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Maharashtra’s Multi-Dimensional Pilgrimage Centres

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.

Usually, pilgrimage 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 morality.

The ash form the Sai Baba’s 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 Baba’s 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 greater numbers.

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 Shirdi elder.

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 farmer’s 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 Baba’s 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 Baba’s 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 Baba’s 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 Pilgrims Inn.

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 pilgrimage centre.

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 unfulfilled.”

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 unusual shrine.

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 frescoes.

Outside the temple, dozens of friendly langurs and monkey’s descendants, it is said, of Lord Rama’s vanar sena (army of monkey’s) 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.

¤ Ajmer Sharif ¤ Amarkantak ¤ Amritsar
¤ Bodhgaya ¤ Chidambaram ¤ Chitrakoot
¤ Dargahkaliyarsharif ¤ Dharamsala ¤ Dilwaratemples
¤ Dwarka ¤ Gangasagarmela ¤ Garhwal
¤ Goa ¤ Guruvayur ¤ Hardwar
¤ Jageshwar ¤ Jambukeswaram ¤ Jambukeswaram
¤ Kailashmansarovar ¤ Kamakhya ¤ Maheshwaromkareshwar
¤ Mathura ¤ Parashuramkund ¤ Pilgrimagecenters
¤ Pilgrimagesofsikhs ¤ Rameshwaram ¤ Rishikesh
¤ Sabarimala ¤ Shatrunjayahill ¤ Shivapur
¤ Tawangmonastery ¤ Thirukalikundrum ¤ Tirupati
¤ Travelofgods ¤ Trichur ¤ Tripureshwari
¤ Tungnath ¤ Vaishnodevi ¤ Varanasi
¤ Vrindavan ¤ Yamnotri