The bass of drums, the higher octaves of bells seeking divine attention, the rhythm of pujaris’ chants… my inhibitions dissolved in the steady beat of devotion and I was drawn into its spiralling crescendo. My body swayed as I blended into the crush of devotees and surrendered myself to the moment.
But I could discern a discordant note even in the flurry — someone was clapping to the frequency of his own devotion, out of rhythm with the others. I closed my eyes and soon the discord became part of the harmony.
It was 5.15 in the morning and in the Sai Baba Temple at Shirdi, the fakir saint was being awakened with the performance of kakad aarti. The mosquito nets placed over his marble statue at night were removed and the priests prepared to bathe him in milk and rose water. Soon Sai Baba would be ready for another day. On October 15, 1918, Sai Baba attained samadhi (salvation, not death), but in Shirdi his presence is very real even today. Indeed, Shirdi is Sai Baba, for without him this would have been just another little village of around a thousand residents.
Distances can seem exaggerated in Shirdi. What is referred to as the other end of the town is, in reality, a 10-min walk away, through narrow lanes fringed by small stalls selling flowers, sweets, trinkets and other items that devotees offer to Sai Baba. There are even Tibetans here selling woollies. Music blares from almost every stall; devotional and popular Bollywood songs mingle to create a most eclectic medley as one walks down the streets.
TIP: Leave your footwear with the stall owner from whom you buy your puja offerings; the service is free and saves you the jostling at the ‘shoe minding’ stall at the entrance to the temple complex.
Samadhi Mandir of Sai Baba is the heartbeat of Shirdi. The entire town seems to revolve around the shrine in which a lifesized white Italian marble statue of the saint presides. The shrine is also known by the unusual name of ‘Butty Wada’, after the man who built it — Gopalrao Butty of Nagpur. There is invariably a long line of devotees waiting for a darshan. If you are lucky, the wait will be about half-an-hour, more likely to be an hour or more. Be prepared to wait even longer — up to three or four hours — on Thursdays, the special day of the saint, and on weekends, holidays and during festivals. The darshan is brief and security guards wave you on to give others their moment in the glow of the saint’s grace.
Location In the far north of Ahmednagar District, south-east of Nashik
Distance 304 km NE of Mumbai JOURNEY TIME By road 6 hrs By rail 5 hrs + 20 mins by road
Route NH3 to Nashik via Igatpuri; NH50 to Sangamner; SH to Shirdi via Loni, Babhaleshwar and Rahata
When to go All year round. As one devotee said, “You don’t choose when you go to Shirdi; you go when Sai Baba calls”
Shri Sai Baba Sansthan, Shirdi
Tel: 02423-258770, 258500
STD code 02423
By Gustasp Irani
About the author
Gustasp Irani, a Mumbai-based travel writer, photographer and author of Once Upon a Raj, is a regular contributor to a number of leading publications in India.