Arriving at the mosque for the first time, you may be rather surprised. Was this simple, unadorned structure really the home of "God on earth?" Was this really the centre from which so many miraculous events sprang? Could such a modest building have been the scene of the highest spiritual instruction that flowed forth in almost as many different forms as the number of visitors seeking it?
With its corrugated iron roof and rough stone walls, the mosque could never be described as grand. Yet, in spite of this – or rather, because of this – it seems to have suited Baba very well. Describing himself as a simple fakir, Baba was a model of dispassion and holy poverty. His personal possessions amounted to little more than a few pieces of cloth, some chillim pipes, a stick, a begging bowl, and a change of kafni – and not even always that. Whenever his devotees wanted to refurnish the mosque, Baba resisted and said that it was not necessary, although basic repair work was gradually carried out.
To the devotees of Sai Baba, Dwarkamai is one of the treasures of Shirdi. The spirit of tolerance, acceptance and welcome for all is very much alive. Baba has said that merely going inside the mosque will confer blessings, and the experiences of devotees confirm this. Sai Baba respected all religions and creeds, and all had free access to the mosque. It is typically unique of Sai Baba that he regarded a place of worship – the mosque – as a mother. He once told a visitor, "Dwarkamai is this very mosque. She makes those who ascend her steps fearless. This masjidmai is very kind. Those who come here reach their goal !"
On entering the mosque one is struck by its powerful atmosphere and the intensity and absorption with which visitors are going about their worship. Another point we notice is the great diversity of devotional expression. Some people will be kneeling before Baba's picture of making offerings, others will be praying before the dhuni (perpetually burning sacred fire), some may be doing japa or reading from sacred texts, and others will be sitting in contemplation. If we spend some time here we may become aware of a mysterious phenomenon.
The "mayi" aspect of the masjid reveals itself in a number of ways and we feel we are sitting in Baba's drawing room. See that child over there happily crawling around with a toffee in its mouth, or her sister colouring a comic book ? And what about the old man complaining to Baba about his aches and pains, or that women sitting with her son on her lap telling him a story ? Opposite is a large family group. The granny has a tiffin tin, and having offered some to Baba, she walks around giving a handful of payasam (sweet rice) to everyone in the mosque. We feel we are receiving prasad almost from Baba himself, and perhaps we are then reminded of some of the stories in Baba's life in which devotees brought offerings, or when he affectionately distributed fruit or sweets with his own hand. The atmosphere is so homely in the abode of Sai mavuli ! But what is perhaps more remarkable, is that his homeliness co-exists with a powerful experience of the sacred and transcendent. The spirit is profoundly moved by "something" – something indefinable, something great, something mysterious, something magnetically attractive. As we explore Sai Baba's Shirdi, this aspect of Baba – at once the concerned mother and the Almighty – is shown again and again. Many devotees relate to Baba as a mother, and many as a God supreme. That these two are so perfectly synthesized in Baba – see his care for both the smallest domestic detail as well as the ultimate spiritual attainment – is perhaps the most beautiful and unique aspect of Shirdi Sai.
When Sai Baba moved into this mosque it was an abandoned and dilapidated mud structure, much smaller than the one we see today. In fact, it extended only as far as the steps and wrought iron dividers enclosing the upper section, with the rest of the area an outside courtyard. There were no iron bars around the mosque or the dhuni as there are today, and according to Hemadpant, there were "knee-deep holes and pits in the ground"! Part of the roof had collapsed and the rest was in imminent danger of following, so it was a rather hazardous place to live ! Once when Baba was sitting in the mosque, eating with a few devotees, there was a loud crack overhead. Baba immediately raised his hand and said, "Sabar, sabar," ("Wait, wait"). The noise stopped and the group carried on with their meal, but when they got up and went out, a large piece of the roof came crashing down onto the exact spot where they had been sitting!
Renovation of the masjid
Baba's devotees sometimes pestered him to allow them to renovate the mosque, but his initial response was always to refuse. For him there was no need for any alterations. Once, in the mid-1890's, a devotee had some building materials delivered to the mosque, with the intention that they should be used for repair work, but Baba had them redirected to a couple of local temples that were in need of restoration.
Later, Nana Chandorkar and Nana Nimonkar were determined that some reconstruction should go ahead, while Baba appeared to be equally adamant that it should not, although he eventually gave permission for it through the intervention of Mahalsapati. At first, whatever work was done, Baba would undo. It seems not an uncommon occurrence with Baba that whenever a new proposal was put forward, particularly with regard to renovation, he would first oppose it, often vehemently, even violently, before eventually acquiescing and allowing the work to go ahead. Eventually the construction team resorted to working at night, and then only on those alternate nights when Baba slept in Chavadi.
By about 1912 the renovation work was complete and all that remained to be done was the metal roofing for the courtyard. For this, one of Baba's most intimate devotees, Tatya Kote Patil, and some others, arranged for materials to be brought from Bombay. They then set about the work, including digging a trench for the erection of some iron poles, without asking Baba's permission.
When Baba returned from Chavadi to the mosque and saw what was happening he appeared to be furious, demanding, "What is going on ? Who had done this ?" He promptly ripped out the poles with his own two hands (though it had taken several people to carry them), and threw stones at the labourers to drive them away. Then he grabbed Tatya by the scruff of his neck until he was unable to speak and almost choking, and violently berated him.
Most of the labourers fled in terror and Tatya was left with Baba. Despite his precarious predicament and Baba's vehement objection to the project, Tatya insisted that the work should be done. Baba threw him to the ground snatched off the turban that Tatya always wore, flung it into the trench and set fire to it. Still Tatya insisted on the need to make repairs and vowed that he would never wear a turban again until the work was complete. Baba finally relented and by evening had cooled down sufficiently to call Tatya and tell him to again put on a turban. Tatya, however, refused. Eventually, in his loving concern, Baba gave money to someone to bring new cloth and himself tied a new turban on his steadfast devotee.
Some time after this event, Kakasaheb Dixit replaced the original mud floor with tiles and the work was complete.
When Sri Sai Baba moved into the mosque permanently, he had already been in Shirdi for a number of years, staying mostly under the neem tree, with an occasional night at the mosque or in the near vicinity. It could be said that Baba's settling in the mosque marked a turning point in his life, or rather, in that of the village itself, as the shift brought him into closer contact with the local people.
Baba's fondness for lamps - Lamp is the symbol of holy light - light of knowledge in darkness of ignorance.
Although Baba had been healing people since his early days in Shirdi and was sometimes called "Hakim" ("doctor"), it was a specific and dramatic event which brought him to the attention of the local people, and it took place in the mosque. Throughout his life Baba displayed a fondness for lights and lamps and would regularly light panatis (small earthenware pots with cotton wicks and oil) in the mosque and certain local temples, in accordance with the Hindu and Muslim view that places of worship should be illuminated at night. For this he depended on the generosity of a few local shop-keepers from whom he used to beg oil. One day, however, both suppliers brusquely refused to give him any oil, claiming that they were out of stock. Baba took this calmly and returned to the mosque empty-handed. The shopkeepers followed him in the gathering gloom, curious to see what he would do. What they witnessed brought them to their knees in awe and wonder. Baba took some water from the pot kept in mosque, and put it in the jar he used for collecting oil. Shaking it up he drank the oily water, then took another jar of water and filled the four lamps with it. Next he lit the lamps, and – to the shopkeepers' astonishment – they not only burned, but remained alight all night. Afraid of being cursed by a man of such powers, the shopkeepers begged Baba's forgiveness. This was freely given, but Baba pointed out the importance of speaking the truth – if they did not want to give, they should simply say so directly and not lie about it.
The wondrous nature of this event, which is said to have taken place in 1892, and the many such leelas which followed, precipitated an influx of visitors to the Shirdi mosque that has never stopped growing. To this day, lamps are burnt continually in Dwarkamai, providing us with an unbroken link to Baba and the lamps that he himself started and lovingly kept alight.
Association with Dwarka
During Baba's time Dwarkamai was always referred to simply as "the masjid" or mosque. The name "Dwarkamai" came into popular vogue only after Baba passed away but was first coined when a devotee once expressed a wish to make a pilgrimage to Dwarka, a town in Gujarat sacred to Krishna. Baba replied that there was no need as that very mosque was Dwarka. "Dwarka" also means "many-gated", and "mai" means mother, hence "the many-gated mother" (and Baba did often call it the "masjid ayi"). The author of Sri Sai Satcharitra, identified another definition of Dwarka given in the Skanda Purana – a place open to all four castes of people (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras) for the realization of the four corresponding aims of human existence (i.e. moksha or liberation, dharma or righteousness, artha or wealth and kama or sensual pleasure). In fact, Baba's mosque was open not only to all castes, but also to untouchables and those without caste.
Yadnya - The Dhuni – is a sacrificial rite (Yadnya) on a pyre – a pious devotional act of worship to Agni (fire)
For many visitors, the dhuni is the most significant part of Dwarkamai, as it is so intimately associated with Baba. The dhuni is the sacred, perpetually burning fire that Baba built and which has been maintained ever since, though today the fire is much bigger and is enclosed behind a wire cage. Yadnya produces ash which the purest substance on earth and has the power to destroy whatever evil and impure. Baba very generously distributed Udi to His devotees for protecting them from maladies.
The maintenance of a dhuni is important in several traditions, including Zoroastrianism, Sufism and Hinduism (especially the Nath sect). Fire was also important to Baba, as wherever he stayed – whether under the neem tree, in the forest, or in the mosque – he always kept a dhuni. Baba, however, was not bound by any convention or set rules, nor did he worship the fire. He simply maintained it, using it for his own particular and mysterious purposes. There were no classic restrictions around Baba's dhuni. Baba did not prevent others from touching it – indeed, villagers would sometimes come to take embers with which to kindle their own household fires, and whenever Radhakrishnayi used to thoroughly clean and whitewash the mosque at festival times, she would move the dhuni into the street outside. Baba did not confine himself to burning only wood on the dhuni, but would throw his old clothes on it once they were worn out, and he would adjust the fire with his foot (in Indian culture it is considered disrespectful to touch or point to anything with the foot). One day, the fire in the mosque got wildly out of control, with flames leaping up to the roof. None of those present with Baba dared say anything to him but they were nervous. Baba responded to their uneasiness, not by prayer or supplication, but by magisterially rapping his satka (stick) against a pillar and ordering the flames to come down and be calm. At each stroke the flames diminished and the fire was soon restored to normal.
When Baba returned from his morning begging-rounds with a cloth bag of food and a tin pot of liquids, he would first offer some of it at the dhuni before taking any himself. We may not be able to discern exactly why or how Baba used the dhuni, but it is evident that despite the apparent informality around it, the fire was an important part of his routine. According to the Sri Sai Satcharitra, the fire symbolized and facilitated purification and was the focus of oblations, where Baba would intercede on behalf of his devotees. Once when Baba was asked why he had a fire, he replied that it was for burning our sins, or karma. It is reported that Baba would spend hours sitting in contemplation by the dhuni, facing south, especially early in the morning after getting up and again at sunset. Mrs. Tarkhad, who had Baba's darshan regularly, says that at these times "He would wave his arms and fingers about, making gestures which conveyed no meaning to the onlookers and saying "Haq" which means God."
The spot where Baba used to sit is marked by a small pair of silver padukas. Look carefully – on the floor just in front and to the right of the dhuni – for they are easy to miss. We feel awed when we see the padukas and reflect on what issued form here – this was the spot where Baba stood and sat, his finger on the pulse of the universe, controlling, effecting, giving, protecting, never resting but constantly seeing to the needs of his devotees, for as he said, "If I don't take care of my children night and day, what will become of them ?"
Today the dhuni is maintained in a carefully designed structure lined with special fire-bricks, in the same place that Baba used to have it. Baba made an intriguing comment about this spot, saying that it was the burial place of one Muzafar Shah, a well-to-do landowner, with whom he once lived and for whom he had cooked. This is recorded in Charter & Sayings of Sri Sai Baba, but as so frequently when Baba speaks about his personal history, we do not know to which life he was referring.
In 1998 the Sansthan undertook the rebuilding of the dhuni pit and re-designed the chimney to its distinctive shape.
From the earliest days, Baba would give udi – holy ash from the dhuni – to his visitors. The healing power of Baba's udi is well documented and there are numerous cases of people being healed of pain or sickness by taking Baba's udi both before and since his mahasamadhi.
Baba would sometimes apply udi to his devotees when they arrived, or when they were taking leave of him, and he often gave out handfuls of it which he scooped up from the dhuni. The Sri Sai Satcharitra tells us that "when Baba was in a good mood" he sometimes used to sing about udi "in a tuneful voice and with great joy" : "Sri Ram has come, Oh he has come during his wanderings and he has brought bags full of udi." Udi is still collected from the fire for distribution. Since this is a continuation of Baba's own practice, and the udi comes from the very fire that Baba himself lit and tended, it is considered extremely sacred. Today a small tray of udi is kept for visitors near the steps.
For devotees of Sai Baba there is an emotional attachment to udi as a tangible form of Baba's blessings, a vehicle for Baba's grace and a link to Baba himself. People usually put it on the forehead and/or in the mouth.
Udi is available in small packets from a small booth outside the Samadhi Mandir.
The kolamba and the waterpot
In the southwest corner of the mosque by the dhuni is a waterpot on a stand, and below it, an earthenware dish known as a kolamba. Baba used to beg for his food at least twice a day. He generally visited only five houses – those of Vaman Gondkar, Vaman Sakharam Shelke, Bayajabai and Ganapat Kote Patil (Tatya's parents), Bayaji Appa Kote Patil and Nandaram Marwadi – and stand outside them calling for alms. Baba would collect the solid food in a cloth bag and any liquid offerings in a small tin pot. When he returned to the mosque he would offer some at the dhuni, the empty it all into a kolamba and leave it available for any person or creature to take from, before eating a small quantity himself. In continuance of this tradition, a kolamba is still kept here beside the water pot. People leave naivedya (food offerings) here as a gesture of offering bhiksha to Baba, and take it as his prasad. As Baba used to keep one or two water pots by the dhuni (for drinking and performing ablutions), this tradition is also maintained. Devotees like to take the water a symbol of Baba's teerth (holy water).
On the western wall of the mosque – in the direction of Mecca – is a nimbar or niche, with a set of lamps in front of it. The nimbar is a standard feature of all mosques, but the lamps were put there by Baba. In Dwarkamai this spot, which is near where Baba used to sit, is decorated with a garland of flowers.
The Sri Sai Satcharitra relates that it was here that Baba used to have his midday meal, sitting behind a curtain with his back to the nimbar, and a row of devotees on either side of him. This is also the place where Baba would sleep with his head pointing towards the nimbar, with Mahalsapati on one side of him and Tatya Kote Patil on the other.
The grinding stone and bag of wheat
A grinding stone – a common household item in rural India – is kept in the north corner of the western wall. Baba apparently had two or three such stones (another is on display in the Samadhi Mandir), which he occasionally used for grinding wheat. The most famous of these became the inspiration for Hemadpant's celebrated Sri Sai Satcharitra. It is described as follows :
"One morning, some time after the year 1910, while I was in Shirdi, I went to see Sai Baba at his mosque. I was surprised to find him making preparations for grinding an extraordinary quantity of wheat. After arranging a gunny sack on the floor he placed a hand-operated flour mill on it and, rolling up the sleeves of his obe, he started grinding the wheat. I wondered at this, as I knew that Baba owned nothing, stored nothing and lived on alms. Others who had come to see him wondered about this too, but nobody had the temerity to ask any questions.
As the news spread through the village, more and more men and women collected at the mosque to find out what was going on. Four of the women in the watching crowd forced their way through and, pushing Baba aside, grabbed the handle of the flour mill. Baba was enraged by such officiousness, but as the women raised their voices in devotional songs, their love and regard for him became so evident that Baba forgot his anger and smiled.
As the women worked, they too wondered what Baba intended doing with such an enormous quantity of flour... They concluded that Baba, being the kind of man he was, would probably distribute the flour between the four of them… When their work was done, they divided the flour into four portions, and each of them started to take away what she considered her share.
"Ladies, have you gone mad!" Baba shouted. "Whose property are you looting? Your father's? Have I borrowed any wheat from you ? What gives you the right to take this flour away ?"
"Now listen to me," he continued in a calmer tone, as the women stood dumbfounded before him. "Take this flour and sprinkle it along the village boundaries."
The four women, who were feeling thoroughly embarrassed by this time, whispered among themselves for a few moments, and then set out in different directions to carry out Baba's instructions.
Since I was witness to this incident, I was naturally curious as to what it signified, and I questioned several people in Shirdi about it. I was told that there was a cholera epidemic in the village, and this was Baba's antidote to it ? It was not the grains of wheat which had been put through the mill but cholera itself which had been crushed by Sai Baba, and cast out from the village of Shirdi.
To this day, a grinding stone is kept in the mosque with a sack of wheat beside it, as it was in Baba's time. This tradition goes back many years to the time when two devotees – a farmer (Balaji Patil Nevaskar) and his landowner – came to Baba for arbitration. Although Nevaskar had been cultivating the land for decades, the owner wanted it back. Baba advised him to comply with the owner's wishes, but instead of giving the crop to the owner he sent the whole of it to Baba, keeping none for himself ? Baba took a small portion of it, which he kept beside him all year, and returned the rest. In this way the custom was born and the ritual was repeated every year. These days a bag of wheat is kept in a glass case by the grinding stone throughout the year, and is replaced annually on the festival of Ramnavami.
In the corner by the grinding stone you will see a cupboard. It was in this niche that Baba used to keep his chillims. He was fond of smoking tobacco through these clay pipes and used to pass the pipe around to this close devotees. At such times he might tell stories and the atmosphere was one of good humour and friendliness.
As with many of the apparently ordinary things around Baba, there was more to the chillim as a means of bestowing grace. G. S. Khaparde observes in his Shirdi Diary that one day Baba "was very gracious and repeatedly gave me smoke out of his pipe. It solved many of my doubts and I felt delighted." There are also reports of Baba using the pipe for healing purposes. Hari Bhau, for example, suffered from asthma. He had never smoked before Baba offered him the pipe one day. Because it was given by Baba, he took it and smoked. From then on, his asthma was cured and never bothered him again.
None of the pipes can be seen in Dwarkamai now, but a few are on display in the Samadhi Mandir. Baba received many pipes in his lifetime and would often give them away.