The closed-circuit television whirls in my direction as I lay my offerings at the pristine feet of Sai Baba. My steel thali is laden with a lit earthen lamp and little bowls filled with the ceremonial kumkum (vermillion powder), haldi (turmeric powder) and rice. I expect the priest to hold the plate gingerly, but he seizes it and launches into the ceremonial arti. He grasps it in both hands in front of the idol, and draws vertical circles in the air. In one swift movement, he returns it to me, in line with the protocol, while another priest deposits a packet of prasad on to the thali.
I suppress the twinge of irritation that bubbles up in me, as I am swept along with the sea of bodies when it flows towards the exit. Outside, under the warm rays of the overhead noon sun, I breathe in the air that has reportedly staved off plague and cured leprosy. Then I sneak a closer look at the crumpled package – the maker’s website and email address are inscribed across it in thick crimson letters.
In this high-tech era of devotion, the shrine of the Holy Sai Baba at Shirdi welcomes in excess of fifty thousand visitors each day. Urban professionals like me, slaves to instant gratification but keen to tap their religious side, skip the queues and instead book their tickets on the official website of the temple. The small town of Shirdi lies only around three hundred kilometers from Mumbai. It may not boast cement roads, a robust water or electrical supply, but you can reserve rooms at decent hotels online. The transformation is sufficient to tempt even one as impious as me.