Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Bound In Love: Notes From Shirdi Sai Baba Temple.

The marble statue Sai Baba can be seen from a distance... clad in a colorful robe adorned with a lavish garland, he sits royally on the gold studded throne, a gift from the devouts. The edifice around in the center is stunning as well: glittering in gold. Amid all the affluence, the glitter and the gold rests the Samadhi, the place where Baba still resides, alive and breathing, covered in a colorful chadar (bedcover) and a garland matching the color on the statue. The hall is immensely crowded and though the pace of the queue moves briskly, one can feel the eagerness among the devouts who come from far and wide to reach the altar to feel his presence... to bow their heads, to catch one glimpse of their beloved Baba...  such is the legacy of the great saint that as a popular belief goes - anyone who surrendered to Baba never left from here with an empty heart...

but what exactly does surrendering to Baba mean? 
what attracts lakhs of pilgrims of all faiths
to this little town in Maharashtra's heartland?
what makes the Baba so popular?

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I have gone to Shirdi Sai Baba Samadhi temple several times, the last being sometime in 2015. One reason for it being its proximity to Mumbai making it a relatively easier getaway on the weekends. The roads on the Mumbai-Nashik stretch are good too, it takes hardly around 3 hours to reach Shirdi from Mumbai. The drive passes through the towering Sahyadri mountains along the Western Ghats, the rolling hills and the open vistas, the manicured fields and the sights of the countryside that I often miss in my urban existence.

Flowers being sold at Sai Baba Samadhi Temple, Shirdi
Somewhere along the way, on the Mumbai - Nashik highway - Windmills!

Last year Diwali, we planned a yatra to Shirdi and for the first time ever, we chucked the traditional darshan queues and instead opted to book tickets for the online darshan, a facility provided by Shirdi Sai Baba Sansthan for the convenience of the bhaktas. We reached the main gate at 6.30 AM as against the prescribed time of 6.45 PM with the printouts of the ticket and found ourselves in the inner hall of the Samadhi Mandir (temple) after barely 20 minutes or so. Never before, had the access to Sai Baba been so easy!

The temple entrance at Sai Baba Samadhi Temple, Shirdi, Maharashtra
Since we had booked tickets via the online darshan,
It didn't take us more than around 30 minutes to reach the inner sanctum.


On my way, I saw pilgrims...


both - young, with a spring in their steps, and old, with a stick in their hands - men, women and children, some barefeet, while some others with shoes and slippers on, but everyone walking in silent anticipation to meet their beloved Sai...


A cauldron of faith at Sai Baba Samadhi Temple, Shirdi
Ya Sai,
amchi nond ghya

A lot keeps changing in the temple town of Shirdi, from a town with barely any good hotels of note to a town where hotels are jostling for space, the town has come a long way. It's today a modern pilgrim town offering every possible amenity for every type of traveler ensuring his comfortable stay. We stayed in MTDC's hotel Pilgrim's Inn located just a stone's throw away from the temple and an excellent option for devotees looking for accommodation at reasonable prices. There is an abundance of flower, prasad shops along the way to the temple. I paused for a while to savour the beauty of the roses peeping out tenderly, from a bunch of greens. Some pilgrims took these to offer on Sai's Samadhi (tomb) as their humble gift. The flowers came in various colors, red, yellow and white tied in a single thread as a garland or a mala.


Flowers being sold at Sai Baba Samadhi Temple, Shirdi


Monitors are placed inside the rooms through which the queue passes to play the live sai darshan for the people waiting for their turn in the queue. The main hall of the Samadhi Mandir remains as crowded as ever, no matter what time of the day, what day of the year, escalating on festivals and Thursdays when a palanquin procession is carried out in honor of the saint who was also a teacher. There is now a fencing built around the Samadhi of Sai Baba making it difficult for the devotees to reach out to it. I gazed at his ornate life-like statue ever since it became visible to me, from a distance and once near, I pressed my head on the marble platform housing the samadhi... the platform felt cold but my heart felt warm.


... Sabka Malik Ek ...


Sai Baba Samadhi Temple, Shirdi
Shraddha and Saburi: Patience and Faith
this was Sai Baba's mantra to all!

Sai Baba was a man of utmost simplicity and sincerity and his teachings were as simple to grasp and apply in life. He had a kafni to cover himself, a loincloth, a small stick, a cloth to cover his head and a pot in his hand. Through the day, he would roam in the village and beg for meals and at the end of the day, he would share it with everyone alike - humans, animals, birds - no distinctions made. He never beat his own trumpet by calling himself an expert, a teacher or a know-it-all, rather he lived his life in an exemplary way emphasizing on experiencing the Truth which he believed was the meeting point of all faiths, religions, castes and creeds into the One Master. He lived in an old masjid (mosque) called dwarkamaayi and encouraged everyone to follow their faith and read their own scriptures.


Who was he?
Where did he come from?
What were his origins? 

No one really knows but his words, his message - that of oneness, of equality in the eyes of the Supreme, of unity in diversity and harmony in differences, the universal pillars of brotherhood connected one and all in a single thread of humanity. He may have long given up on his body but his tomb, the Samadhi, continues to converse with the faith of his devotees and to all those who worship in the goodness of faith and sincerity, he gives them hope in their sufferings and graces them with peace.

Sacred threads threaded in beads as malas,
were being sold as as lucky amulets or keepsakes.

Markets at Sai Baba Samadhi Temple, Shirdi
From the markets of Shirdi.

I saw Sangeeta Jadhav sitting quietly, on a parapet selling chikkis (a sweet made of peanuts coated in jaggery), 2 packets for 20. She has been doing it since as long as she can remember. She has seen the town change, she has seen the crowds swell, she has seen her high days and low, and through it all... she has felt the benign presence of Baba in her everyday life.

'Babachi Krupa Aahe',
she says when I try quizzing about her life,
with one of the most peaceful smiles I have seen.

Sunita Jhadav selling chikkis at Sai Baba Samadhi Temple complex, Shirdi
Sangeeta tai radiating a positive aura with her peaceful smile!

Even in the broad daylight, ornamental lights twinkled on and off, lending the town a delightful character as I ambled around lazily around it after the Samadhi darshan. It was the festival day of Diwali after all, the festival of lights. The town, lanes and alleys were festooned and all lit up in bright lamps and from where I stood, they all seemed to twinkle in a symphonic rhythm as if celebrating the divine message of love and light that Sai Baba had left behind for all of us.

 A woman devout was assembling a row of diyas neatly under a banyan tree, close to the temple. She lighted a diya and from there, one by one, she started lighting all the diyas with that single spark of light.

As I snapped this picture and made my way towards my budget hotel room in Shirdi,
I wondered of the sight when all the diyas would be bound in a single spark of light...

How magical would it look!

Diwali celebrations at Sai Baba Samadhi Temple, Shirdi, Maharashtra


... just like the flowers that were bound together, in devotion,
just like the pilgrims that walked together, in faith,
just like the beaded malas that were threaded together, in prayer...

... and, just like all of us,
you, me and Sangeeta tai,
are bound together...
in love .

Sabka Malik Ek!

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Information, Sai Baba temple hours and darshan timings, aarti timings, etc.

-- The temple opens at 4:00 AM and closes at 11.30 PM

Bhupali - 4:15 AM
Kakad  Aarti (morning) - 4:30 AM
Bhajan in Saibaba Mandir - 5.00 AM
Holy Bath of Shri Sai Baba (Mangal Snaan) in Samadhi Mandir - 5:05 AM
Aarti "Shirdi Majhe Pandharpur" - 5:35 AM

Darshan begins in Samadhi Mandir - 5:40 AM

Abhishek Pooja - 9:00 AM
Satyanarayana Pooja - 8:00 AM,10:30 AM
Dhuni Pooja with rice and ghee in Dwarkamai - 11:30 AM
Mid day Aarti - 12:00 PM
Pothi (Devotional reading/Study) in Samadhi Mandir -  4:00 PM
At Sunset - Dhoop  Aarti

Devotional Songs in Samadhi Mandir and other Cultural Programmes (if any) - 8:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Chavadi and Gurusthan is closed - 9:00 PM
Dwarkamai, water is given to Baba, a mosquito net is covered and a lamp is lit - 9:30 PM
Dwarkamai (the upper part) closes - 9:45 PM

Shej (night) Aarti, following which, a shawl is wrapped around Sai Baba in the Samadhi Mandir, a Rudraksha mala is put around his neck, and a glass of water kept by his side for the night - 10:30 PM

Samadhi Mandir closes after night Aarti - 11:15  PM

Abhishek Pooja timings:

 1st Batch: 7.00 AM to 8.00 AM
 2nd Batch: 9.00 AM to 10.00 AM
 3rd Batch: 12.30 PM to 1.30 PM

-- To book Shirdi Sai Baba Darshan online, you can refer to my step by step online sai darshan booking guide here.

-- Many important traditions are observed in the temple like "Daily offerings by Abdul Baba and Boraoke families", "Palki procession every Thursday", "Jholi parampara in mahasamadhi", "Ramanavami" and "Rrs tradition". Thursday is considered to be most important day for worship of Saibaba and hence one can expect a good amount of crowd. For a unique experience, try attending the Kakad Arti on a thursday followed by joining the palki procession.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Shiva, The Protector: Nageshwar Jyotirlinga, Bet Dwarka

85 feet tall, 45 feet wide Shiva deity at Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka

He is sitting on a huge pedestal under the canopy of the clear blue sky, his eyes open, his expression stern but benevolent. Inching a foot nearer, I glare at his eyes again – not closed, no, but aware and awake, staring into the distant skyline. The statue in itself is very impressive recording a massive 85 feet of height and 40 feet in width: serpents drape His ascetic body while a dumru and a trident adorn His upper hands, one on each side. In the left hand, below the dumru, he is clutching a rudraksh mala resting neatly on his thigh. As I keep inching closer and closer, the gigantic statue in stone and faith keeps towering higher and higher. The sun shining through the clear blue skies illuminates the massive figure, casting a soft veil of aura to it. Touched by the sun, the larger than life body of Shiva glows in light…

Across the statue, stands the main Nageshwar temple housing the revered Dwadash Jyotirlingam or one among the 12 Jyotirlingams in India, Lord Shiva as a formless pillar of light and love. Located on the route between Dwarka and Bet Dwarka Island on the coast of Saurashtra in Gujarat, this  significant Shiva temple looks pretty modern in built compared to the legacy of the lingam itself. 

Entrance to Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka
Nageshwar Jyotirlinga at Bet Dwarka: Main Entrance.
Temple spire at Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka
Front part of the temple building.
Temple spire at Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka
Nageshwar Jyotirling, Spire of the temple.
Incidentally, there also exists some confusion around the temple on whether it is actually the original Nageshwar temple which finds a mention in the sacred Hindu text Shiv Purana. Contesting its authenticity and recognition are two different temples that exist by the same name – one as Aundha Nagnath in Maharashtra and the other being Jageshwar temple in Almora, Uttarakhand – all the three temples have together claimed to be the Nageshwar Jyotirlingam that finds a mention in the sacred puranic texts. The confusion arises from the name of the place Darukavana (forest of Deodhar trees) where Shiva had self-manifested himself to bless His devotees but since not much has been verified, each one is left to his own opinions and interpretations. I, for my part, let it just be and instead decided to turn my attention to the legends to see how Dwarka gets its fair share of the fame…

People crowding near Lord Shiva statue at  Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka
Nageshwar Temple: Just as one enters the temple compound.
According to Shiv Purana, there once lived a demonic couple Daruka and Daruki after whom were named the forest of Daruka Van. Although Daruki was an ardent devotee of Parvati, she, along with her husband Daruka, troubled innocent people and created havoc in their lives. Once they attacked a Shiva devotee named Supriya, and captured him along with many other hermits. Now Daruki had a blessing from Goddess Parvati that she could move the forest anywhere along with her, on her free will. Fearing wrath of the Gods for their misdeeds, she took advantage of this blessing, and moved Darukavan under the sea. Supriya invoked Lord Shiva and encouraged other captives to do the same, following which Lord Shiva appeared in the form of a Divine Light, a Jyothirlinga. He could not kill Daruki since she was blessed by his own wife, Parvati, but he assured Supriya that he would protect him in the form of a lingam. The lingam thus came to be revered in Dwarka (Daruka later came to be known as Dwarka, hence the confusion) as Nageshwar Jyotirlingam.

Nothing much of that forest remains today except a large banyan tree, a small pond surrounded by some shrubs and bushes.

A pond at the backside of the Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka
A small pond at the back of the Nageshwar Jyotirling.
Banyan tree in Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka
Women praying to the banyan tree in the Nageshwar Temple complex.
Way to Gomukh Ganga at Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka
Gomukh Ganga in the premises of the Nageshwar temple.
And of course... Shiva, in the sanctum sanctorum as a pillar of light and right across the entrance gate, meditating – unmoved and unaffected by the chatter all around, a true yogi, calm and unattached in the face of chaos, with His fourth hand raised in a blessing.

The magnificient statue of Lord Shiva at  Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka
Can you feel the enormity?
Beneath the magnificent statue of Lord Shiva at  Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple.
Standing beneath, as I gaze up at him, my head feels hollow and my heart, light, His compassionate eyes carrying an assurance of security and protection. Feeling tiny, I kneel down to pray just like some of the other devotees around. There is a constant hum of pandemonium all around - people, his devotees and followers are rushing in and around him. Some are clicking selfies while standing near him, some are busy snapping His pictures while some others are mumbling their prayers. Pigeons flutter about around him. A cow comes in from somewhere and moo’es in between. I close my eyes, silence descends gradually, the noise ceases to a trickle… as if someone has halted the hands of time and all the sounds have dissolved into a formless pure light of illuminance.

A gigantic Shiva deity of Nageshwar Jyotirling Shiva Temple, Bet Dwarka

Aum Namah Shivaay, I let out a faint chant, the same words that are inscribed on the outstretched palm of His hand. The strains of the chant reverberate deeper, as I walk out of the temple, permeating my whole being in an assurance, his assurance... birthing within a renewed elixir of life. 


Everything You Need to Know to Plan the Best Summer Vacation Ever!

Winter holidays are over, and now it's time to plan the perfect summer getaway - to a place so perfect that you will spend these remainder long, cold nights dreaming about. A place that gives you a well-deserved break from your stressful and mundane city life.

Imagine walking in the fog with cool mountain breeze blowing past you, chilly mornings and starry nights. Imagine going to a place that is not affected by the constantly rising temperature in summer and free of the constraints of city life. All this could come true a few months from now - while everybody else is juggling with the scorching heat of the sun, you can be in Himachal Pradesh, the epitome of natural beauty.

If one of your New Year's resolutions is to stop missing out on great opportunities, then assure yourself of a great summer by booking yourself either a Shimla, Kufri, Chail or a Himachal tour package right now! This way, you will also get there in time to capture the beauty of stark white winter transitioning into a bright, colourful summer, when it surpasses all its limits of gorgeousness. Here's everything that you need to know to plan the best summer vacation to your choice of best summer destinations ever:

1. Things you need to carry.

• Always have your detailed itinerary printed in hand, along with hotel booking confirmation
• Identity proofs (digital, printed copy as well as original) are usually asked at the time of check-in at the hotel
• It could get a light chilly so make sure you pack light woollens, or sweatshirts and full sleeve tees
• Personal medication like thermometer, band-aids, eno, aspirin, ORS, crocin as well as prescribed medication if any
• Moisturizing lotion, especially if your skin dries quickly
• Power banks and chargers
• If you plan to adventure out on your own, don't forget your travel map, torches, trekking boots(or good rubber-soled shoes) and a few energy bars. 
• Don't forget to arm your DSLR with ample memory cards and batteries!

2. Cuisine to try.

Another reason to fall in love with Himachal Pradesh (the first reason being its breathtaking beauty) is the tasteful blend of exquisite Pahari cuisine it has to offer, that has a unique flavour and aroma to it. These are some dishes you simply must sample:

• Dhaam-–It is a traditional festival which is celebrated in the state. Treat your taste buds with sweetened rice, curd, curry, rice, green lentils and red kidney beans, which are served on leaves.
• River Trout - a local favourite served with rice
• TudkiyaBhath - A type of pulao with mash daal
• Kadoo Ka Khatta - Pumpkin cooked in gravy and amchoor
• Babru - A type of stuffed kachori served with tamarind chutney

3. Things to do and places to see - Shimla

• The Shimla Ridge - Go here for stunning views of the city and mountain peaks, to eat at one of the many restaurants located nearby or to shop at local stores. There's also a Christ Church and Tudor Library nearby.
• Kalka-Shimla Railway - A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is a connection between Kalka and Shimla. A must do for a breathtaking journey through bridges and tunnels.
• Jakhoo Hill - This is Shimla's highest peak and offers aview of the Himalayan mountains. There's also a Jakhoo Temple with a huge Hanuman statue. 
• Kufri-–It is a perfect place to indulge in adventure sports or to just enjoy scenic views from a 2510 metre altitude.

4. Things to do and places to see - Manali.

• Salong Valley or 'Snow Point' - This is a great place for adventure sports lovers and trekkers. It offers magnificent views of glaciers and snow-capped peaks.
• Rohtang Pass - It has various hidden waterfalls and a great many picturesque sites that you can discover on a jeep safari ride.
• Hadimba Devi Temple - Dedicated to Gahatotkacha, this 15th-century temple is perfect for the religious tourist.
• Great Himalayan National Park - Enjoy scenic views of mountain passes and valleys or admire the many endangered fauna and flora found here. It is also a great place for trekking. 

True, Himachal Pradesh is beautiful all year around, but there is just something exceptionally magical about it during summer. To experience the many magical vistas of nature here, be sure to book customized tour packages as early as possible so you can guarantee yourself a memorable summer. Don't forget to pack your camera to capture all your new favourite memories!

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About the Author:

Meera Dewaan is an aspiring writer, literature geek and author. She has several journals, articles and papers to her name. Writing is her passion. She writes about mostly all genres.