We made a short trip from Tiruvannamanalai to Puttaparthi to visit Sri Sathya Sai Baba in his Prashanthi Nilayam ashram. Sai Baba is a South Indian guru, very popular with many followers around the world. He is seen by his followers as a Godman and miracle worker. See this article in Wikipedia for more, and the Sai Baba website. One popular saying from Sai Baba is “Love All Serve All, Help Ever Hurt Never.”
Sai Baba is 82 now. At the age of 14, Sai Baba threw away his school books and announced, “My devotees are calling me. I have my work.” He left his parent’s home at that time and started a lifetime of spiritual teaching. From then on Sai Baba claimed to be the reincarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba and an avatar for our age, i.e. a divine incarnation sent to Earth to bring about spiritual renewal.
We made the trip with and for V. Dhakshinamoorthy and S. Ramesh of Quality of Life Trust. Dhakshinamoorthy has had health problems for the last one and a half years, and a mutual friend, Shivani, a western lady and long time follower of Sai Baba, thought it would be good to go and get ‘Swami’s blessing’ for Dhakshinamoorthy. We talked to Dhakshinamoorthy and wrote for him a letter to be given to Sai Baba on his behalf. We have seen Dhakshinamoorthy give much of himself to local poor villagers and abandoned elders, and were happy to do something that might give him some deep inner support.
Traveling to Puttaparthi
From Tiruvannamalai we could either hire a car, or take a bus to Bangalore and then a train to Puttaparthi. Travelling is hard on Dhakshinamoorthy, so we engaged a car and driver.
The drive was about seven hours. We headed north from Tiruvannamalai, through Vellore, and onto Puttaparthi, which is in the state of Andhra Pradesh, north of Bangalore. It is in red in the map below.
Puttaparthi was originally a small village. Now it has grown to a small city, with the ashram and other Sai Baba facilities as the primary features. It is really in the middle ‘nowhere’ with the closest city of Bangalore maybe 160 km away.
The area around the city is typical Indian country side with farms and small villages.
And shepherds with their flocks of goats.
Prashanthi Nilayam Ashram
Outside the ashram there is the usual Indian noise and chaos of rickshaws and traffic and the streets full of shops selling everything imaginable for western visitors – mainly clothes, jewelry, food, spiritual statues and merchandise, drink stands, Internet cafes, etc. Each has someone out of the shop trying to get those passing by the stop and look, ‘Just come and look. You don’t have to buy anything.’
This is the main gate into the ashram. It is two different worlds inside and outside the gates.
Inside it is quiet, with many people, more Indians than Westerners. Shrines abound, with many Ganesh shrines especially. Most woman are wearing sarees, with both shoulders and arms covered, in the style mandated by Sai Baba. And the grounds are enormous, with blocks and blocks of buildings that look like apartment complexes, and shops and restaurants, drink stands, parks and tree-lined streets.
These were buildings with rooms for Westerners. 30 years ago, Sai Baba was mainly popular with Westerners. Now, starting a few years ago, he is wildly popular with Indians as well. This parallels the greatly increased interest in Arunachala and crowds coming to Tiruvannamalai on full moon nights.
One of the parks inside the compound.
This street looks toward one of the areas where Indians are housed in dormitory-like accommodations.
The street is in the center, looking towards some of the buildings with rooms for families.
This is the Western Food restaurant. Men enter and eat on the right, woman on the left. The meals are very inexpensive. What I had was usually about Rs 30. There are North Indian and South Indian eateries as well.
One of the sweet Ganeshes ahead. Photography was forbidden of the shrines, so I had to take the photo from a distance.
A small park near to the Ganesh above. This hand was about 10 feet tall. This was a quiet area for people to sit and be with themselves.
This is the library. Notice the nice attention to the architecture. This is common with many of the buildings, done with some features that interest the eye.
This is the store. Women can shop in the morning, and men in the evening. Everything is discounted, and the store is quite busy and seems like a madhouse. A friend of Carol’s saw a saree, and stepped to the rack to get it. By the time she got there, it was gone. Good clothing, luggage, personal items, groceries, and probably more can be bought on the three shopping floors of the building.
The book store, nicely done with an attractive entrance and covered stairs on both side of the building.
More space for Indians. They call these sheds. One gets space on the floor.
I tried to get photos of Sai Baba’s castle-like residence and the meditation hall. Photography of these was forbidden, so I could only get shots from a distance, as below.
Darshan with Sai Baba
The twice-daily darshan sessions are the main focus of the ashram and visitors. After the darshans are bhajans, singing of spiritual songs. These have been used by Swami since his first teaching, at age 14.
Darshan with Swami was different from any I have experienced. When we were there maybe 5,000 people came to the morning darshan, and 10,000 in the afternoon. There were many people, men and women, working ‘crowd control.’ Men entered and sat on one side, women on the other. Lines start an hour or so before the hall opens, with people lining up to get a preferred position. Sometimes Sai Baba accepts letters, but you need to be along one of the aisles he uses to have a chance to give it to him.
Swami is 82 year old now, and really seems only to attend the bhajan singing. Here they roll him into the hall in a wheelchair. Devotees stand and push against one another to get a good view. The many attendants will go into the crowd, and motion people to sit, pushing forcefully down those who do not comply quickly enough. This goes for the women as well as the men. Swami will be wheeled through the hall, down an aisle on the men’s side then through the women’s side. He may stop and have a word with someone, or take their letters. Then after a few minutes a small car (an electric car, so that it does not pollute the air of the hall) comes in to Darshan Hall. Swami gets into the car and is driven through the women’s side out to his residence, just outside the hall. All together he is there perhaps ten minutes.
Some days Sai Baba will come for the darshan of the devotees, some days he does not come. We were told that Swami is now directing his devotees into a more internal spirituality where the viewing of his body is less important.
After Swami leaves the hall, the session is over and the many thousands of people leave through two exits (one for the men and one for the women), find their shoes or sandals and go on with their day. Finding one’s shoes can be a problem, locating them among the thousands that are there.
At one of the evening darshans there was some kind of performance, or skit, performed for him. We were in the back of the hall, so did not see what was happening. We could hear, but most of this was not in English, though there were two parts that were. From the players entering from the stage entrance, which we could see, it looked like Siva and Krishna were among the characters in the skit. The gist of the presentation was that these are troubled times, and Sai Baba is the avatar sent to help mankind through these times.
No camera or photos were allowed in the hall. Upon entering, every person was lightly “patted down,” as well as scanned with a metal detector. All the women are also checked to make sure their arms are properly covered by their sarees.
We took the following photos as our car drove out of the ashram. The car entrance is next to the Darshan hall.
We were not able to get seated close enough to Swami’s route through the hall to deliver Dhakshinamoorthy’s letter. We took it to a nearby courier, and for Rs 10 they would deliver it to Swami. Dhakshinamoorthy was very disappointed that we could not get the letter directly into Swami’s hands.
This is the rear of the hall. Behind the big gate is a wonderful Hanuman shrine. The gates lead into a parking area in the back of the hall. In this was parked a full sized bus, converted, I think, for the use of Sai Baba when he travels. He has three different ashrams, and I think, uses this bus to move between them.
This is a close-up of the top of the Hanuman shrine. This shows a bit of the elaborate, beautifully painted symbolic decoration that is found in the hall.
Out the automobile gate.
Now we are back in the town.
The drive back was another seven hours, taking a different route, this time through Hosur, east of Bangalore. The roads are much better this way.
This was an interesting experience, and not what we expected to see, with the thousands of visitors and only the brief darshan from a distance across the hall. Many found this darshan to be very fulfilling.
We may go back again for another visit.