You see it on car stickers, shop windows, bus stands and wayside
shrines. It registers indelibly in the subconscious mind amid the
synaesthetic hysteria of images that India offers most tourists.
It is the picture of a man with a white beard and penetrating glance,
clad in the traditional attire of a poor fakir a ragged white robe
and a kerchief around the head seated barefoot on a rock, his right
ankle resting on his left knee.
There are variations on this theme, as there inevitably are when
an image proliferates. At times his robes are saffron, and at
other times, the picture focuses merely on his face with its deep
compelling glance. But who is this man. And how did he come to
acquire such a pan-Indian familiarity and generate such collective
The key to that enigma or at least a tantalising glimpse into
it is to be found in a hot, dusty nondescript town in Maharashtra
called Shirdi, an eight-hour bus-ride away from Mumbai.
For it is here that Sai Baba, that legendary mystic of early
20th century India, lived for most of the 80 years of his life.
There is nothing particularly attractive about Shirdi. An abundance
of profoundly unaesthetic pink, white and yellow concrete has
nudged out the green spaces that must have once defined the landscape.
And the odour of mercantilism simply pervades the air from hotel
proprietors to street vendors to the temple authorities, everyone
appears to have acquired breathtaking savoir-faire in the practice
of peddling the Sai Baba phenomenon.
But hang in there. Somewhere in the course of your visit, a strange
peace, a certain inexplicable quietude, is likely to descend upon
you. You could attribute it to the grace of the mysterious Fakir
that suffuses the hallowed town. Or simply to the atmosphere surcharged
with devotion that is found in so many sites of pilgrimage all
over the world.
And yet, even diehard agnostics and rationalists have been known
to furtively tuck little fragments of Sai Baba memorabilia into
their pockets before they leave the place!
And that finally, is what the big hoo-ha over Shirdi is all about.
For slowly but inevitably, the Fakir of this seemingly godforsaken
place in the west-Indian wilderness gets under your skin.
Getting there :
By Air : Nearest airport is Aurangabad.
By Rail : Nearest railhead is Kopargaon,
15 kms. on the Manmad-Daund section of Central Railway.
By Road : Mumbai-Shirdi, 296 kms. (Mumbai-Nashik-Niphad-Yeola-Shirdi)
Nashik-Shirdi 112 kms. Aurangabad-shirdi 126 kms. (Aurangabad-Vaijapur
Yeola-Kopargaon-shirdi) Pune-Shirdi, 183 kms. (Pune-Kalamba-Sangmner-Talegaon-Shirdi)
State Transport buses ply regularly from Mumbai, Nashik, Ahmednagar,
Aurangabad, Pune and Kopargaon. MTDC runs a bi-weekly round trip
bus service to Shirdi from Mumabai.
The history of Shirdi cannot be estranged from the biography of
Sai Baba. Indeed, it would have been one of the million anonymous
small towns in the country if it had not been inexplicably chosen
by this unique saint to be his home.
Cartographically, it remains an inconspicuous speck in Ahmednagar
district. Spiritually, it has become a magnet, attracting hordes
of believers from all over the globe, all attempting to resolve
their existential dilemmas in the abode of a mystic who offered
them that simple unequivocal promise: If you look to me, I look
Situated not far from the River Godavari, Shirdi is a small town
in Kopergaon county of Ahmednagar District in Maharashtra state.
It is located on the Ahmednagar-Manmad Highway, and consists essentially
of one bustling street and a maze of lanes and by-lanes. The name
is probably a corruption of the word, Shiladhi or Shailadhi, and
is believed to derive from the profusion of sugarcane plants in
the area. The population is approximately 2,000, and the place
itself is not more than 2 square kilometres in size.
Sights to visit
streets swarm with humanity, and the air is rent with the raucous
cries of hawkers and vendors. Indeed, there is little to recommend
this small town today other than the obvious fact that it gives
you a feeling of intense proximity with Sai Baba. With a little
imagination, however, one can visualise what it must have been
like in Baba's day - a small charming green village tucked away
in the deep recesses of rural India. The tourists to Shirdi are
all pilgrims whose aim is to visit the major areas associated
with their favourite saint. It is possible to finish all these
in less than a day, and still find time to visit the myriad shops
on the main street (where the image of Sai Baba is replicated
hundredfold, giving you that persistent impression that his familiar
visage, with its grave searching glance, follows you wherever
Shirdi is peppered with sites that constitute the dwellings and
memorial shrines (samadhi sthals) of Sai Baba's prime disciples.
There is the samadhi sthal and home of Abdul (one of Baba's foremost
Muslim disciples), the samadhis of Tatya Kote, Nanavalli, Bhau
Maharaj, Laxmibai Shinde (who daily offered food to Baba and worked
tirelessly in the masjid), as well as the houses of Madhavrao
Deshpande (who, according to Baba, had spent 72 lifetimes with
him), Mhalsapati (the priest of the Khandoba temple) and Upasani
Baba (whom some regarded as Baba's successor).
Adjacent to the Samadhi Mandir is the more humble masjid (mosque)
where Sai Baba actually lived. Although the Samadhi Mandir attracts
larger crowds, many find it a more moving experience to visit
the masjid where Baba's sacred fire (dhuni) is still unextinguished
and continues to yield the miraculous udhi (ash). Baba's three
charters about the masjid, which he affectionately called 'Dwarkamayi'
(Mother Mercy) are well-known:
1. This is not just a mosque. It is Dwarka (Mercy). Those who
seek refuge here will never be harmed.
2. As soon as one climbs the steps of this mosque, sufferings
due to karma are at an end and joy begins.
3. When one enters the Dwarkamayi, his goal is achieved.
Dwarkamayi occupies an important place in Sai mythology. It is
believed that when he first came to Shirdi, the temple priest,
Mhalsapati (an important Sai devotee) refused him accommodation
in the Khandoba temple on the grounds that he was a Muslim. Unperturbed,
Baba moved into a dilapidated and deserted old mosque and made
that his home. It is here that he slept, woke, assembled his durbar,
preached his gospel, maintained his dhuni and performed his miracles.
The masjid has been renovated today, but most pilgrims feel that
an ambience of intense sanctity still clings to it. It is still
an ideal place to sit in silent thought - away from the bustle
and shove of the Samadhi Mandir.
On the opposite end of the fire is the small throne-like seat
where Baba used to sit. On this is placed a life-size portrait
of Baba painted by Mr Jayakar of Mumbai. This oil painting is
considered to be an arrestingly vivid representation of the saint.
Baba himself is reported to have embraced the portrait when it
was presented to him and said, 'This picture will live after me'.
The queues to get to this place are truly serpentine. Prepare
yourself for an hour's wait at the very least - and that's a conservative
estimate! If devotees endure this discomfort (which is rendered
less acute by the enclosures built a year ago, offering some reprieve
from the sweltering heat), it is because the Samadhi Mandir is
where the mortal remains of the saint are interred. It is, therefore,
the focal point of the Shirdi pilgrimage. For most devotees remember
Baba's assurance: 'I shall be active and vigorous even from my
tomb, even after my mahasamadhi. I shall be with you the moment
you think of me'.
There is nothing particularly prepossessing about the place.
Don't make the mistake of expecting a sedate and dignified atmosphere;
the whole place throbs with a frantic devotion. And yet, a strange
hush descends as pilgrims enter the hall of the shrine. In the
words of one writer, 'There is almost an instant awareness of
a living presence. A strong expectancy hovers about the atmosphere,
as if just there round the corner we would inadvertently come
across the familiar and loveable figure'.
At the end of the marble hall is the strikingly lifelike statue
of the saint, in front of which is his grave. The walls of the
hall are lined with portraits of his foremost disciples - many
of whose names will be familiar to regular readers of the Sai
Kakad Aarti - 5.15 am
Holy Bath of Sai Baba - 6.00 am
Darshan begins - 7.00 am
Shri Sai Satyavrat Pooja - 8.00 am- 10.00 am
Abhishek - 8.00 am
Noon Aarti - 12.00 noon
Pravachan (from the Puranas) - 4.00 pm
Dhoopaarti - Sunset
Bhajan, Keertan - 9.15 - 9.45 pm
Shejaarti - 10.00 pm
The palanquin procession is between 9.15 and 10 pm on Thursdays.
Video shooting is strictly prohibited.
Located near the masjid is a small building with two rooms known
as the chavadi, which is the place where Sai Baba spent every
alternate night. This practice of worshipping Baba in the chavadi
evidently began on 10 December, 1909, and continued until his
mahasamadhi in 1918.
On those nights when he was to sleep in the chavadi, his disciples
organised an elaborate procession from the masjid. They would
gather in the evening and sing bhajans (religious song), with
musical accompaniment, in the courtyard for a few hours. Behind
them was a small carriage (ratha), a festooned palanquin, burning
oil lamps and the decorated horse, Shyamakarna. Baba's faithful
disciple, Tatya Patil, would place a gold-embroidered shawl around
his shoulders and holding his left arm, help him slowly to the
chavadi, while his other disciple, Mhalsapati, would support him
on the right side.
The chavadi was also splendidly decorated with mirrors and lamps.
Baba was helped into his cushioned seat, while devotees worshipped
him in various ways - one held an umbrella above him; others placed
flowers and jewelled garlands on him, or besmeared his arms with
sandal paste and offered him betel leaves. Madhavrao Deshpande,
another devotee, then prepared his chillum (cylindrical clay or
wood pipe), which was passed around to all.
Once the aarti (Hindu ritual involving lights, incense and chanting
in front of the deity) was over and the devotees went home, Baba
prepared his bed, by arranging some 50-60 white sheets, and retired
for the night! (This was clearly a marked contrast from the simple
wooden plank he used as a bed in the masjid.)
Female visitors are not permitted into the section of the chavadi
where Baba used to sleep. (This can be intensely annoying, particularly
if it's a boorish security guard who turfs you out! So it's better
not to get too close.) Also at the chavadi are the asan (seat)
on which Baba used to sit, as also the wooden platform on which
his body was bathed on the day of his funeral.
Not far from the Samadhi Mandir is yet another sacred spot --
the place that was once ostensibly the abode of Baba's spiritual
master. At the site is a neem tree under which Sai Baba sat when
he first came to Shirdi as a young boy of 16. The leaves of the
tree are believed to have miraculous properties, the already proven
therapeutic qualities of the plant probably having been augmented
by Baba's rigorous spiritual practice! At the foot of the tree
is a hidden cave, which is considered to be the site of his guru's
samadhi (a site of death or burial of a saint).
It is believed that when Baba first sat here as a young lad,
the people of Shirdi were mystified by this youthful yogi. One
day the god, Khandoba, is said to have possessed a devotee and
instructed the people to bring a pick-axe and dig near the tree.
On excavating the site, an illuminated corridor leading to a cellar
was unearthed. Khandoba revealed that Baba had practised arduous
penance here for 12 years in a previous lifetime.
Sai Baba himself did not elaborate on the subject, but instructed
his disciples to protect the site and regard it as a hallowed
spot. Every day on his walk from the masjid to Lendi garden, he
stopped here for a few moments to pray at his Guru's shrine.
The site was bought by Baba's devotee, Hari Vinayak Sathe, and
a building called Sathe's wada was erected. A platform was built
around the tree and steps were constructed. Pilgrims can sit on
the platform facing north and offer worship at the small shrine.
It is held that if a devotee prays here with full faith and burns
incense here on 11 consecutive Thursdays and Fridays, the grace
of Baba and his guru will surely descend upon him.
At the foot of the neem tree are also silver padukas (footprints)
of Baba, prepared by Bhai Krishnaji Alibagkar. These were ceremonially
installed on an auspicious day in 1912 with Baba's consent.
Not far from the Guru sthan is Lendi garden, which was at one
time a dense forest. Baba apparently went here for a walk twice
a day, and spent at least a couple of hours meditating here. After
his walk he would rest under some neem and peepul trees, while
his devotees gathered around him. A lamp was kept burning at this
site, and is revered to this day as the Nanda deep - a spot to
which pilgrims still flock.
Also at Lendi garden is a shrine dedicated to Lord Dattatreya,
that deity who represents the integration of the forces of the
gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. You can still see the historic
well from which Baba daily filled his two earthen pitchers of
water and watered the surrounding trees and plants (that were
once planted by him). The Lendi garden was also the abode of Baba's
horse, which he affectionately called Shyamakarna.
Situated opposite the State Transport Bus Stand is one of the
oldest temples in Shirdi. Those familiar with Sai Baba's life
story are aware that when he first came to Shirdi with a marriage
party, he alighted at the foot of the banyan tree near the Khandoba
temple. Mhalsapati, the temple priest, recognised him and called
out to him, Ya Sai! The name was to stay with him forever. Thus
the history of the temple is intimately wedded with Sai Baba's
This is still frequented by pilgrims who know that Sai Baba specially
venerated Lord Hanuman. Several years before Baba's arrival, a
saint called Devidas, a devout bhakta (devotee) and an advanced
yogic practitioner, lived here. Baba often visited the temple
and the saint, of whom he was very fond.