Peace Pilgrimage to Shirdi
Sometime during the end of September, a small group of friends started on a walking pilgrimage from Pune to Shirdi, with an intention to seek blessings from the beloved Sufi mystic Sai Baba. We decided to walk every morning from 5 am till 10 am, as well as keep the time until sunrise for walking meditation in silence. We also felt called to take a leap of faith and surrender in the Divine Providence of the Universe by leaving our food and stay logistics completely in the hands of the Universe. Here are a few of the experiences from the walk.
Started the day at 5 am from Nigdi where Yogesh bhai and I were joined by Megha and Gaurita who would be walking with us. Both the ladies were very excited about this walk, and had been exercising for over a month to be fit for this walk. They both, however also looked a bit nervous as it was the first time they were attempting anything like this.
Out of the blue, as we are about to start, a middle aged lady out on her morning walk meets us and starts sharing that she too loves to go on padyatra. Every year she walks from Pune to Mahalaxmi temple in Kolhapur, a distance of 250 kms which she covers in 5 days and she faces no troubles as everything is taken care of by "Devi". As if that was her only message for us, she leaves, and thru her I felt Devi blessing our walk too. This serendipitous experience was a moral booster and a good omen for our walk.
We walked around 18 kms to reach the temple town of Alandi, famed for being the samadhi (tomb) of saint Gynaneshwar. We prayed at his samadhi and fell into a deep state of silence within at this sacred site where Gynaneshwar voluntarily took a living samadhi at the age of 21.
As per schedule we started our walk at 5 am and practiced silence until sunrise. Around sunrise, a local villager surprises us with a gift of freshly farm picked sitaphals. As the story goes, just the earlier night, I felt a desire to eat this fruit and here it was in its own magical way. As we walked through farms and villages, felt a growing sense of ease and flow in my being. Around noon, we reached Pabal village where we were offered a space to stay at the local Jain dharamshala. Felt like a lovely village with super happy folks.
In the evening, we found ourselves pulled to visit an old temple which we could see from our room. As we entered the temple, beautiful bhajans were playing on the radio which silenced the mind and took us to a quiet space within. We sat in silence for sometime and after a while the local elders started streaming in for the evening prayer. When they greeted us and found out about our pilgrimage they lovingly decided to invite us into the sanctum sanctorum to perform the prayer, Soon all those present started chanting the evening prayers and the our faces transformed into pictures of innocent delight as we all swayed and sang in unison. I was moved by the Shakti of their collective Bhakti. The true spirit of India lives in its villages and I pray that a instead of people moving to cities we move back to the villages and reclaim our simple lives. After the prayers, Laxmi one of the ladies at the temple invited us home for refreshments which we gladly accepted as it gave us an opportunity to experience the village life. As we entered her home, one by one her entire extended family came out to greet us and we ended up sharing stories of village life for an hour over tea.
We start our walk from Pabal around 4 30 am on a beautiful hilly road and the stillness of this pre dawn hour is mesmerising as we walk in complete silence until sunrise.
Around 5 am an old man on a cycle overtakes us and I wonder where he might be going at that hour. About 15 minutes later we hear someone chanting Vitthala prayers from a small roadside temple in the middle of nowhere on this lonely road. As we come closer, we realise that the same old man who passed us by is chanting as he lovingly bathes the idols inside.
Something about his prayers touches us and we are go towards him and request him to bless our pilgrimage as we touch his feet. Very graciously he blesses us first and then bends down himself to touch our feet, saying ''mauli mauli''.
As we resume our walk in the twilight hours, I feel a palpable sense of lightness in spirit, touched as i am by the old mans blessings.
As the sun is rising, we come across big group of adults and kids on their morning walk. As we get chatting, it turns out that the group comprises of two families from the neighbouring village, one hindu and one muslim, who have been following this morning walk ritual for years. We end up being invited to their homes for breakfast comprising organic homegrown fruits and a hot cup of chai. Soon we are back on the road, hearts full, spirits light. It's a good life.
Soon we pass a patch, where we see peacocks everywhere and it turns out we are passing by a village known as Morachi Chincholi. Watching the birds at play fill our hearts with delight, and brings out the child in us. One starts chasing the birds with glee, while some climb nearby chinch (tamarind) trees and some sit in joy watching the glory of mother nature.
After play time is over, we resume our journey and eventually reach Ralegaon Siddhi village, home to Gandhi elder and social activist Anna Hazare. As luck would have it, Anna ji is speaking to a group of college kids and we too join in. He is a grandfatherly figure, and his simple way of speaking is inspiring and engaging. Here is someone who is not preaching from the pulpit, but literally leading from the front. After his talk, somehow we find ourselves face to face with Anna ji, and request his blessings for our journey. He is very happy with our initiative and blesses us saying:
"If you want peace in the world, work to bring peace in your country.
If you want peace in your country, work to bring peace in your city.
If you want peace in your city, work to bring peace in your home.
If you want peace in your home, work to bring peace in your heart".
I realised that charity (and peace) begin at home (and in the heart)!
Anna ji insisted that we be his guests for the day and asked his secretary to arrange for our food and stay which we happily accepted.
Today a few friends from Pune joined us and we had a beautiful walk to Meherbaba's samadhi. Meherbaba was a beautiful Sufi mystic who chose to be in silence for 42 years of his life. As we prayed at his tomb, I saw a beautiful quote by Meherbaba. ''Everything that is worth giving and receiving happens in silence''. Each inch of this space was imbued with light and love and I would highly recommend a visit here.
Days 5 and 6
Spent a wonderful two days with the Girish Kulkarni, who is the founder of a non-profit named Snehalaya which means abode of love and one can tangibly feel love in every undertaking of theirs. Pained by the life of children in the red light areas, Girish and his friends started an evening school for these kids while still in college over 25 years ago. Slowly that small seed has now blossomed into a huge tree with multiple centres across Maharashtra. With patrons like Aamir Khan who visited this space thrice as well as featured their work on his show Satyamev Jayate, they have already received great recognition for their work.
Girish and his wife are incredibly humble and giving souls, and are family to the 1000 plus kids and women they serve. The spirit of generosity has even rippled into their 5 year old within a few minutes of meeting us, lovingly offered us her own handcrafted clay Ganesha idol. Girish shared that today the greatest need in social work is not material resources but volunteer support. He says "All our kids want is your love and affection so please volunteer and contribute your time to them so that they may have positive role models to look upto in life."
After spending some time interacting with the school kids, our hosts were eager to give us a tour of their projects in the slums. We also got to share stories of our journey with second year students of a local college where Girish teaches political science. As the day passed we met many of the Snehalaya volunteers and were deeply touched by their dedication. One who stood out, was a Gandhian elder in his seventies lovingly called Bapuji. Twenty years ago he was a rich jeweller with 3 shops in town before he joined Snehalaya. On the day he met Girish and heard his vision, Bapuji was so inspired by his vision that he decided to plunge into social work full time. He handed over his shops to his sons and has never looked back putting in more hours in service then he ever did in his own business.
We decided to resume our walk in the evening towards Shirdi. To our delight about twelve volunteers including Bapuji and Girish showed up in support to walk the 3 hour distance to our next destination.
We stopped for the night at a centre for abandoned women with mental diseases named Mauli. It was founded by a couple, both medical doctors who were pained by the plight of these women. They decided to dedicate themselves 100% to their cause and practically live with these women in a building next to their home. Some of these women will probably be with them for the rest of their lives. They currently have about 40 women and growing. We ended up singing some bhajans together with the women inmates and were deeply touched when one of them spontaneously started singing my favorite bhajan, "Vitthala tu veda kumbhar". Strange are the ways of the Universe.
As the sun was rising, we see two beautiful old men setting up their fruit stalls by the roadside. One of them smiles and asks ''Where are you going''. I reply '' We are walking to meet Sai at Shirdi''. Without a moment's hesitation, he immediately he picks some fresh chikus, apples and guavas and with a huge smile offers them to us. Touched by his large heartedness and grace we accept his gifts, and I ask if he would like us to do something on his behalf at Shirdi. Pat comes the reply ''Tell Sai that Ishwar fruitwalla sends his love.''
In the evening we find ourselves hosted at the Upasani Maharaj ashram in Sakori. Maharaj was quite a legend having been one of Sai baba s closest disciples and the one to perform Sai Baba's final rites when he passed away. The whole ashram is managed by around 30 women disciples of Maharaj some of whom in their 90's. As we entered the temple we felt we had stepped back a hundred years in time and were told that everything is kept exactly the way it was during Maharaj's time. The space had high yin energy with a lot of character.
After starting from Sakori at 2 am, we finally stepped into Sai baba s temple at around 4 am. I felt mixed emotions as it marked the culmination of this long cherished pilgrimage which I did not want to end. I also felt a strong desire to take Baba's blessings and receive his grace for the longer inner journey
Even at 4 am, there were hundreds of devotees in line to enter the temple for the 5 am opening prayers. We got into the line, and when we finally entered the main hall where Sai Baba's samadhi is placed they closed the door behind us and we were the last to enter the hall. Sai alone knows his leela. If we were even one second late, we would be outside the hall.
Being last in line, the guards made us sit next to them near the door for the entire hour, and we had all the space in the world as well as a direct view of prayer ceremonies. There were tears of gratitude in my eyes, as I could sense Baba smilingly tease me saying ''Ghar aa gaya baccha''
There was deep joy inside as I found myself absorbed in the electrifying atmosphere of the devotional chanting of all faithful gathered. Prayers for universal peace and harmony flowed from within me on their own and I realised my inner peace lies is in accepting Divine will. "Thy Will be done. Thy kingdom come."
In baba s presence all of us were like little children, happily awaiting his darshan and prasad. Was reminded of Jesus's teaching, ''Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all else shall be given to you''.
And thus as one walk culminated at Shirdi, an inner journey was revitalized with countless Divine blessings.