My first visit, almost 45 years ago, was on an impulse. It was memorable and significantly changed my notions about worship! The moment I stepped into the main hall, the whole congregation began to sing. It was as if they were just waiting for me to enter! After aarthi I moved with the other devotees towards the idol of Saibaba. No one shouted at me to move on and none pushed or pulled to speed me up. I rested my head, copying others, on the footprints carved out on marble. I felt very peaceful and very content.
In fact, the memory of my first visit is still fresh in my mind. I am happy with just that memory! I have this strong belief that Saibaba has taken care of me all along. I have made many visits since then and have always returned with a better clarity in my thoughts.
This visit was different in every way from my first, there were probably 10 times more number of people (3000!).
The whole area around the main shrine was enclosed and barricaded! Tara, Shubhadaji and I deposited our shoes and cell phones at the booth and entered a large hall. We joined the long queue, two in a row, zig-zagging the entire width of the hall. The queue moved in spurts! Seats were provided in each lane for us to rest.
Good idea as often the queue did not move and it was a long wait. The drawback; those who were behind usurped our space as we sat down! Not really right, but that is how we are! Also a few would step forward into the gaps created while we made a U-turn and gain a couple of feet. Progress of some sort, though selfish!
As we waited, we watched the TV monitors and saw the Idol being readied for the aarthi. Suddenly the queue moved, I cannot say my spirits soared, as we just entered another hall! I was pleasantly surprised to see a small outlet selling coffee, snacks and even ice cream! I heard someone say that it will take an other hour and realised that we would surely miss the aarthi. Other queues also merged into ours ahead of us slowing us down further!
The aarthi began and I was lucky to see the aarthi on a TV monitor. Shubhadaji joined in the aarthi, but her voice was soft and muted. There were many who could sing, but there were many more, like me, who stood in silence. While looking around, I discovered that if I craned my neck I could see the aarthi on two monitors and it somehow felt better! Really illogical, but there you are!
After the aarthi, I saw many turn around in a circle and gesture with their hands in many ways to show their bhakti. I am always humbled by such devotees who are able to express their devotion anywhere and with such sincerity!
In time, the queue moved and we were finally in the main hall, and there were more lanes and I chose the last one on the left. I knew that this would lead me to the side of the idol, wherein the icon of Saibaba's feet are located! As I came parallel to the idol, I was dismayed to see that the 'feet' were also barricaded. While I just walked out, I saw that many managed to reach the 'feet' across the glass cover and then touch their heads. I admired them for not giving up!
This visit I could hear the shouts of security guards urging devotees not to linger and move on. The flowers and other offerings were hurled at the idol by the pundits. Time and Motion study was at work to deal with ever expanding line of devotees!
Tara said she was impressed with all the gold that was artfully used! It created an illusion of a palace as we walk towards the idol. I also noticed on the way out that the shrine also had gold covered gopuram!
But it still caters to those with a modest budget!
While we find many nice buildings all around, the shanties have not gone away completely.
As I walked around Shirdi I wondered if Saibaba would really have wanted it to develop this way. Would he be upset by the disparity or should I say the grandeur one sees in what was essentially a dilapidated masjid in his time?
Then I thought that he always loved his disciples and forgave them their many foibles. I also realise that it is wrong to think that his influence is limited only to Shirdi.