This time around, when my aunt expressed a desire to visit the Holy Sai Baba at Shirdi, I paused to consider the matter. I had no agenda other than to seek the Holy Man’s blessings, but the prospect of hopping from one religious queue to another deterred me. A little research revealed that my fears were unfounded. We booked a pass on the temple’s website, cutting short our waiting time for the darshan by a couple of hours. We browsed hotels on Booking.com. Reservations were made, a car was hired and off we went, careening down a smooth newly built highway.
At the height of mid-morning, a faint veil of sunshine shrouded the city. The weather was warm but not stifling hot as I feared. A turnstile granted us entry into the grounds. The uniformed guard demanded our passes, and we presented the sheet of paper dutifully printed out. He pulled my daughter’s cheek playfully and joked that children are not allowed in.
At a counter just outside the temple, we surrendered our footwear and received tokens in exchange. Once inside, we ran into organized chaos. Ushers, including lithe women clad in blue saree uniforms, stood at every corner to guide us on the right path to the idol. The halls, passages and staircases were crammed with people. Muscle-teed jocks and nubile nymphs jostled with rural men who twirled their moustaches and gypsy-like women whose anklets jingled with their every step. Toddlers sat atop their fathers’ shoulders as they hustled past. The crowd chanted the name of Sai Baba as the human river flew down one flight of stairs and up another to reach the shrine. The chants rang out as the crowd heaved through the narrow lanes.
We joined the two parallel queues that would lead us to the idol. The memory of my scuffle on the last visit flashed in my mind. I treaded cautiously, and maintained an arm’s length distance from the worshippers crowding me. Soon, our face time with the idol was over, and the guards steered us out so others could move in. Devotees, including me, slipped coins wrapped in ten-rupee-notes into steel boxes marked for donations. We walked backwards while facing the idol, because turning your back on God is said to bring bad luck.