Baba has promised, “I shall be active and vigorous even from the tomb,” and it is perhaps in the Mandir that we can most fully experience the phenomenon of Sai Baba and the remarkable way he has touched the hearts and lives of millions of people from all over the globe. Baba’s omniscient presence is felt when one has Baba’s glance, when one sits at Baba’s feet .
At any given point, the shrine temple is full of devotees eagerly queuing up to have Baba’s darshan. People carry flowers, garlands, sweets, or fruit to offer Baba at his Samadhi. Some may have personal items- such as a shawl, book, key to new possession, etc, for which they want to get Baba’s blessing by offering it at his feet and having it touch his tomb.
“Sri Satchidananda Sadguru Sainath Maharaj ki Jai !” (Hail the great Sadguru, Lord Sai, who is being-consciousness-bliss!) is the chant on the lips of most of His devotees while most others may sing bhajan or whisper prayers.
At busy times, especially during festivals, the queue for darshan used to stretch for hundreds of meters along the village streets, though the recently constructed Queue Complex has changed this. People may wait up to eight hours just for the opportunity to pay brief homage to their Lord. The atmosphere of fervent and one-pointed devotion reaches its zenith here. “Attention one and all!” commands the noon arati psalm, “Come, come quickly and make obeisance to Sai Baba!” This is exactly what the devotees are hastening to do, and to be part of this torrent of emotion is a powerful experience.
In this form, thousands of people a day are able to take Baba’s darshan and pay their homage to Him.
Origins of the Samadhi Mandir
The shrine which houses Baba’s tomb was originally constructed as a wada (large private house) during Baba’s last years in his physical body. It is built on some land that Baba had tended as a garden. Sai Baba seemed to like growing plants and in his early days he cleared and levelled this land, which had been used as dumping ground. Using seeds that he had brought from Rahata, he planted it with jasmine and marigold. For about three years Baba would water the plants every day and distribute the flowers to the local temples. Now that his tomb is here and Baba is receiving so many devotees, it seems that he is nurturing plants of a different nature – and still sowing seeds.
The shrine was built by a wealthy devotee from Nagpur, Gopalrao Booty. The Sri Sai Satcharitra describes him as a “multimillionaire”. He was introduced to Baba by S. B. Dhumal about ten years before Baba’s Mahasamadhi.
The wada was originally intended as a rest house and mandir. The inspiration for the building came to Booty in a dream, when he was sleeping beside his friend and fellow devotee, Shama, Baba appeared and told him to build a house and temple.
Excited by his vision, Booty immediately woke up and pondered its significance. He noticed that Shama had tears in his eyes and asked him what the matter was. It transpired that Shama had just had the same dream and was deeply touched by it. He told Booty, Baba came near me and said distinctly, “Let there be a wada with a temple so that I can satisfy the desires of all.” Together then they drew up some rough sketches, showed them to Dixit for approval, then took them straightaway to Baba to ask his permission to go ahead with the plan. Baba responded warmly and gave his blessing to the project.
The work was begun around 1915. It was built in stone and was therefore known as dagadi (stone) wada. Shama supervised the construction of the basement, ground floor and well. Later, Bapusaheb took over job of supervising the work.
When Baba passed the site on his way to Lendi, he would sometimes offer suggestions. As the building progressed, Booty asked Baba if he could include a temple on the ground floor with an statue of Murlidhar (a form of Lord Krishna). Baba readily gave permission, and said, “When the temple is built, we shall inhabit it and ever afterwards live in joy.” Shama then asked Baba if that was an auspicious time to start the work and Baba replied that it was. Shama immediately fetched and broke a coconut as Mahurat (good omen) and the work was begun. The foundation was quickly laid, a pedestal prepared and an order placed for the idol. However, the significance of Baba’s comment was appreciated a few years later.
Baba’s unforeseen moving-in
It was around this time that Baba fell ill and his devotees feared the worst. Booty also felt dejected, wondering whether Baba would live to even see the completed wada, never mind grace it with his presence. The whole construction seemed pointless to him if Baba was not going to remain there in his body. However, Baba was to move into the wada in a way that had not been foreseen by others. His health rapidly deteriorated and on 15 October 1918 he lay with his body fading fast. His last words were ,”I am not feeling well in the masjid. Carry me to the dagadi wada”.
Baba was indeed carried to the wada, and was buried in the place where the image of Murlidhar was to have been placed: an edifice was later raised over the tomb.
The day that Baba took Mahasamadhi, Tuesday 15 October 1918, was a very auspicious one for Hindus ; it also happened to be the Muslim month of Ramzan. October 15 was the Hindu festival of holy Vijayadasami, a few minutes into ekadasi (a significant lunar cycle in the Hindu calendar). Two months previously Baba had sent a message to Banne Mia fakir, saying that “On the ninth day, of the ninth month, Allah is taking away the lamp he lit”. He also sent some offerings to the fakir Shamsuddin Mia and a request to do moulu, qawals (both are types of devotional singing) and nyas (poor –feeding). Thus right up until his final moments in the body, Baba was embracing both communities.
The news of Baba’s passing spread quickly, and thousands came to Dwarkamai for a final darshan, queuing for five or six hours. The body was kept on the handcart all night, while preparations – digging a pit and building the platform – went on. Before the burial, Baba’s kafni was removed and he was given a final bath. It is reported that even at this stage, his body remained soft, as if he were merely sleeping, Earlier, while the body was in the wheel chair, his nose started to bleed (usually impossible for a corpse).
Thirty-six hours after he had left his body, Baba was finally interred. Certain personal articles were buried with him: the broken brick, now mended with gold and silver wire, one of his satkas, a chillim, needle and cotton (Baba would mend his clothes until they were a mass of repairs, a cause of affectionate amusement among close devotees), some spices to preserve the body, and an old cloth bag that Baba never allowed anyone to touch, but which devotees investigated after his mahasamadhi and found that it contained a green kafni and a cap.
The burial was completed by very early Thursday morning. A photograph of Sai Baba was placed on a throne on the platform of the tomb. It remained there until the statue was installed in 1954. That picture is now kept in the recess of the Samadhi Mandir where some other things of Baba’s are on display (see below).
The Mandir that we see now is about twice the size of the original building, having been later extended back from the stone arches. As the temple authorities try to find new ways of coping with the ever-increasing flow of visitors, various alternations are made. In 1998 a hall was added to the back of the mandir, so that it has again almost doubled in size. A big beautiful hall, connecting Masjid (Dwarkamai) has been built up. Sai Devotees waiting in a queue.
The statue and tomb of Sri Sai Baba
For pilgrims to Shirdi, darshan at Baba’s tomb is the climax of their visit and the statue of the tomb represents the living, breathing God. As such, it is the focus of all their longings, hopes and desires, and a concrete form to which they can express their love.
The statue is admired as an extraordinary and exquisite image, excluding grace and benevolence. Baba sits relaxed, natural and majestic, gazing beningly on the millions of diverse visitors who flock to him for succour. Many have commented on the lifelike quality of the eyes, as these are typically the most difficult feature to portray in a stone sculpture. In this statue, they really do seem to be looking at us and responding!
Baba repeatedly assured devotees that he would never cease to answer their call, and that his mission is “to give blessings”. The pull of the tomb above, which the idol sits, is powerful and intense and is drawing seekers to Shirdi in numbers that increase by the week. Here, devotees address their heartfelt prayers, beg for help, give thanks and offerings for prayers answered and wishes fulfilled, sign their devotion, and pay humble obeisance to their beloved deity. For them, the idol does not merely represent God, it is God; and the opportunity to prostrate before it and make oblations may be fulfillment of a lifetime’s ambition.
The statue, which has become such a famous and well-loved image of Baba, was not installed until 1954, thirty-six years after his mahasamadhi, and there is an intriguing story behind it. Some white marble arrived from Italy at the Bombay docks, but nobody seemed to know anything about it who it was for, or why it had come. In the absence of a claimant, the dockyard auctioned it and the purchaser offered it to the Shirdi Sansthan (temple authorities). Impressed by the quality of the marble, they wanted to use it for an idol of Baba and gave the commission to a sculpture from Bombay, Balaji Vasant Talim. However, the latter had only one black and white photo of Baba as his model, and was struggling to get the likeness. One night Baba came to him in a dream, remarked on his difficulties and then showed him his face from various angles, encouraging Talim to study it thoroughly and remember it well. This gave Talim the filip he needed and after that the work flowed easily and the result exceeded all expectations.
The statue was installed on 7 October 1954, on Vijayadasami day. As the main object of adoration in Shirdi, the idol is accorded all due honours. Out of their love for Baba Devotees wish to provide every comfort and respect they can. Accordingly, Baba is given a hot water bath in morning, offered breakfast, lunch and dinner, has his clothes changed four times a day before each arati and is adorned with a silver or gold crown for the arati worship. At night a mosquito net is hung and the tomb is spread with a special white cloth, of plain cotton, of the kind that Baba’s kafni was made. Each morning at four o’clock, Baba is woken up, the mosquitop net is removed, and incense is offered ( this ritual in known as bhupali ). A glass of water is kept by his side.
After the first arati of the day, an abhishek (ritual bathing of the idol with water, milk curd, ghee etc) is performed. Devotees may sponsor the abhishek by contacting the Sansthan. Visitors may also donate cloth for Baba, which will be wrapped around the statue. Later all the cloth that Baba has “worn” is put on sale in the Sansthan shop, a few minutes walk from the mandir. Many people like to buy cloth that has been sanctified in this way and use it for their altar or some other sacred purpose.
The feeling and experience that Baba is still alive and present pervades all the Sansthan facilities and activities of his devotees. As you move around Shirdi, you will see that this sentiment informs life, worship and pilgrimage here and contributes to the mystique and magic of what we call Shirdi.
The Display Of Baba’s Belongings
In the Museum some things associated with Baba are on display. These include three pairs of sandals (though Baba was almost always barefoot), his folded clothes in a glass fronted cupboard, several chillims, ornaments for Shyam Sunder the horse, cooking pots and a silver palanquin.
There is one other item here which, though insignificant looking, perhaps holds the greatest fascination for Sai devotees, and that is Baba’s leelas. It is not that Baba gave it so much importance (as he did, say, to the brick), but whenever someone or something was to be chastised or driven out, we usually find that the satka is there, being shaken, waved threateningly, or beaten on the ground. For example, when a sudden cyclone hit Shirdi, trapping the devotees in the mosque and causing them to fear for their lives, crops and livelihoods, Baba upon being appealed to, simply shook his satka and ordered it to stop. In a similar way, he once commanded the wildly leaping flames of the dhuni to be calm. The satka was also used to intimidate the group of Muslims waiting to attack Mahalsapati outside the mosque.
On another occasion, Baba used the satka for healing purposes. He had warned Mahalsapati that some misfortune would hit his family, but that Mahalsapati should not worry as he would take care of it. Soon after, several of Mahalsapati’s family fell seriously ill. Some devotees who were doctors offered Mahalsapati medicine, but Baba discouraged him from using it, saying simply that the sick should stay in bed. With that, he walked around the mosque waving the satka exclaiming,”Come on, show us your power ! Let’s see it, such as it is, and I will show you the power of my satka if you (dare to) come and face me.” This was the way Baba treated the disease and cured it without any other medicine.
Arati is a form of congregational worship with music and lights, which is celebrated with particular elan in Maharashtra and especially in Shirdi.
For many who come to Shirdi, attendance at arati is one of the highlights of their visit. It is perhaps during arati that we can most easily experience the essence of Shirdi and the power of Baba’s presence. Some people experienced a heightened state and speak of a dissolution of the sense of separation, the erosion of the boundary between self and God. Others say that this is the time when Baba comes “alive” for them and answers their questions and prayers.
The effect of the group and its stirring emotion – of faith, longing and devotion, – acts powerfully on the heart. The atmosphere becomes highly charged and there is a palpable sense of the numinous. In Baba’s time too, it seems that arati was an occasion when his grace was particularly felt and experienced by the devotees. G.S.Khaparde who, in his own phlegmatic style, speaks of a particular elation at such times records some of these instances in his book, ‘Shirdi Diary’.
The impact of the ceremony is intensified by dazzling sensual input: for the eyes there is a dynamic kaleidoscope of colourful images (the lovingly decorated statue and samadhi, the waving arati flame, the red and gold uniform of the mace-bearing chopdars); for the ears there are melodious and passionately rendered songs accompanied by harmonium and other instruments – not to mention the thrilling cry of praise at the end; and for fragrance there is the aroma of incense, rosewater and numerous flower offerings.
Of the thirty or so devotional songs sung in the aratis, about half were specially composed to Baba and the remainder are traditional arati songs by the medieval poet-saints of Maharashtra. Most of them are in Marathi with a couple of each in Hindi and Sanskrit.
Arati is held four times a day at Baba’s Samadhi: at 4.30 am, at noon, ,sunset (around 6.30) and at 10.30 p.m. A siren resounds throughout the village a few minutes before the noon and sunset aratis, and at four o’clock in the morning. The bell is also rung in Dwarkamai and the ceremony is broadcast by an amplified system throughout the village. To attend arati it s best to go early and join those waiting in the Queue Complex, where there will be a separate line from the regular darshan queue.
It was in Dwarkamai that arati was originally performed to Baba and devotees still flock here to frevently join in the arati wosrhip.