“Aarti Sai baba, aarti Sainatha……. (Pray to Saint Saibaba…, pray to Lord Sainath).” I sang along with the monotone chant of the priest which resonated through the garbha-griha (sanctum sanctorum) of the temple of Saibaba at Shirdi.
Shirdi is a small town in Ahmednagar District in state of Maharashtra. Well connected by road and rail it is about 296 km from Mumbai and about 185 km from our city, Pune- a three to three and half hour journey by road if driving by own car. This place is known for the saint Shri Sai Baba, the only saint who is revered by both Hindus and Muslims. His origin is not known but the temple was built around 1922.
I have been visiting the temple as a child with my parents and have seen it grow to its present expanse. I remember the smaller temple of stone, the muddy roads, small shops selling the flower basket for offering in temple, the way-side vendors selling raisins from farms of Nasik, big guavas from Manmad and swarm of scantily dressed beggars pestering for a rupee coin. The temple has expanded to a large complex now with covered area for devotees to stand in a queue before entering the temple. The temple complex is paved and well laid out with water kiosks, donation and sweets’ (prasadam or the blessed food) counters and separate relaxing areas for the devotees. The shops are bigger, brighter and arranged in a row just outside the temple complex. And the beggars are not to be seen at least near the temple. It is definitely more organised now.
The temple at Shirdi, hosts thousands of devotees everyday throughout the year and though there are covered queue lanes but the number of devotees extend the lane well up to the parking lot. And when the long winding queue finally takes you inside the inner sanctum, you are full of sweat, tired due to the delay, ready to finish off the prayer and move out of the room filled with smoke of incense sticks. The priests also rush you out through the exit without bothering whether your flower basket has been offered on the idol’s feet. And the guard at the exit of inner sanctum forces everybody out shouting loudly in local language Marathi “chala…chala…o, tai…nigha laukar, thambu naka…” (Move…move…O sister! Move fast….Don’t stop!!)
It was August 2002 and we had just received the positive reports of my pregnancy. We were over the moon and I definitely wanted to visit Shirdi Sai Baba temple. On one of the week day we planned the temple visit. It was the monsoon season and weather was pleasant almost every day. The plants and trees all around seemed fresher and had turned a darker shade of emerald-green…. full of life, breathing and soothing the eyes.
Since the journey would take only three hours or so we were not in any particular hurry but still managed to leave home at around seven-thirty with a slight drizzle accompanying us along the route. The road shone black with its dirt all washed clean from the rain. Little puddles came alive as rain drops danced and splashed in them.
We were two young adventurous people, religious just enough to want to visit temple and thank Lord for the wonderful news but not so much as to sing and chant hymns and songs along the way. So, we listened to some catchy music which was in trend then and stopped en-route at the small shack like roadside shops to eat the local junk food, the freshly roasted corn-cob smeared with lemon juice, salt and red chilli powder and the sugary tea brewed then and there on demand. Beyond Ahmednagar, we passed many grape farms where the farmers sold the fresh produce in baskets and small cartons along the roadside. Some little girls dressed in long skirts and blouse also sold ‘gajras’ (flowers strung in thread to adorn hair) of fresh mogra flowers (jasmine).
“O…tai, o mausi…ghya na gajra…..don rupaya la ek… (O sister, o aunty… Please take these floral strings…for two rupees each only)”
I had promptly bought five which was all that she had. The little girl was overjoyed as she had managed to sell all of her merchandise. I still remember her wide grin and curious gaze as I clipped the bunch on my braid.
I had regretted not taking our camera along for this trip because we missed out on so many precious moments… sights that the nature offered and the unadulterated joy of achievement that lit up the faces of simple village folks. Since the devotees are not allowed to take cameras inside the temple precinct so the apprehension of a possible theft of expensive camera from an unattended car in the parking lot ruled our decision of leaving it at home.
I felt quite a satisfaction in making the day of the little villager and with a happy frame of mind we finally reached the temple area. Shirdi was hot as it had not rained there. As we manoeuvred our car into the parking lot, another smaller car with a middle-aged couple and a teenage son, rushed in the parking lot. The occupants were in a hurry it seemed.
The flowers and sweets selling shop vendors always vie for prospective customers at all such temple sites. They yell out the prices of their merchandise to seek attention and almost block the way to steer the customers to their own shop.
“Ya….ya….deva karta phoola ani prasad ghya…taji phoola…shevanti, jhendu, mogra,belpatra….changlya khavya chi barfi….O tai…fakt shambhar chi topli….bagha tar tai ek da..(Come…come…buy flowers and sweets for offering in temple…fresh flowers…marigolds, jasmines and chrysanthemums…milk sweets…O sister…its only for Hundred Rupees ….have a look at least!!)
Since we were not in any hurry so I took time choosing freshest flowers for offering from different shops. A few minutes in one of the shops and I noticed the hurried activity and some loud discontented grumbles from new customers in the shop. The occupants of the small car had landed in the same shop and seemed annoyed with shopkeeper who had allowed us to pick and choose. The woman glared at me so we let them be the first ones to make their purchase. The woman was triumphant on her success and smirked at us before leaving.
I forgot the little incident and proceeded with the flower basket, coconut and sweets to the temple. However we again met the same couple at the shoes’ deposit counter. And from that moment on an unofficial, unsaid race began……where the woman would give me a triumphant look whenever they did something before we could. I found it quite amusing because it really did not matter to us whether we were the first or the last in the temple but it seemed quite important to that woman.
The temple authorities maintain different queues for entry to the ‘garbha-griha’, one for defence personnel and other for civilians. Unawares of this special facility we awaited our turn at the token counter. Unknown to other people in the temple area, yet again at the two queues for token the silent competition was on. The couple hurried past us pushing and elbowing others to reach the token counter before us.
They managed to acquire the tokens before us and stood in the temple’s queue for civilians smirking at us as we still waited for tokens. It was a real long queue and extended well beyond the covered area. The weather was a bit hot and humid and people fanned themselves with stole, hand towels and token slips. There was hardly any breeze. The patience and tolerance level of the sweating crowd was very low. Even an unintended nudge made people break into an argument.
When it was our turn in the queue for the token we were politely asked by the woman at the counter whether we belonged to defense forces. It was then that we realised that there was a separate queue for defense people to enter the inner sanctum of the temple. I was hugely relieved to know that we would avoid the long queue and because the other queue had only ten others ahead of us. We promptly headed towards the queue meant for defense people which was next to the longer queue separated only by a six feet high iron grille.
As we entered our queue, the eyes of the competing couple followed us wondering how we had managed to move ahead of them. By that time, I also engaged in that absurd race. As soon as I realised that our progress was being tracked by the middle aged jealous couple, I too made it obvious that I enjoyed their discomfort and envy.
Ours was a quick entry in the sanctum. Once inside I sang the prayers along with the priest’s monotone……but my attention was divided and I kept searching for the face of that woman among the devotees inside the sanctum. I had hardly thanked the Lord for the wonderful news when we were ushered out.
Once outside the ‘garbha-griha’ we sat at a stepped platform to the left of the winding queues, eating the ‘prasadam’ of coconut and the sweets. The long queue had by then reduced in size. Coincidently however, our “competitors” were still outside and now stood opposite the platform where we sat. The envy and incredulousness was written all over their faces and they argued among themselves pointing at us in a very obvious way. We saw them too and I couldn’t control myself and burst out laughing much to their agitation. I had not intended to make the couple uneasy or jealous but it so happened that in that unsaid race we won!
In the car, on our way back, we discussed and laughed at the strange competition and the grumbling couple. But, then in a moment of self discovery, I realised that I had wasted away those few precious moments inside the temple at the feet of God when I could have prayed wholeheartedly, in such a useless activity. Indulging in unnecessary teasing, I had forgotten the real purpose of my visit to the temple!
Many people go on pilgrimages sometimes braving extreme cold or treacherous climb up the Himalayan slopes or even ill health with a thought that more difficult the obstacles of journey, more the emancipation from sins and yet there I was……. involved in the absurd and petty mocking game!! How good was it to travel from one city to other and indulge in such a conduct? What had I achieved……. sadistic satisfaction? Was that my aim? Had I not intended to seek His blessings and salvation from all deliberate or not so deliberate sins?
We often meet people during our travels some of whom we remember for years for their peculiarities or for what we learn about ourselves due to such encounters. We remembered the family as ‘pushy and impatient’. On retrospection, I realised that the occupants of the small car had brought out the mean side of me to fore!! They would have made some similar opinion about us too…..
My husband dislikes going to such overcrowded temples where one has to elbow one’s way in to seek blessing of God. He always suggests that I should thank God and show my gratitude peacefully at any nearby temple. After this incident I understood how apt his opinion was…..
The temple trip also made me realise that though people are individually civilised and well behaved but their behaviour changes with circumstances they face, as did mine. I should give people some benefit of doubt before pointing fingers at them and at the same time I should keep myself in check before reacting to unfavourable circumstances.
I still go to a temple, wherever I see one but now I avoid a visit during the festivities when there are huge crowds and everyone’s emotions and patience levels are stressed thin. During such times I quietly worship the deity at my home where I can connect with HIM more personally, repent for my follies, beg for favours, air my annoyance and thank Him for the fulfilled wishes. It is more peaceful, satisfying and rewarding. My efforts to keep myself calmer always come out in the prayer:
“God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can and the Wisdom to know the difference”