For pilgrims to Shirdi, darshan at Baba’s tomb is the climax of their visit and the statue of the tomb represents the living, breathing God. As such, it is the focus of all their longings, hopes and desires, and a concrete form to which they can express their love.
The statue is admired as an extraordinary and exquisite image, excluding grace and benevolence. Baba sits relaxed, natural and majestic, gazing beningly on the millions of diverse visitors who flock to him for succour. Many have commented on the lifelike quality of the eyes, as these are typically the most difficult feature to portray in a stone sculpture. In this statue, they really do seem to be looking at us and responding!
Baba repeatedly assured devotees that he would never cease to answer their call, and that his mission is “to give blessings”. The pull of the tomb above, which the idol sits, is powerful and intense and is drawing seekers to Shirdi in numbers that increase by the week. Here, devotees address their heartfelt prayers, beg for help, give thanks and offerings for prayers answered and wishes fulfilled, sign their devotion, and pay humble obeisance to their beloved deity. For them, the idol does not merely represent God, it is God; and the opportunity to prostrate before it and make oblations may be fulfillment of a lifetime’s ambition.
The statue, which has become such a famous and well-loved image of Baba, was not installed until 1954, thirty-six years after his mahasamadhi, and there is an intriguing story behind it. Some white marble arrived from Italy at the Bombay docks, but nobody seemed to know anything about it who it was for, or why it had come. In the absence of a claimant, the dockyard auctioned it and the purchaser offered it to the Shirdi Sansthan (temple authorities). Impressed by the quality of the marble, they wanted to use it for an idol of Baba and gave the commission to a sculpture from Bombay, Balaji Vasant Talim. However, the latter had only one black and white photo of Baba as his model, and was struggling to get the likeness. One night Baba came to him in a dream, remarked on his difficulties and then showed him his face from various angles, encouraging Talim to study it thoroughly and remember it well. This gave Talim the filip he needed and after that the work flowed easily and the result exceeded all expectations.
The statue was installed on 7 October 1954, on Vijayadasami day. As the main object of adoration in Shirdi, the idol is accorded all due honours. Out of their love for Baba Devotees wish to provide every comfort and respect they can. Accordingly, Baba is given a hot water bath in morning, offered breakfast, lunch and dinner, has his clothes changed four times a day before each arati and is adorned with a silver or gold crown for the arati worship. At night a mosquito net is hung and the tomb is spread with a special white cloth, of plain cotton, of the kind that Baba’s kafni was made. Each morning at four o’clock, Baba is woken up, the mosquitop net is removed, and incense is offered ( this ritual in known as bhupali ). A glass of water is kept by his side.
After the first arati of the day, an abhishek (ritual bathing of the idol with water, milk curd, ghee etc) is performed. Devotees may sponsor the abhishek by contacting the Sansthan. Visitors may also donate cloth for Baba, which will be wrapped around the statue. Later all the cloth that Baba has “worn” is put on sale in the Sansthan shop, a few minutes walk from the mandir. Many people like to buy cloth that has been sanctified in this way and use it for their altar or some other sacred purpose.
The feeling and experience that Baba is still alive and present pervades all the Sansthan facilities and activities of his devotees. As you move around Shirdi, you will see that this sentiment informs life, worship and pilgrimage here and contributes to the mystique and magic of what we call Shirdi.