Though apparently and formally Baba used to go to the Chavadi. In his super conscious state he was never asleep and used to tell his devotees that in his everlasting awareness (consciousness) he will always protect his devotees who were asleep at night.

Chavadi means “village office”, and was the place where taxes were collected, village records kept and visiting officials put up. After Baba’s mahasamadhi the Sansthan acquired Chavadi, and until the late 1930s, used it for storing books and accommodating pilgrims. The village offices have long been relocated and Chavadi is kept as a shrine to Baba and is open to all.

Sai Baba is intimately connected with this place, as he used to sleep here on alternate nights, during the last decade of his life. The routine was started on one wild and stormy night, around 1909. It was raining heavily, and water was coming through the leaky walls of the mosque. The devotees tried their best to persuade Baba to move out, if only until the water had subsided, but Baba did not want to go. Eventually, they virtually forced him to leave, by picking him up and half-carrying him to Chavadi. From that day onwards, Baba would spend alternate nights here.

Chavadi is also very significant to Sai devotees as it played a major role in the inception of formal worship of Baba. Once Baba started sleeping at Chavadi, the custom arose of offering regular arati to him on his arrival from the mosque. This was Sej (night) Arati. Later, Kakad (morning) Arati was offered when he woke up there. The performance of Midday and Evening aratis at the mosque probably developed subsequently.

Around the time that Dwarkamai was renovated, Chavadi was also upgraded. The mud walls were neatly plastered, huge mirrors were hung, glazed tiles replaced the mud floor and glass chandeliers were suspended from the ceiling. The funding for the renovations was provided by Anna Chinchanikar, who was deeply devoted to Baba. He had been involved in a land dispute and after a protracted struggle, during which he repeatedly asked Baba about the outcome, he was elated when the court ruled in his favour. Feeling that the triumph was purely due to Baba’s grace, he very much wanted to give Baba the full sum awarded. Baba, however, refused it and Dixit suggested that the money be spent on Chavadi and named after Chinchanikar and his wife. Consequently, their names are inscribed (in Marathi) on a plaque above the doorway. The sitting platform along the outside of the front wall is a later addition.

Inside Chavadi is a large portrait of Baba which was painted by Ambaram from Nausari in Gujarat after Baba had given him darshan in a dream in 1953. At the time, Ambaram was only eighteen years old. The Nausari villagers were touched by Baba and Ambaram’s painting of him, so they collected donations in order to buy it and bring it to Shirdi.

On the left of the painting is a plain, wooden bed on which Baba was given his last bath after he passed away in Dwarkamai. These days, the bed is taken out each thursday and the palanquin is placed on it. In the same corner next to the bed is a wheelchair which was presented to Baba when he was suffering from asthma, but which he never used.

The right portion of the building contains the framed photo of the cross-legged Baba kept in grand attire (hence it is known as the raj upachar photo) and this is the picture that is taken out on procession on festivals on each thursday. The silver throne where it is kept is where Baba used to sleep. Women were not allowed in this section and this tradition is maintained today; only men and children are allowed in this area.

Chavadi is open from 3.45 a.m. to 9.00 p.m.

The Chavadi Procession (Utsav) :

This procession (palkhi) is the only ‘authentic’ and traditional procession of Baba’s padukas and photograph – from Masjeed (Dwarkamai) to chavadi.

Over time, the moving from Dwarkamai to Chavadi took on the form of a grand affair. This was thanks largely to the efforts of Radhakrishnayi, who wanted Baba to be honoured as a Maharajah, and supplied all sorts of ceremonial regalia. With the bedecked horse Shyam Sunder leading the way, Baba followed with Tatya on one side and Mahalsapati on the other, walking on carpets laid on the path. A crowd of people accompanied them, singing bhajan and dancing, playing musical instruments, shouting Baba’s name, letting off fireworks, holding a silver umbrella over Baba, waving flags and fans, and chanting hari-nama. The distance of a few metres took up to three hours to cover. Years earlier, Baba had predicted such scenes when talking to a few devotees, “In Shirdi there will be huge storied buildings, grand processions will be held, and big men will come. Chariots, horses, elephants will come, guns will be fired…”

One cannot help marveling at Baba. We know that he did not like such pomp and paraphernalia and we have seen the importance to him of holy poverty (“faqiri”) and his reluctance to allow devotees to worship him, yet here he was allowing himself to be lead to Chavadi in an extravagant display of adoration. In describing the scene a few moments before the procession Hemadpant hints at Baba’s response. People were singing bhajan, some were decorating the palanquin, rows of oil lamps were burning, Shyam Sunder stood waiting fully decorated, “then Tatya Patil came to Baba with a party of men and asked him to get ready. Baba sat quiet in his place till Tatya came and helped him to get up by putting his arm under Baba’s armpit” (page 198, my italic). Clearly, Baba was not eagerly waiting to begin – in fact, we may sense a certain resignation – yet he went ahead with it not just once, but hundreds of times ! Again and again this scene was reenacted, and it is one replete with poignancy and poetic tension. A great saint, adored as a living deity, but to whom any personal worship was distasteful, yet allowing it out of love for his devotees and a sympathy for their human longings.

The Sri Sai Satcharitra gives a moving account of the procession. It tells us that when Baba arrived at Chavadi and stood in front of it, his face shone with a “peculiar luster”. He “beamed with steady and added radiance and beauty, and all the people viewed this luster to their heart’s content ….. What a beautiful procession and what an expression of devotion ! With joy pervading the whole atmosphere of the place … That scene and those days are gone now. Nobody can see them now or in the future.”

However, we are fortunate that those days are not completely gone. We can experience something of that splendour and fervid devotion even today, as each Thursday evening, a similar procession takes place with Baba’s photo in honour of that tradition. It is a passionate, understrained – yet exalted – celebration of Sai Baba. If you have a chance, be sure to see the procession – it is an exhilarating experience!

In the evening, Baba’s satka and padukas are displayed in front of his sacred tomb from 7.30, until they are carried out at the beginning of the procession at nine O’ clock. The Samadhi Mandir is even more crowded, as people are eager to touch and pay their respects to these sacred objects, which are accessible only at this time. The sense of occasion is enhanced by the hearty singing of melodious bhajan by some villagers, while outside a group of young men from a local youth organization move rhythmically to a rapid drumbeat.

At about 9.15 the procession moves out of the Samadhi Mandir, to a flurry of horns, cries and waving fans. At the centre is the garlanded portrait of Baba (the one from Chavadi) carried reverently by the great-grandson of one of Baba’s dearest devotees, Tatya Kote Patil, and another of his relatives. They are preceded by one of the mandir staff carrying the padukas and satka. Other staff follow, dressed in Maharashtrain-style festive red tunics and turbans. The procession wends its way through the street lined with eagerly waiting crowds, and the music and excitement crescendo as people strain for a glimpse of the photo and padukas. Many throw flowers, and guns fire marigolds, petals and confetti into the air.

The procession enters Dwarkamai about ten minutes later, where again there is an assembled crowd waiting for its arrival and jostling for a view. Here the photo is placed on the decorated silver palanquin to the accompaniment of more exuberant bhajan. This takes about fifteen minutes. Mandir staff and locals then carry the palanquin to Chavadi, where people are waiting inside and out.

As the palanquin approaches Chavadi, we come to the climax of the evening. The palanquin is parked outside, and the picture, draped in gold embroidered red velvet, is carried inside Chavadi and greeted as if Baba himself were entering. People may prostrate (if they have the space !), shout his name, say a silent prayer, or gaze longingly on his face. Baba’s picture is then settled into place on a silver throne and arati is performed. Finally, the whole group returns to the Samadhi Mandir. Here, a local person receives the satka and padukas, and the Kote brothers hand back the picture and collect a coconut as prasad. The prasad is kept beside Baba’s statue until the final night arati is over (around 10.30 p.m.) The picture is returned to Chavadi after morning arati the next day.

During the procession, lalkari is performed at prescribed places along the route. There is no direct translation for “lalkari”, but it means the shouting of slogans or words of praise, such as “Long live Sai Baba!” There are three specific places where this is done during the utsav, just as there were when Baba made the trip by foot, nearly a hundred years ago.