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The inner temple walls of the Shirdi sanctorum resound with reverberations of “OM SAI, OM SAI, JAYA JAYA SAI”. Scores of devotees give vent to their emotions in sync with the raising of their arms, their eyes shining with tears. Others have their eyes tightly shut, their faces ecstatic with bliss, unquestioning faith, and devotion.
Such is the magnificent aura of the great sage and saint ‘Shirdi Sai Baba’, immortalized in stone in the Sai temple at Shirdi.

Though temples to this beloved saint abound all over India, the Sai temple at Shirdi takes on special significance in the hearts of millions of devotees across the length and breadth of India, for it was in this remote hamlet and surrounding areas in the State of Maharashtra that Shirdi Sai Baba’s divine attributes first manifested nearly 150 years ago.

I found myself (an act of premeditation or perhaps providence?) a witness to this remarkable spectacle unfolding before me on a Saturday night during the ‘Shej Aarti’ within the hallowed temple. It was in fact, a friend who had felt an irresistible urge to visit Shirdi (or perhaps the divine sage had beckoned) and I, compelled by curiosity and having spare time on hand, decided to tag along.

A 21 hour train journey the day before, (commencing at New Delhi) had seen us descend at Kopargaon railway station situated 16 km from Shirdi. A number of shared taxis ply the route from Kopargaon to Shirdi, ferrying passengers and pilgrims to and fro at Rs. 40 per head. The village of Kopargaon itself is 5 km from the station, but our destination lay elsewhere and the driver shortly maneuvered our transport on to the Nagar-Shirdi highway. The journey to Shirdi from Kopargaon takes between 30-40 minutes.

Though the Nagar-Shirdi highway is in a state of disrepair and the journey rather bumpy, my discomfort soon gave way to amazement as we entered the periphery of Shirdi town. My cause for astonishment was the number of hotels and guest houses that dotted the landscape. Of course, given the humongous footfall of devotees and tourists, arrangements for accommodations were a given.

Nonetheless, the number of hotels bearing fascinating names (though mostly punctuated with the ubiquitous ‘Sai’) that bloomed on either side of the highway was unexpected. In accompaniment to the hotels and guest houses, a plethora of small and medium sized restaurants lie on either side of the main highway, serving pan-national cuisine to cater to the diverse and heterogeneous Indian palate.

Shortly, our driver pulled over to the left, only a stone’s throw from the Sai Temple. We headed towards ‘Dwaravati Bhakta Nivas’, a stopover for devotees located less than a kilometer away from the temple; but not before we were surrounded by a couple of rest house and hotel agents, eagerly thrusting their business cards forward with intonations of great rooms fitted with all the creature comforts of modern life, all at reasonable prices too. Having accepted a few cards and with a polite, “We’ll think about it”, we made our way post haste to Dwaravati Bhakta Nivas.

I would recommend visitors to Shirdi to follow suit and to resort to alternative means of accommodation only after exhausting the option of Dwaravati Bhakta Nivas, and the 2 ‘Sai Ashrams’.

Having made our way to our predetermined lodging, we were disappointed to discover that prior bookings were required. However, as luck would have it, the receptionist was kind enough to suggest either of the two Sai Ashrams, where rooms are allotted on a first-come first-get basis, in addition to prior booking.

The two Sai Ashrams (1 and 2) are an ode to the effort and meticulous planning of the Shirdi Sai Baba Sansathan Trust and Shirdi Sai Trust. Located barely a kilometer away from the Sai temple, the ashram complex encompasses an impressive 23 acres with a capacity to house an astounding 14,000 people.

With a generous cover of trees, shrubs and gardens, an open air theatre and an overall impressive infrastructure to boot, I found the entire complex to be the very picture of cleanliness, hygiene, and efficient functionality.

Having entered the compound and reached the reception counters, we were able to secure a room. One can opt between A.C and non A.C rooms with Rs. 900 being charged for A.C rooms and Rs. 500 being charged for non A.C rooms. A valid I.D proof and photograph are essential for the acquisition of a form for obtaining a room. Lunch and dinner are available at Rs. 10 per adult and Rs. 5 per child.

The food is simple but wholesome and nutritious. Breakfast is served in packets and consists of puri, sabzi and a sweet dish. It was pleasing to learn that a cup of coffee and milk at Rs. 1.50 each per cup, and tea at Rs. 1.00 per cup, were ridiculously reasonably priced.

By the time we had refreshed ourselves and grabbed a quick bite, it was already 21:00 hrs. Hoping to make it in time for the night (shej) aarti, we made a beeline for the temple. The ashram provides a shuttle service free of cost for ferrying people from the ashram to the temple and back. However, having already missed the last shuttle there was nothing in it for us but to walk.

We made it to the temple premises at 22:30 hrs. The temple has 3 main gates that are thrown open to the public for either darshan or aarti. One has to get into the queue of people in the courtyard making their way (lined by steel barricades) into the main temple and down into the sanctum that houses the Shirdi Sai Baba murti. There being virtually no one else about, we made it down by 22:35.

And so it came to be that I found myself on a fateful October night amidst innumerable devotees seated cross legged on the floor, swaying and praying, insouciant for the moment to their concerns, merely reveling in ‘bhakti’ and the sonorous chants of the priests as they performed this last ritual to Shirdi Sai Baba, before winding up for the night.

Since we were late, we could only find a place for ourselves nearly at the very back. The chamber gives the impression of a massive underground hall that seemingly curves in a semi-circular arch. Furthermore, the portion of the chamber that houses the Sai Murti is separated from the rest by massive wooden doors, which at this point were shut and consequently neither the priests nor the Sai Murti were visible to us.

However, large LCD screens affixed on the supporting pillars beamed the priests, the ritual and the Sai Murti straight to us. The Shej aarti is concluded by the nightly act of a Rudraksha mala being placed around the neck of Baba, followed by a shawl placed around Baba’s shoulders subsequent to which a glass of water is kept near and, a mosquito net hung around Baba.

There are 4 aarti’s that are held at the temple; the morning aarti or ‘Kakad’ (5:15-5:45 A.M), afternoon aarti or ‘Madhya’ (12:00-12:30 P.M), evening aarti or ‘Dhoop’ (6:00-6:20 P.M) and finally the night aarti or ‘Shej’ (10:30-10:55 P.M).

The next evening (our day having been spent at Shani Shignapur), we headed off to the Shirdi Sai temple, and this time we caught the shuttle. Being a Sunday, the crowd was relatively less. Photography is prohibited within the temple premises as is carrying a camera or mobile phones, and so we had to stow them away in provided lockers.

My friend not being well was able to secure a special pass for the both of us at an additional expense of Rs. 300 for entering through Gate 1, reserved for VIPs and those that are unwell or suffering from some ailment or disability. Gate 2 and 3 cater to ordinary folk.

Luckily enough for us, it took only 40 minutes to complete the darshan, and much to our surprise and no doubt to the surprise of other devotees, we were allowed to spend nearly 10 minutes in the vicinity of Baba’s murti by the magnanimity of the security personnel manning the sacred and barricaded space within which Sai Baba’s murti is enclosed.

This feat was accomplished by our going out one door at the back to the left of Sai Baba and coming in through another door at the right of Sai Baba, and so circumnavigating the devotees about and around Baba, so to speak. Had it not been for the 2 priests seated just in front of the elevated pedestal of Shirdi Sai Baba, we would indubitably have been able to touch Baba. The priests of course accept the offerings from the devotees.

Our homage completed, we made our way to the Margosa (Neem) tree, under which Sai Baba is said to have sat. For reasons I cannot comprehend, I felt a soothing sense of calm and serenity intermingled with a degree of exhilaration. The temple premises also houses shops (where one can purchase sweet meats as ‘prashadams’) a center for making donations, and a separate center for NRIs and PIOs.

Small temples highlighting the glory of Lord Ganesha, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva, can also be found within the main Sai temple compound. Having paid our respects, we strolled back to the ashram, content and light-hearted. All in all, it was a fantastic darshan.

On a note of caution, there are innumerable agents about the temple premises who promise you a quick darshan sans the queue, and the opportunity to even drape a saffron cloth on Sai Baba for a certain fee. However, this is hogwash and I would suggest that you save your money rather than give into their claims.

When making a trip to Shirdi, a visit to both Shani Shignapur and Triambakeshwar should be on the cards. Taking a shared taxi is the best option, and most taxis are available right outside the gate of the Ashram. Having decided to visit Shignapur, we caught a taxi and reached our destination in an hour and half. Although an uneventful journey, I was struck by all the village cattle we passed. All ordinary cattle of course, except that they were resplendent with horns painted in different shades. I caught glimpses of blue, yellow, orange, red and green. Apparently, this was on account of a local festival that had recently ended.

Shani Shignapur lies in the village of Shignapur, 75 km from Shirdi and is renowned for the sincerity of the villagers and the fact that not a single house has either a door or even a door frame. The occupants believe that the divine presence and benediction of the God ensures that no crime will ever occur there. It can only be believed when seen. The principle deity is Lord ‘Shanidev’, the very personification of the planet Saturn, symbolized by a black stone standing erect on a simple platform, and attracts the reverence of multitudes of people.

Unlike other places of worship, the presiding deity is not housed in the temple, but in an open space within the temple compound. The devotees are also free to perform the religious rituals themselves. I would advise however, to avoid the touts who teem about the place and the agents who direct gullible travelers to shops for purchasing oil, horseshoes, incense sticks, garlands of leaves and the like as offering to the stone, for you are sure to be fleeced.

The accouterments for the temple offering are available at reasonable prices just outside the temple premises. The other attractions close by are the Shri Dattatraya temple and the tomb of Sant Shri Udasi Baba.
Triambakeshwar is 117 km from Shirdi. Tour guides at Shirdi provide a shared mini-bus tour, at Rs. 250 per head, which includes a visit to the famous Triambeshkwar temple, Panchavati-encompassing ‘Sita Gumpha’, ‘Kalaram’ temple and ‘Ramkund’, and other notable places of worship. To make best of the tour, one should catch an early morning bus to have an adequate darshan and soak in the splendor of the temples.

One can also avail a taxi, the cost for which is Rs. 2800 to 3000 for a round trip. Being pressed for time, we decided to visit just Triambakeshwar, and took a bus to Nashik, from where we caught another bus for Triambak village, located 36 km from Nashik.

The current Triambakeshwar temple is built on the site of an older temple that was built during the reign of Chhatrapati Shivaji in the 17th century. Of the many stories that relate to this much respected temple, an endearing legend is that it is the site where the first drop of the holy nectar (amrit) fell from the heavens, a boon bestowed by Lord Shiva to Gautama Rishi in lieu of his rigorous penance on Brahmagiri Hill.

The temple, built entirely out of black stone is symbolic of the age in which it was built, with a triangular structure (Gopurum) standing out. Incidentally, Brahmagiri hill rises in the background of the temple which itself, is the site for the ‘kusuvarta’ kund and enshrines the main (out of 12) jyotirlingas dedicated to Lord Shiva. The lingam is much eroded now and seen as emblematic of the eroding nature of human society.

The annual festival of ‘Shivratri’ is celebrated with great pomp and gaiety here, and we spent quite a bit of time simply marveling at the temple’s architecture.

Sadly, our whirlwind tour was now at an end and in good time we found ourselves on a night train for the long haul home. My first visit to Shirdi had been highly satisfying, enjoyable, and educational. Already tired, the rocking of the train lulled my senses and I lapsed into a much needed deep sleep with the words Om Shirdi Sai on my lips.

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