array of spiritual literature and miniature reconstructions of famous places of worship around the globe can be found here.
The museum is open between 10 am and noon on weekdays.

Baba's Birth Place
A small unobtrusive little Shiva temple marks Sathya Sai Baba's birthplace in the still charming village of Puttaparthi. It was inaugurated by Baba in 1979. Since he was born on Karthika Somvara (a day associated with Shiva worship), the shrine was dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Venugopalaswamy Temple
This temple dedicated to Krishna or Venugopala has an interesting mythological genealogy. Apparently, Gollapalli (Puttaparthi's earlier name) was a prosperous village of cowherds at one time. However, evil fortunes fell upon the village when one incensed cowherd hurled a stone at a cobra that was sucking milk from the udder of one of his cows. The dying cobra cursed the village, and as a result, the cattle began to perish, and the place was infested with ant-hills. Its name was now changed to Valmikipura (the word 'Valmiki' denoting 'anthill' in Sanskrit, and Puttaparthi being the Telugu equivalent of the same).

In an attempt to appease the spirit of the dead snake, the villagers installed the blood-splattered stone in a shrine and started worshipping it. Sathya Sai Baba instructed them to wash it and smear it with sandal paste. On doing this, the outline of the figure of Krishna (or Venugopala) holding his customary flute, became discernible. The temple was now called the Venugopalaswamy temple, and the curse on the village of Puttaparthi came to an end.

Satyabhama Temple
This temple dedicated to Satyabhama, consort of Krishna, was constructed by Baba's grandfather, Kondama Raju. This was in response to a dream in which Kondama Raju saw Satyabhama in distress in a storm (having sent Krishna away to pluck flowers for her) and beseeching him for his protection.

Other Sites
The other highlights in the village include the mosque (which was constructed and inaugurated by Baba in 1978), the Anjaneya Swami temple (where the idol of Hanuman stands in a cave with a Shiva lingam from Kashi installed by Baba outside it) and the Sri Pedda Venkappa Raju Kalyana Mandapam (a free marriage hall that was originally a temple).

Cultural Centres
Since it is primarily a pilgrim spot, cultural activities at Puttaparthi remain circumscribed. The sprawling Poornachandra Auditorium within the Ashram is customarily the site of cultural events. Daily bhajan (religious song) sessions are held at the Prashanthi Mandir. School cultural events are held annually in the Sri Sathya Sai Hill View Stadium on January 11. During Navaratri celebrations, dancers of repute from various parts of the country are frequently invited to give performances.

Your Itinerary for Puttaparthy

Day 01: Arrive Delhi - On arrival, transfer to Hotel Imperial or similar. After lunch, city tour visiting Laxmi Narayan Temple, Hanuman Mandir, Gauri Shankar Mandir and Chhattarpur Mandir. Dinner & overnight at hotel.

Day 02: Delhi / Bangalore - Transfer to airport for flight to Bangalore. Breakfast on board. Check-in at Hotel Ramanashree or similar. After lunch, visit Cubbon Park, Bull Temple, Mysore Arts & Crafts Centre and the commercial street. Dinner & overnight at hotel.

Day 03: Bangalore / Puttaparthy (183 Kms/4hrs) - After breakfast, depart by car/coach to Puttaparthy, enroute visit Le Pakshi - famous for the temple built in Vijaynagar style and dedicated to Lord Shiva and shrine dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Arrive Puttaparthy - a tiny village thronged by people in search of peace and truth - and our stay will be in the Ashram. Chosen as the abode by Bhagwan Shri Satya Sai Baba, the place has been transformed into a seat of knowledge transcending the materialism of the world. Meals and overnight at Ashram with simple and basic facilities.

Day 04: Puttaparthy - Full-day at Ashram witnessing miracles during the Vibhuti ceremony & listening to discourses. Meals/overnight at Ashram.

Day 05/06/07: Puttaparthy - Full-day/meals/overnight at Ashram.

Day 08: Puttaparthy/Bangalore - After breakfast, depart by car/coach to Bangalore. Check-in and lunch at Hotel Ramanashree or similar. Dinner and overnight at hotel.

Day 09: Bangalore/Hassan (187kms/4hrs) - After breakfast, depart by car/coach for Hassan to visit Belur - known for Chamakeshwara Temple (one of the finest specimens of 13th century Hoysala Temple Architecture). Proceed to Halebid, with elaborately carved temples of Hoysaleswara and Kedaveshvara. Dinner and overnight at Hotel Hassan Ashok or similar.

Day 10: Hassan/Mysore (52kms/1.5 hrs) - After breakfast and lunch at hotel, depart by car/coach for Mysore, visit the palace of the Maharaja, Chammundi Temple and Vrindavan Garden. Dinner and overnight at Hotel Quality Inn or similar.

Day 11: Mysore/Bangatore/Madras - After breakfast, depart for Bangalore by car/coach (139kms/3hrs). After lunch, transfer to Railway Station for train to Madras Vrindavan Express D:1415/A:20101. Arrive Madras and transfer to hotel. Dinner and overnight at hotel.

Day 12: Madras/Back Home - After breakfast, city tour visiting National Arts Gallery & Museum. Fort St. George. Fort Museum, St. Mary's Church, Victoria Technical Institute and drive along the Marina Beach. After lunch, transfer to airport for flight to onward destination/back home.

Tour Ends.

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