I travelled from Whitefield to Puttaparthi in a new Ambassador taxi (I was totally surprised, wondering to myself, ‘They still make these cars?’) on a smooth road. Well, it was smooth except for parts of the back road to Hoskote, very lumpy, holes, axle-grinding kinda road… Shortly after motoring along National Highway 7 we passed the turn-off to Nandi Hills. Out of the blue, a six lane highway appeared. My jaw fell off in shock; I nearly missed my favourite Shirdi Sai Baba Mandir (something I always look for on a journey). Glancing over, I noted that a new (mandir) (covered area?) is being constructed at the rear. I am sitting in the front seat of this new Ambassador car, still in shock over this surprise, a six lane highway divided with a meridian strip. ‘My, my, how India progresses’, I thought to myself. All too soon, it disappears and the highway reverts to the typical two lane carriageway. I think maybe some Shirdi Sai devotees have urged construction of a highway. Six lanes, I have never seen this in India…
A long wait …
Approaching Puttaparthi, I see the dome of the hospital; on passing by I see a fresh coat of paint, deep pink/mauve has been applied to the hospital; the grounds look spic-n-span, a marvellous temple of healing amid a well cared oasis of green. I glimpse the statue of Dhanvantari as I pass. Quite a number of buildings have sprouted over the road from the hospital, restaurants, garages, hotels. I see a small, new gram (village) has arisen just past the hospital, Easwaramma Nagar, and I am reminded of the Lord’s mother and the morning Suprabhatam, which hails Swami as Son of Easwaramma.
Passing through Gokulam, the New Academy of Music with its mandolin (0r guitar) out the front is attractive; the Hostel, High School, College, all have a new, fresh coat of paint, no peeling, faded paint anywhere. Lawns trim, idols resplendent of the front of many buildings. Even the children’s slides in the primary school have fresh paint. A white crocodile of students crosses the road in front of the taxi, moving from the hostel to classrooms. I turn and look for Sai Gita, the trees have grown so tall that I just catch a glimpse of the very tip of the elephant’s form as we motor on. The New Andhra Pradesh RTC Bus depot is in attractive ashram colours of pink and blue. Finally I pass the arch into the gram of Parthi to encounter rickshaws, buses, police, people walking everywhere down main street, and a bright, large road sign catches my eye ‘Chitravathi Rd’. Oh, this looks like many amenities around Parthi have been improved, I think to myself.
I arrive in Parthi at 12.30 and check out darshan time. People are saying “Swami comes out at 3, ten past 3, you go at 2 o’clock to get a good line!” At 1.50 I go to enter the ashram and pass a friend, who tells me Swami has already come out. I walk inside the ashram, do pranaams to Ganesha in his Temple; the pujari is offering prasad (blessed food). I glance over the temple comparing it to my morning meditations; yes, I had the colours right. I walk around the temple once and join the only, moving line. It is a long way down to the gate. Line moves slowly, the police huddle, talking, observing. Get inside and walk thru the security box, the sensor goes PING and I get frisked.
Walk up the side and take any seat. Mandir has doors and windows closed; Swami is inside giving a discourse to a large English group. I sit and meditate, read. Laughter, applause, everyone’s neck cranes around looking toward the mandir. No Swami. About an hour later, Swami (obviously) came out, called a (family) and went into the interview room. Most of the people begin to stand, talk, stretch, move around, and most leave the darshan hall. The seva dal roll the carpet up. People are saying, “He is not coming out”. The inner voice says “You stay right where you are”. I stay; I spy a friend from New Zealand, and chat. About an hour later, students have arrived. Soon, some go forward and kneel. I see Swami, head full of thick hair and bright robe move toward three students who are kneeling. Several trays and prasadam are offered to Swami, he is holding letters in one hand, and takes something from a man nearby and sprinkles it over the student’s trays. Swami speaks very briefly and disappears.
Ten past four, over the speakers in the mandir … 3 Oms. Bhajans begin. I am surprised, I look at my watch, and then I realise that the English group never came out of the Mandir. They are leading the bhajans. I thought that was nice of Swami to give a discourse to the English group, and then receive their bhajans. A medley of incredibly fast bhajans come over the loudspeakers which brings people running to the mandir in surprise and anticipation of seeing Swami. The mandir begins to fill. Loud fast bhajans with no discernible break between bhajans, I find it hard to ascertain where one bhajan stops and another begins. I hear Ana hi parega, then Durge, Durge, and Saieshwaraya Namah Om. I am taken back in time to my first visit to Prashanthi Nilayam, there was no hall, no roof, no floor, only sand, trees surrounding the walls of the darshan ground and a small blue and pink canopy around the mandir compound. I recall hearing Saieshwaraya Namah Om way back then and I have this sense of timelessness. Suddenly, I smell incense.
Arathi begins, and everyone in front of me is up on their knees to see Swami walk out. I look down the hall and observe it has nearly filled out to half full. Swami walks across the hall, through the adoring ladies, to his residence at the rear of Poornachandra Hall. Asato ma shatters through the silence. Darshan is over.
Walk outside the darshan hall. I see students around the Murugan (Subramanium) temple; Murugan has a beautiful red dhoti and the pujari is garlanding the idol. I go up and stand behind the students and offer pranaams to Murugan, and I look for the Vel (spear) I saw Swami place with the idol, two years ago, I can just see the tip of it through the garlands. The pujari is placing flowers all over the idol. I walk toward the ashram gate and hear the policeman’s non-stop pheet-pheet-pheet whistle clearing a way for cars leaving the ashram amid the crowds. Darshan is over.
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