” Verily Shirdi is my Pandharpur and Sai Baba is Lord Vittal. Pure and unalloyed devotion (which flows at Shirdi) is the River Chandrabhaga; mindful awareness in the hearts of devotees in Shirdi is the holy locus where Bhakta Pundalik is ensconced. Attention one and all! Come, come quickly and make obeisance to Sai Baba! ”
Roughly halfway down the Indian subcontinent, in the state of Maharashtra, about 300 kms inland from the state capital of Mumbai (Bombay), lies the small town of Shirdi. Little more than an overgrown village, Shirdi is situated in the heart of the sugar-cane belt of Maharashtra. In the Rahata Taluka of Ahmednagar District, Shirdi is home to about 22,000 people and is the pilgrimage destination of a further eight to ten million a year. It is said to be the most frequented place of pilgrimage in India after Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh. And why do people come to this dusty rural corner of India in such vast numbers? To seek the blessings of Sri Sai Baba, as they have done for more than one hundred years!
Before we explore the Shirdi of the second millennium, let us take a brief look at the village as it would have appeared to a contemporary of Sai Baba. When Sri Sai Baba came to Shirdi in the mid-nineteenth century, it was a rustic hamlet of about a thousand people (mostly labourers and artisans), with approximately 200 houses, one village well, a few shops selling basic provisions and some small, rather run-down temples. The village was partially bordered by prickly cactus, and the present Lendi Gardens was an area of wasteland with a grove of trees and two streams running through it. The state of Maharashtra did not exist (it was created only in 1960), the area being divided up under British rule into the Bombay Presidency, and the Nizam’s Dominions, which were independent.
By 1910 the village of Shirdi had become slightly more prosperous, though Mrs Tarkhad, a Sai Baba devotee and regular visitor from Bombay, still found it “little more than a neglected hamlet without any lighting, sweeping or other conveniences of civilization… The streets and passages were all dark and unlit at night.” By then, Baba’s mosque had already taken on the character of a darbar (royal court), which it was to retain till the end of his mortal days.