Last week I was on a short trip to Shirdi, a temple town 300 km from Mumbai dedicated to Saint Saibaba. As a personal choice and almost out of habit I go to this place almost every year starting from probably 10 years back. Not out of any religious connotations but an attraction which kind of forceful enough to compel me. The trips are very short, just for a day most of the time. I prefer to go alone though my family has been with me on more than one occasion. If I get a chance to go to Mumbai for any reason, official or otherwise, I make it a point to manage a trip to Shirdi. After so many visits to this not so small town anymore, this time I thought of penning down a typical thought hovering around my mind for quite sometime.
History and statistics about the place can be looked into Google for exact numbers. I am not getting into that. After so many visits starting from 1996 I have been witnessing the mind boggling transformation of the place. In 1996 the temple was in open with no boundary walls, no gates and makeshift structures were erected around the temple for the facilities to pilgrims. There was hardly any hotel worth the name. It was 4 to 5 hours from Mumbai or Pune or Aurangabad (the nearest airport) and 30 minutes from the nearest railway station. Hence most of the people used to take overnight bus and return on the same day. I did the same in my first few visits.
Over the years, building infrastructure in and around the place leaped, literally. The temple complex became a huge mansion complete with massive fortress like boundary walls, waiting halls, cctv systems, admin blocks, museum and sundry facilities. Around the temple complex various kinds of construction started mushrooming. Hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, convenience stores, government buildings, pucca roads around the temple, widening the highway. ..you name it…all kinds of constructions started and completed in record time. All these facilities were aimed at providing comfort to the pilgrims. And yes..pilgrims continued to swell everyday. Unlike other pilgrim places where the crowd swell during some particular periods, pilgrims visit the Saibaba temple round the year. So the needs for various facilities are also required throughout the year.
Now look from some other angles. The nearest railway station is about 16 km away. If you try to reserve a berth in a train from Delhi for this place, you won’t get a confirmed reservation even two months before. The buses from nearby cities doing overnight trips are always full. Numerous taxis, jeeps, SUVs, private vehicles make trips to this holy place 24 hours. You will be amazed to encounter men thumping your car window offering various facilities including, yes parking of your car. Pilgrims alighting from buses get offers to take bath at Rs.30 if they don’t intend to take hotel accommodation. This is 24 hours. I have arrived at 1.30 am at this place and all facilities are available at that hour too, the cloak room was open, the community bath facilities are available, there is nothing to be afraid of – darkness, availability of arrangements, law and order, whatever.
There are hundreds of hotels, numerous eateries and sundry facilities. Numerous people are employed to cater to the needs of pilgrims and tourists. In fact, I found none unemployed in this place. To my estimate thousands of people are employed here in various services. Thousands are self-employed i.e., doing some kind of business, thousands are in transport business- goods or people. People are in employment not just in this town. Due to this place, many are employed in far flung areas. In Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and nearby semi urban places and villages many are earning their livelihoods directly due to some or other activities relevant to this place. Take for example the never ending construction activities. Besides the materials, you need constant supply of skilled labour force. The hotels need skilled workmen. The restaurants need waiter, cooks and supervisory workmen. All these have generated employment opportunities greatly. This time when I went there, after completing my visit to the temple and to Shani Signapur and back to the town after a hectic schedule I needed a cup of my type of tea. I approached a restaurant which had extended some snacking facilities in the front courtyard. I ordered tea with no sugar. I heard two guys conversing between them in Bangla, my mother tongue. Little intrigued, I enquired how they have landed up in this place thousands of kilometres away from their home. Jobs, pat came the reply. How many of them are here? Plenty enough to celebrate several Durga Pujas. I was astonished. Look at the encashment of opportunity.
I am narrating the above with one motto. Very few industries can match the employment opportunities created by this place. A constant supply of livelihoods to millions of people. A nondescript and sleepy village sprung to life by a midas touch. Faith. Faith in the powers of a saint who died nearly 100 years ago, sleeping in his grave peacefully surrounded by a plethora of constructions, devotees, priests, guards and of course under 24 hour cctv surveillance. And look at the continuance. The stream is ever flowing, never seem to cease or dry up. I am amazed. Apart from the devotional part (or whatever left of it), I always look at the economic side of the whole hullabaloo. Faith brings millions to this place throughout the year. As I said there is no ‘season’ or ‘auspicious period’ for this seat of the Seer. So the streams of devotees are never ending. I have been here numerous times and at all seasons, even at very odd hours (1.30 am!). I have always faced crowd and it has been after a wait for couple of hours the ‘darshan’ is over, every time.
In our country such places are abound. Religion is a seasonal activity in most of the pilgrim places. Shirdi is an exception. Your basic needs are not seasonal. You need round the year employment. The Sai at Shirdi as the revered God has taken care of his people throughout the year, at all seasons. The economic side of the otherwise religious culture is amazing. Perhaps no one takes notice of this. But this is the net effect of all these religious fervours. The Temple earnings are now used for economic activities. The offerings are just not cash but in gold or other precious metals. The town is now directly connected with railroad. And I heard an airport is being planned (the nearest airport at Ahmednagar is 200 km away). Look at the prospects. Isn’t it amazing and mind boggling! An everlasting self-sustained enterprise.
I have a similar story for a temple in Himachal Pradesh, the temple of goddess Jwalaji. But for the present let us wonder at Shirdi. That story is for some other time.