Maharashtras Multi-Dimensional Pilgrimage
There are many dimensions to pilgrimage centres.
Important links with the past historical, mythological and
legendary the centres of pilgrimage provide each one who
visits them with a unique personal experience.
centres tend to be old if not ancient, free form controversies. But
Maharashtra, along with pilgrimage centres hallowed by time, has at
least two dissimilar centres which, for vastly different reasons, do
not fall within the conventional or orthodox pilgrimage centre
description. Neither are they old, ancient or free from controversy.
In a distinguished
village 296 kilometres form Bombay, can be encountered the radiance
and mysterious power of Sai Baba variously described and
acclaimed as a mystic, a saint who has changed the lives of countless
people all over India. There are some who decry; him as a fraud.
But over one issue there can be no controversy or doubt. The Sai
Baba has brought fame and prosperity to the village of Shirdi and its
7000 or so odd inhabitants. Even during his lifetime, itinerant
merchants had begun selling portraits of the Sai Baba.
Feeding dogs is a ritual
at Shirdi, as is leaving milk for snakes on Nag Panchmi Day. Both
these customs date back to the last century when a young lad in rags
walked into Shirdi and was immediately befriended by five village
dogs who remained faithful to the end.
Many years and many
controversies later, the young ascetic, called Sai Baba by the
villagers of Shirdi, became known far and wide. Some said he was a
charlatan without a creed. Others said he was a saint of all
religions. Gradually, it was acknowledged that he possessed
miraculous power to heal, divine thoughts and the future, fulfill
wishes and whenever necessary, punish those who broke the laws of
The ash form the Sai
Babas fire-pit became famous as vibhuti the medicine for
all ills, a remedy more potent than any the world had ever known. So
said the believers. His doctrine of love and forgiveness infuriated
his detractors and appealed strongly to his supporters.
Sai Baba became an enigma
and the crowds began pouring into Shirdi long before the Sai Babas
death on October 15, 1918, more than half a century later, improved
modes of travel have ensured the arrival of people at Shridi in ever
When they are directed
towards the Dwarkamai Mosque in Shirdi, several newcomers still ask
whether Sai Baba was a Hindu or a Muslim. It is Thursday today
the day of the saint of Shirdi and the air is thick with
stories of the life and times of Sai Baba. He prayed before idols in
temples and said namaaz in the masjid, making Shirdi a
meeting point for Hindus and Muslims
narrates a grey haired
Apart from its
association with the Sai Baba, the mosque has an unusual history.
Like most others at Shirdi, the Muslims in the village were poor.
Too poor, goes the story, to build a masjid. Observing this,
Dwarkamai, a rich Hindu farmers wife, donated money for the
construction of the masjid which came to be known as the
Dwarkamai Mosque. When the Sai Baba arrived at Shirdi towards the
turn of the century, the Dwarkamai mosque, old and decrepit, was
tufted with dusty vegetation. Together with the disciples who joined
him over a period of time, Sai Baba cleaned the masjid. Most
of his miracles are set here at the mosque reclaimed from the ravages
of time. Today, the minarets and domes of the Dwarkamai Mosque shine
warmly in the sun.
During the day, before
the blazing sun drives everybody into the shade, we feel the mystery
of Sai Baba at close quarters. Sai Baba is everywhere. Wherever we
go and wherever we look, we are surrounded by Sdai Baba. His
penetrating gaze is fixed on us form dozens of points at once. One
hand raised in blessing, he studied us form hundreds and hundreds of
framed and unframed pictures, book covers and postcards; from
pendants and key chains; from rings and bracelets.
Sai Babas sama
dhi (final resting place) attracts universal attention. Lively
gusts of wind shake the neem and sweep over the stone chauki
(platform) at its base. It is said that it was this chauki in
the protective shade of the neem tree that Said Baba and the
five dogs of Shirdi adopted as their humble abode.
Besides Sai Babas
neem tree, a wandering mendicant in long flowing robes sings
bhajans (devotional songs) of Sai Baba to the evocative tune
of an improvise sarangi (a string instrument). All through
the day, soft soothing snatches of song and music escort a stream of
pilgrims drifting trance-like towards Sai Babas samadhi.
A group of people are
engaged in animated discussion. Eight years after his death, Sai
Baba of Shirdi was reincarnated in the present day Satya Sai Baba
Could the claim be true
? The discussions are endless.
Surrounded by mysterious question marks for millions of curious
people, Shirdi with its precious legacy of Sai Baba lives on
an extraordinary village barely two kilometres in area. Which has
all the answers to your problems and prayers. Or a controversial
village which offers no answers at all. Depending on whether you
believe in the mystic Sai Baba or not.
For those who wish to
stay for a day or two or more at Shirdi, the Maharashtra Tourism
Development Corporation offers comfortable accommodation at the
In Pune, at Koregaon
park, is located the Rajneesh (Osho) Ashram which continues to
flourish even after the death in 1990 of Bhagwan Rajneesh
the iconoclastic godman who, it is said, moved
people to extremes of feeling. There were no inbetweens as far as
Rajneesh was concerned. People, particularly thousands of
foreigners, became faithful followers. Yet an equally large number
in India condemned him roundly as a pretender who led
people down the path of moral bankruptcy. Along with meditation,
Bhagwan Rajneesh, who developed strong learnings towards
Zen Buddhism in his later years, advocated liberation of the senses,
including free sex, long stretches of continuous laughing and crying,
as the path to enlightenment.
A gap of countless
centuries separates pilgrimages centres which grew up in recent
decades from the traditional centres of pilgrimage, some of which are
in Bombay itself. Nenar the posh residential area on Malabar Hill in
Bombay stands an unusual temple which draws both the curious and the
devout. Known as the temple of Walkeswar the Lord of Sand, the
structure, it is said, was built more than a 1000 years ago, and then
rebuilt in 1715. Legend has it that Lord Rama rested at this spot
when he was on his way from Ayodhya to faraway Lanka to rescue Sita,
his consort, who had been lured from the safety of her forest hut by
a crafty stratagem and kidnapped by Ravana, the ten headed demon
king. Lord Rama erected a lingam of sand at the site which
came in time to be called Walkeswar and became an important
Come downhill form
Malabar Hill, and move parallel to the seashore to reach the oldest
temple in Bombay the temple of Mahalaxmi, the Goddess of
wealth and plenty. The idols of the Goddess and her two sisters are
said to have been found in the sea.
Also in Bombay is a place
of pilgrimage which can be reached only when the tide is low. As the
tide ebbs, the long causeway; which leads to the Tomb of Haji Ali
a Muslim saint who drowned at the spot comes into view.
Venerated by people regardless of their religious background, the
tomb of Haji Ali is a popular pilgrimage centre. If your heart
is pure, an old, almost sightless beggar who often stands at
the start of the causeway tells you with that unshakeable intensity
of belief, you will get your wish. Nobody goes away from here
disappointed. It is only those who doubt whose wishes remain
A hundred and ninety-five
kilometres away form Bombay, close to Aurangabad, is situated one of
the most ancient pilgrimage centres of India. Nasik, spread out in
picturesque antiquity on the banks of the Godavari one of the
holiest rivers of the Deccan, has a fascinating mythological history.
Temple spires dot the skyline of Nasik while a host of shrines are
scattered al over the town, the elaborate Sundar Narayan Temple being
amongst the most notable. The Kapaleshwar temple is said to be the
oldest. But it is a cave and a grove of wondrous banyan trees
associated with the Panchavati family rather than a man built temple
which evoke perhaps the greatest response at Nasik. It was from this
cave known as the Sita Gupha tht Ravana is said to have whisked away
Sita (the consort of Lord Rama) to his stronghold on Lanka. Nearby,
the Kala (Black) Rama temple, with almost a hundred arches
contributing to produce the total effect of a most unusual enclosure,
draws a range of pilgrims virtually all through the year.
It was here at Nasik,
relates mythology, that drops of the holy nectar
the elixir of immortality obtained after churning the ocean
feel from the sacred kumbha (pot) that the Gods were saving
from demons who were hot in pursuit. The demons chased the Gods and
the kumbha for 12 years, during which drops of the nectar
also fell at three other places in India Hardwar, Ujjain and
Allahabad. Ultimately, the gods vanquished the demons and retained
the kumbha and its precious contents. To commemorate the
event, the Kumbha Mela (gathering) is held every 12 years
(equivalent to 1 day for the gods) in rotation at Nasik, Hardwar,
Ujjain and Allahabad.
As at the other places,
the Kumbha Mela at Nasik is a stupendous affair with millions of
Hindus of Hindus from all over India converging on the ghats
(steps leading down to the river) for a holy dip in the Godavari.
During the auspicious Kumbha Mela period, Nasik becomes the
single most important point in all Hindudom.
Many pilgrims visiting
Nasik travel 34 kilometres further afield upstream to
Trimbak. It is here, high on a steep hill that the sacred Godavari
emerges and begins her long journey across India to a final union
with the ocean at the Bay of Bengal. At Trimbak, the tiny trickle of
the fledgling Godavari collects in a tank where devout Hindus bathe
with a prayer on their lips and bliss in their hearts.
Nasik offers a very large
range of accommodation. Hotels such as Panchavati, Samart, and the
Green View Hotel represent the upper range. The accommodation and
facilities provided by hotels such as Siddarth and by the Maharashtra
Tourism Development Corporation caters to the middle rung. All over
Nasik, are scattered small hotels, lodges and dharamshalas
(places of stay run by religious trusts) which meet the needs of
those on a budget.
Close to Ellora are two
important and interesting places of pilgrimage. In Verul village is
located Grishneshwar a Shiva temple which houses one of the 12
jyotir lingas of Lord Shiva. For devotees of Lord Shiva who
have pledged to have a darshan of all the 12 jyotir lingas,
Grishneshwar is an important place of call.
Three kilometres from
Ellora is Khudabad the Heavenly Abode. In the Alamgir Dargah
is a robe believed to have been worn by Prophet Mohammed. Once every
year, the robe is shown to the faithful. In a courtyard in the
Alamgir Dargah can also be seen the unpretentious final resting place
of Aurangzeb the last great Mughal Emperor. Before he died,
Aurangzeb left instructions that his mausoleum be constructed from
the money that he himself had earned when copying the Koran.
The Alamgir Dargah is not
the only point of pilgrimage at Khudabad, also known as Rauza. In
another shrine closeby are housed, it is said, hairs form the beard
of Prophet Mohammed. This shrine is supposed to have been built on
the spot where a pir (holy man died). Legend has it that a
tree of silver sprang up on the site where the pir was buried.
Lumps from the silver tree, it is reported, can be seen inside the
Most people who visit
either Grishneshwar or Khudabad or both generally prefer to base
themselves at Aurangabad which has a variety of accommodation and
eating places and is very well connected with Ellora by buses (almost
every half hour) and taxis.
On the crest of a hill
overlooking Nagpur the city famous for its oranges
stands an ancient temple dedicated to Lord Rama. The temple, the
Pujaris (priests) claim, is the only one of its genre in
India, and is known as Ramtek. A collection of old weapons is an
interesting feature of the temple, along with beautifully executed
Outside the temple,
dozens of friendly langurs and monkeys descendants, it
is said, of Lord Ramas vanar sena (army of monkeys)
specialize in the business of delving, ever so gently, into the
pockets and bags of pilgrims, hoping to find an eatable or two.
Ramtek affords a wonderful view of the countryside around.
A tourist Bungalow
provides accommodation close to Ramtek, but many pilgrims often stay
at Nagpur, 40 kilometres away. Between them, the Blue diamond Hotel,
Jagsons, Centre Point, Rawell Continental and several others provide
a range of accommodation.
While each of the several
pilgrimage centres in Maharashtra exudes an ambience that is uniquely
its own, they all provide a shared experience far above the mundane.