We had an early morning start the next day. Shirdi was a good 3 hours drive away and visiting the shrine could take anything from 3-4 hours depending on the queues. We were on a tight schedule. We had to get to Shirdi, do the darshan and return to catch an evening flight to Chennai.
To make sure we gave ourselves enough time, we left at 5.45 in the morning and headed out. Squiggles was in my arm, snoozing away. I started to nod off and maybe slept for half an hour. After that there was no sleep possible. The road was absolutely crazy. The road was full of potholes and our speed had reduced drastically. Half an hour later, it was already clear it would take much longer than the 3 hours we had designated for the drive. DD has been before and managed to reach within that time but either the roads must have been much better or he must have made a mistake.
By the time we got to Shirdi, we had been in the car for 4 hours and 15 mins. If darshan took the average 3 hours, there was no chance we were going to make it back in time for our flight. DD was really concerned. I kept trying to tell him there was no point stressing about it. It was important to do the darshan with a clear mind and heart and if we missed the flight, then well we would just take the next one to Chennai. The problem, of course, was that we were supposed to fly out from Chennai to Cochin the next evening. So any delays would have a knock on effect on the whole trip.
As we got out of the car, a fellow quickly ran up to us and said he could save us time by taking us through a shortcut to the mandir. All we had to do was buy the prasad from him. After hesitating for a bit, pretty sure it was a rip off, but too worried about how busy it was likely to be, DD and I headed to the shop and bought loads of prasad. The shopkeeper asked his mundu to take us through the shortcut. Obviously, when we got there, we realised he'd just led us to a side gate and we would still have to queue. No surprises really.
Shrugging it off we went towards the gate only to be told we couldn't take Squiggles' diaper bag inside as it was too big. Even though I argued that it had her milk and food in it, they wouldn't budge. So, I quickly took a bottle of baby food and some water and the driver rushed back to place the bag in the car.
An enquiry at the gate revealed there wasn't much rush and we should manage to do the darshan in less than an hour. DD was much relieved. We hurried inside and luckily it wasn't very crowded. We joined the queue of devotees. I'm not an outwardly religious person and visiting temples is not something that I do for my own spiritual contentment. DD is a very staunch believer of Sai Baba and this trip was for his benefit. Plus, I thought it would be good for him to take Squiggles to the place that he had so much faith in.
It was nice to see groups of devotees singing aloud, clapping their hands and moving along to the tune in the queue. It gave me a sense of what brought people here, so far away, to wait in long interminable queues for a 30 second sight of an idol. It's the faith which lends credence to any religious site and it was true of Shirdi as well.
I'm a firm believer that in religious places there shouldn't be VIP queues and entries. After all, in front of God, everyone is the same irrespective of their social status. As I looked around me, there were people from all walks of life. And here we were, all standing together with a common goal. The community feeling felt good and I guess this is why there are religious and social entities, to provide people with a sense of identity.
Very soon, we entered the chamber where the statue of Sai Baba is kept. We offered our prayers and prasad and left. To be honest, I didn't get it. It was so crowded inside. People were jostling each other to get a view. There was no sense of peace or calm in the atmosphere. I saw a guard push a few people because they wanted to linger in front of the statue. It seemed so unfair. Some people have spent a lot of money, money that they probably can ill afford, to visit this place which symbolises the centre of their belief and yet all that they get is 30 secs and the humiliation of being shoved around just because they are poor. But then again, it is the faith and the belief. And I guess if you believe, then you can erase everything around you and concentrate on the power. I don't know. I came back feeling slightly disappointed. After hearing so much about the place, to not get enough time to absorb the atmosphere left me feeling a bit..... I don't know.......cheated maybe. I guess that's the price you pay for being part of a 1 billion group.
We hurried out and got in to the cab and made our way back. Some speedy driving from our driver ensured we made it exactly an hour before the flight was due to depart. As we entered the terminal, we heard that the flight was delayed by 30mins! Phew!