In two and half hours, I arrive at Shirdi by bus from Nashik. It is 8.00 pm when I arrive. Pilgrims crowd the pavements about the main throughfare. I get an uneasy feeling that it’s going to be difficult to find a room. I enquire at a couple of hotels. There is nothing less than five hundred per night. I ask a security guard. He calls someone loitering outside a cloak room.
‘I can get you a basic room for Rs. 250 but you have to check out before 4.00 am tomorrow,’ he tells me. I am not sure what sort of a boxhole he is suggesting. Moreover, I want a good night’s sleep. There is a darshan at 4.30 am but I intend to catch a later darshan at 7.00 am. So I disappoint this guy and keep searching.
I join a stream of pilgrims and find myself at a modern and clean hotel run by Sai Baba Trust. Unfortunately there are no single rooms here. Every room has three beds and it costs Rs. 1000. I continue walking and after further enquiries find my room. An old prasada hall for dining is being used to accommodate pilgrims for the night. For five rupees you are given a mattress. So a pilgrim can get a bed for five rupees or five hundred. This is India.
I have dinner at a restaurant, an Andhra thali. Then I join a queue for a coupon to the hall.
‘I wish to deposit my luggage in the cloak room before I go to the hall,’ I tell the man at the counter.
‘How many of you?’ he asks. Somehow I expected this question.
‘I am alone.’
‘Cloak room is not for singles. You can come back and check at 9.00 pm if there is a free locker,’ he replies.
‘Can I take the luggage with me?’
‘Yes,’ he says. He takes my five rupees and hands out a coupon.
Behind me in the queue is Srinivas from Nellore. He works as a cashier in Agra. He’s been in Agra for nine years and today earns a decent salary of Rs. 12,000. He is on his way home and has stopped for a couple of days for darshan at Shirdi.
‘There is no bathroom or toilet in the hall,’ he complains to me.
‘I think it’s better this way. At least the hall will be clean and dry. Pay-and-use bathrooms and toilets are outside,’ I tell him.
‘Perhaps we can share a room,’ he suggests while peering through his glasses. I am skeptical about taking a room with a stranger I have met only the last ten minutes.
‘The hall is fine for me,’ I tell him.
‘Have you had darshan?’ Srinivas asks.
‘No. I will do that first thing tomorrow.’
‘But there won’t be hot water.’
‘I will have darshan and head to Aurangabad. I’ll bathe there.’
He is horrified. ‘You will have darshan without a bath?’ he asks in shock. The idea is almost sacrilegious to him.
‘Yeah. I think it’s fine,’ I tell him.
‘You could have finished darshan today. The temple is open till late.’
‘Yeah, but there is no hurry. I have time tomorrow morning before I head to Aurangabad.’
‘Will you be going to Ellora?’
‘Yes. Aurangabad is a good base for both Ellora and Ajanta. Have you seen them?’
‘No but there is a jyotirlinga at Ellora. You should visit it,’ he says. He then tells me that he has visited all the twelve jyotirlinga in the country. As we chat about his work in Agra and my travels across India, I can sense that darshan without a bath still bothers him. He returns to the idea a few times.
‘Why do people consider Sai Baba an incarnation of God?’ I ask Srinivas. Shirdi Sai Baba is popular in many parts of Central India. I have often heard the bhajans on local buses.
Srinivas smiles and moves his head. I am not sure if he is shaking his head or nodding.
‘Perhaps, because he performed miracles in his time,’ I suggest to remove his embarassment. Srinivas has no response.
The hall opens at 9.00 pm. People slowly amble in, some with their luggage and some without. I grab a mattress, pick a spot against a wall and unroll it. I stash my backpack behind my head and tie my boots to it for safety. Srinivas spreads out his mattress next to me. Further along the wall a sardar is settling in his mattress, his bags spread out about him.
‘Move the mattress here and put the bags behind you,’ shouts the warden in a coarse voice.
‘There is so much space here,’ retorts the sardar. He has unfurled his turban and his hair hangs wildly about his head.
‘You are not the only one here. Five hundred people will be using the hall. You want to use the whole hall for five rupees?’ shouts back the warden.
The sardar mutters something under his breath but moves his mattress and rearranges his bags. Women take to the other end of the hall. I slowly go to sleep. I wake up around midnight. There are about two hundred people using the hall tonight. Though it is a cold night, I am hesitant to remove my sleeping bag from the backpack. The backpack that doubles as a bulky headrest is hurting my neck. I realize I should have left it in a cloak room. There is more than one cloak room at Shirdi.
At 4.00 am I wake up. I notice that Srinivas is already gone. It is strange because his train home is not till the evening. I frantically search for my glasses. I realize that he has scampered off with it in the early morning hours. I go around looking for Srinivas but he is nowhere to be found. Shirdi is a busy place and there is no chance of even sighting him in these crowds. I leave the hall, freshen up, dump my backpack and boots at two separate counters and head for darshan. I carefully store the coupons in the depth of my pocket. I don’t want to lose any more things.
At five, I am in the queue. Early morning darshan is already underway. The queue moves one foot at a time as it snakes between steel barricades. Two LCD screens telecast the darshan happening just a level above. The marble of Sai Baba is bathed, cleaned, clothed and anointed. Many elaborate rituals follow. Devotees offer flowers. A devotee throws a bouquet. It hits the idol. The priest picks it up and throws it back to the crowd in anger. New pieces of cloth are shown to the idol and the consecrated cloths are thrown back to the devotees. Quite clearly the scenes are chaotic but there seems to be some unseen order. Devotees keep moving, pushed on by security personnel.
Once in a while a shout goes up, ‘Sri Sainath Satguru Sai Baba ki…’
‘Jai,’ responds the crowd in chorus. Bhajans fill the silences of the background.
When I enter the sanctum space at quarter past six, I see the idol under a canopy of gilded gold. The architecture here isn’t that interesting. I hardly get time to study it closely as I am pushed and shoved out of the hall. It all happens in a matter of seconds. Before I realize it I am walking out of the building. There is a small museum telling the life of the saint. There are tombs of other saints of the same order. People are praying to these shrines, making offerings or ambulating them while singing bhajans.
I leave the temple to pick up my stuff. I walk to the bus station for a bus to Aurangabad. Importantly, this whole morning the world looks very different without my glasses. Is it because my vision is blurred or the world is really that way? I think it’s an interesting question.