A visit to Shirdi in the 70s with my family is a memory I cherish even today. Shirdi is a small town in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra which welcomes thousands of devotees of all faiths who arrive there daily to pay obeisance to the saint and spiritual guru Sai Baba, who preached peace, forgiveness, compassion and self-realisation.
Nowadays, one can reach Shirdi within 45 minutes by flight from Mumbai to Shirdi International Airport. A less-expensive option from Mumbai is by the Vande Bharat Express train. Buses and taxis are the other choices available.
But in the 70s, Shirdi did not boast a station nor an airport and I remember the exciting train journey to Manmad, the nearest station, where we alighted to catch a bus which brought us to Shirdi in the early hours.
Shirdi, as I remember then, was a small, serene town with very few hotels, if any, and quarter the tourist population. One of my favourite memories is sitting in a park with my family eating cheese sandwiches my mother had prepared a day earlier. The grass was green under our feet and we sat on the benches, tucking into the sandwiches with great relish as the sun filtered through the canopy of trees overhead.
The pilgrimage to Shirdi, offering garlands and coconuts at Sai Baba’s feet even as the line of devotees kept moving after briefly praying and seeking his blessings, filled me with a sense of tranquility and satisfaction which I was fortunate to experience one more time when I returned to the temple town years later with my husband and nine-month-old daughter.
This second trip to Shirdi with my family was a stroke of serendipity. We were spending a week at a small hotel in Deolali which was ably run by a charming couple who fed us delicious meals every day and regaled us with captivating stories every night as we all sat around the dinner table.
It was one such night, at the end of a meal, when the conversation veered towards faith and beliefs. When I mentioned my family’s devotion to Sai Baba, it brought forth the possibility of us visiting Shirdi which was approximately two-and-a-half to three-hour ride by autorickshaw from our hotel. The owners knew an excellent auto driver and it was fixed for us to make a memorable one-day trip to Shirdi the day after.
The morning of our departure dawned bright and crisp. Fields lined both sides of the road and a cool breeze refreshed us as we rode along the highway which led us to our destination. This time, we had booked into a hotel for a day although we barely had time to take a quick wash before we attended the aarti at Sai Baba’s temple. An aarti is a ceremony performed by priests who light wicks soaked in clarified butter and offer prayers in worship.
The devotion, the heady smell of incense and the fragrance of the flowers, all combined with the euphoria I experienced when the priest lifted our daughter and placed her at Sai Baba’s feet for a minute.
After lunch and an hour’s rest, we were told by our driver that the return journey would be safer if completed before sunset and so we reached our hotel in Deolali just as the sun had set in the western sky, bringing an end to a wonderful day which will always be etched in my mind as an exquisite, unforgettable experience.