Religious ruminations in Baba's bastion

A warm January afternoon, and the flat land flanking the NH7 was tanning itself brown under the gaze of a clean blue sky. As I swung the Pulsar 180 off the highway towards the town of Puttaparthi,it occurred to me that as recently as 1940,anyone in my place wouldn’t have given the turnoff a second glance – for that matter, there wouldn’t even have been a turnoff.

The phenomenon of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who at the age of 14 declared himself to be an incarnation of Shirdi Sai Baba, has made Puttaparthi grow up very fast indeed. In just over sixty years, a tiny little Andhra village rose to modernity and international fame as the abode of the saffron-robed, afro-haired ‘God incarnate’, as millions of devotees from all over the world – including politicians, business tycoons, sportsmen, even scientists: dozens of well-known personalities from Kapil Dev to Atal Behari Vajpayee – believe Sai Baba to be.

My grandmother, bless her soul, was one of them, an ardent believer for decades. One corner of her room was a saffron sanctum of his photographs (with the occasional white or maroon robe) and a large sticker that asked ‘Why fear when I am here?’ Now and then she would brush aside her various perpetual
illnesses to make a visit to Puttaparthi. ‘Om Sai Ram,’ she would say, and dab my forehead with grey vibudhi (holy ash) on her return.

As the road suddenly cheered up into a well-surfaced two-lane meant to ferry arrivals at Puttaparthi’s airport the five kilometres to the town centre, I thought of her, and her deep conviction. At the end of the road, I imagined tens of thousands of faithfuls like her, looking to the Baba for solutions, strength and salvation. A faith in divine visions and visitations, one that sees a miracle where the sceptic views sleight-of-hand, one that pooh-poohs as rubbish the allegations of sexual abuse that have been levelled at Sai Baba in recent years.

I rode into Puttaparthi’s clean main street, lined with sign-boards bearing Sai Baba’s sayings in various languages. Westerners, Indians, young and old, mostly in white clothes, walked or bicycled serenely by, some exchanging greetings of ‘Om Sai Ram’. A few people were gathered at a small gate, near Sai Baba’s patient-looking pet elephant Sai Geeta, with one Scandinavian-looking man’s camcorder capturing her shuffling and trunk-curling.

‘Servi tutti, ami tutti ‘ said one sign – ‘Serve all, love all’. God or fraud, you can’t argue with teachings that aim to spread compassion and make this strafed world of ours a more harmonious place, one based on the five pillars of dharma, ahimsa, prema, sathya and shanthi. Certainly, the Baba’s declared motives are noble – to ensure that mankind lives in bliss,to keep strayers on the path to goodness, to alleviate the sufferings of the poor.

To this end, he has constructed a free superspeciality hospital, schools, good roads, water supply towers, even a planetarium, a music college and a stadium, in and around Puttaparthi. Those are the kind of blessings so many people need, and that itself makes him God in the eyes of those delivered from a base and wretched existence. But westerners who take all these things for granted also worship him, in turn questing the spiritual balm that India administers to countless escapees of materialistic modern civilization.
I checked into a nondescript lodge called Sai something or the other – as is nearly every third building here, the others being Prasanthi this or Sathya that – and after freshening up, went for a walk past the usual profusion of hotels, cybercafes, phone-booths, eateries, craft shops, textile stores and travel agents that spring up wherever large crowds of visitors, especially foreigners, are to be found. One shop which seemed to be doing especially brisk business stocked all manner of Baba items – badges, bookmarks, pens, postcards, pendants, photographs, rings, stickers,calendars. At another little shop selling Indian wear, the salesboy was peddling his wares, in perfect Italian, to a middle-aged woman. 

The equally large number of Caucasians in robes and Indian clothes gave it an unmistakable ashram-town feel, like Auroville in Pondicherry or near the Osho commune in Pune. Just as the similarity crossed my mind I came upon a German Bakery, a popular hangout for westerners in many tourist towns. It was time for a meal anyway, so I entered. Maybe twenty or thirty people were eating or  sipping beverages, none of them Indian. A group of about eight men and women were singing country songs around a chap strumming a
guitar, and I tapped my feet to their tune as I waited for my pasta (like everything else, overpriced unless you converted it to dollars, or better, pounds) to arrive. 

“So, like, it was totally spiritual, y’know?” drawled an American girl at the adjacent table, to a bearded man who was nodding rapidly and looking piercingly into her eyes.A rather large, grey-haired woman in a loose green robe paused at the doorway, looking for space in the crowded restaurant, and settled for one of the empty chairs at my table for four. Hanna was German, owned a motel near the North Sea, had spent seven years travelling the world (her top two picks: New Zealand and Hawaii), and was on a crusade to rescue modern youth from the maelstrom of computers and television by spreading God’s message. As our orders arrived – orange juice for her – I asked her whether she believed in Sai Baba.

“Well, I respect his sayings,” she said after a pause. “They are very good for today’s youth. ‘Love thy neighbour’ – it is such a beautiful idea. But,” and her expression grew sombre, “I don’t like what I saw at the ashram. You see, these people – I was talking to some German women last night – they lose heart in business, ja? So someone tells them, go to India, to Puttaparthi, Sai Baba will help you. Then they come here for six months, see the sky, get a tan, and feel happy again. But I think, they can do that with a holiday, meeting friends, relaxing – feeding the soul. That is how you become happy. In the ashram, there are too many rules. The same rules these people are fighting to be free from! Put it this way, I didn’t see too many happy faces in the ashram,” she shrugged.Of course, I had to see for myself, so the next day, after a morning of photography and an early meals lunch at a small Tamilian restaurant, I headed to the ashram. It was just noon, but there were already at least a hundred men (the sexes are strictly segregated) queued up for the 2:45 darshan, in a white line that snaked through the expansive gardens. Even as I joined the end of the line, people walked in, and the single-file doubled and tripled soon under the supervision of a few volunteers, all in silence.

After nearly an hour or so, the volunteers called the queue forward, assembled everyone into a large square, gave each row of people a number and picked random lots. As each number was called, that row got up and hurried barefoot towards the darshan hall. At the steps, a large airport-security-style sign forbade sharp instruments and electronic instruments, and there was even a security gate where everyone was frisked before entering. Then the devotees dashed into the cavernous 15,000-seater hall, and bagged their places on the floor – the closer to the mandir entrance the better to receive a look, an open palm, a word or the crowning glory, an invitation to a private interview. I managed to get a second-row spot, amidst
a Dutchman who had brought along a little folding chair, a small African boy and an Indian man who blew his nose with persistence.

Devotees streamed in, filling up the hall steadily. The ceiling was ornate to the point of being gaudy, all green and gold-leaf, while across an equally elaborate temple sat the women devotees. As the clock moved past two-thirty, the crowd started getting restive, and Sevadal volunteers policed them with glares or the occasional sharp word. Pins-and-needles in my feet faded out the instrumental music as I wondered what the moment would be like. “You’ll know only when he looks at you,” my hotel attendant had said. Would I see a miracle? Would Baba stop as he passed me and reveal some stupendous truth? Would my life be changed? Would I believe?

Ten minutes ahead of schedule, a murmur ran through the thousands, as Sathya Sai Baba, with the familiar bushy hair and orange gown of all those photos, made his appearance at the far end. The men around me craned their necks for a glimpse as he stopped to say something to a couple of women, and more than a few folded their hands above their heads. 

I waited for him to reach our end – but in a trice, before even approaching the men, he disappeared into the mandir. Huh? Was that it? Indeed it was; people were already shuffling out en masse. “Don’t worry you are not always lucky first time,” said the Dutchman as he got up. “I am coming here every day for one month. You come back tomorrow morning?” No, I didn’t have that kind of a wellspring of eternal, almost desperate hope, and as I rode out of Puttaparthi, it was with the slightest aftertaste of anticlimax. For those with faith, though, I guess there isn’t a finale, not till the very end and deliverance. As for me, I would keep wondering.

Southern Andhra Pradesh is home to the two most visited pilgrim sites in the world, Puttaparthi and Tirumala, the latter’s headcount even eclipsing Mecca and the Vatican. They also feature extremely efficient administrations and attract extremely large donations. As a roving biker, visiting either or both of these places offers a chance to observe the infrastructure and discipline of mass faith – with a good ride to boot.


The ride gets a thumbs up, as the AP highways are in good shape and the Eastern Ghats nestle a fine selection of backroads in their gentle slopes. 

PUTTAPARTHI Our route took us 470 km from Hyderabad down the smooth NH7 via Kurnool and Gooty, until the turnoff to Dharmavaram. The single-laner into and out of Puttaparthi is well-kept and would’ve made for some good scratching but for one too many jaywalking villagers. Then it’s back onto the NH7 and 160 km to pubs-n-clubs Bangalore. TIRUPATI Thirty kilometres from Chennai on the NH4 to Poonamallee and Bangalore, take the right to Tiruttani. The ripping 130 km of NH205 takes you to Tirupati, with a couple of backroad shortcuts towards the end. The holy hill of Tirumala with its famous temple to Lord Venkateswara is a further 23 km of excellent winding road, though thronged with bus- and jeep-loads of devotees.

A visit to Prashanti Nilayam is de rigeur in Puttaparthi. It’s open from 4 am to 9 pm, and darshan is given twice a day – 6 am and around 2:45 pm. You can’t take cameras, stereos or any other electronic items into the darshan area. Tobacco, alcohol and non-veg food are also taboo inside the ashram. Dress conservatively, remove your footwear when you enter and generally don’t disturb the peace.
If you want to lodge outside the ashram, no problem, Puttaparthi is designed to accommodate pilgrims and has innumerable hotel rooms to offer. You can put up at the likes of Sri Sai Sadan (Ph:08555-287507), for Rs 400 onwards, or at many little private guestrooms for half that price.Likewise, in Tirupati, from free-as-air pilgrims’ guesthouses to star hotels, acco signs bristle on either side of all the road. Try the Tirumala Residency (Rs 300, Ph: 08574-21300) in Tirupati, next to the railway overbridge.