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.
How to Reach Shirdi Sai Dham
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 to you.
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.
Places to Visit
The 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 you go).
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 Satcharita.
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 own life-story.
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.