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Puttaparthi
India: Culture | Cuisine | Cinema | Sports | Festivals | Ayurveda | Yoga | Tourism
 

Located in the south-western part of Andhra Pradesh, Puttaparthi is surrounded by the arid and rocky hills bordering Karnataka. Famous for its Sathya Sai Baba Mandir, it is one of the famous religious tourist destinations of the world. A number of domestic as well as foreign tourists visit this place every year just to have a glimpse of the legendary Sathya Sai Baba and also to see his most talked about ashram. It is believed that the present Sai Baba is the Sai Baba Aashram reincarnation of the former Sai Baba of Maharashtra popularly known as Sai Baba of Shirdi. The income of the ashram has been used for the establishment of a number of public utility services. Although there is not much to see in Puttaparthi, the ashram itself keeps the attention of the visitor with its varied attractions. Puttaparthi belongs to the Bangalore Circuit of South India. The other destinations that come under the circuit are Bangalore, Kolar, and Nellur. Being at Puttaparthi, the best thing one can do is to visit the ashram and pay reverence to Sai Baba. The nearby areas like Lepakshi are also worth visiting.

The Sai baba ashram itself is a huge complex with room for thousands, with canteens, shops, a museum and library, and a vast assembly hall where Sai Baba gives darshan twice daily (6.45-7.00 AM and 3.45-4.00 PM). Queues start more than an hour before the appointed time, and a lottery decides who gets to sit near the front. On the way between Bangalore and Puttaparthi, one can find the Veerbhadra temple at Lepakshi. At the entrance of the town, there is a huge, monolithic Nandi, the sacred bull of Lord Shiva. The temple is about 500 meters away. On November 23, the birthday of Sai Baba is celebrated in the ashram. On this day Sai Baba delivers a message to his devotees. The devotees of Sai Baba regard this day as a holy day.

Puttaparthi is basically a religious tourist center. There are several accommodation options available at Puttaparthi. Most visitors stay at the ashram in large bare sheds or smaller rooms, if available. Except in the case of families, accommodation is strictly demarcated by sex. Costs are minimal, and though one cannot reserve in advance, one can enquire about availability of accommodation. There are a few budget hotels in Puttaparthi.

Sights to Visit

Prashanthi Nilayam: This is the township that abuts the village of Puttaparthi, and it is here that the Ashram is located.

Ashram: There is undeniably an air of serenity about the Ashram - an atmosphere that is scrupulously maintained by the volunteers who manage it. The Ashram comprises a series of concrete buildings with multiple domes, spires and turrets within a large enclosure. It is entered through a large archway with seven golden miniature spires over which are engraved the words: "You are in the Light. The Light is in you. You are the Light."

Ganesha Temple: The first structure you hit upon as you enter the Ashram is the Ganesha temple, which is evidently the most popular shrine in the place, as shrines everywhere dedicated to this endearing elephant-headed deity are wont to be. The USP of this particular figure in the Hindu pantheon has traditionally been to remove obstacles from the path of his devotees. Not surprisingly, many flock here for the special morning prayer.

Subramaniam Shrine: Constructed in 1997, this is to the south of the Ganesha shrine and is dedicated to Lord Subramaniam - or Kartikeya or Muruga, as this younger son of Ganesha, and the second son of Shiva and Parvati, is often known. Subramaniam is a particularly popular deity in South India, propitiated for the grace and protection he bestows.

Gayatri Shrine: The goddess, Gayatri, a manifestation of the goddess Durga, is worshipped in a small shrine in front of the Round Building No 4. The idol of this five-headed, ten-armed goddess of intelligence and wisdom was installed in October 1998 during the Paduka Mahotsava.

Prashanthi Mandir: This is the main temple in the Ashram, consisting of a two-storey structure built in granite. Constructed in 1950, it has a central prayer hall where bhajans (or devotional music, so strong in the Sathya Sai tradition) are held daily. The omkar (chanting of the sacred mnemonic, Om) and the suprabhatam (morning invocation to Sai Baba) are also held here in the early mornings at 4 am.

Ornately decorated with silver and gems, the shrine contains large images of Shirdi Sai Baba (interestingly his robes here are saffron instead of white) and Sathya Sai Baba. These are flanked by columns displaying the symbols associated with the major religions of the world. There is also a large marble idol of Shirdi Sai Baba on a silver throne to one side, and an empty gold throne representing the seat of the living deity to the other side.

It is particularly moving to visit the place during the omkar and bhajan when the air is resonant with the cadences of human voices united in a spirit of yearning and devotion. The morning prayers are followed by a two-minute meditative silence after which the congregation disperses and the temple lights are switched on.

However, the blue and pink d├ęcor - muted, it is true - may be somewhat disconcerting to the aesthetic sensibilities of some visitors. Pink, blue and yellow does seem to be the colour code of all the major buildings at Puttaparthi and Whitefield. If the truth be told, the look is somewhat reminiscent of a Telugu potboiler film set. And yet, the fervour that permeates the place is undeniable.

Shirdi Sai Baba Statue: This 7 foot tall statue of Baba's earlier incarnation is located on a rock that is more than 10 feet high, en route to the General Hospital from the Ashram.

Sai Kulwant Hall (Darshan Ground): Situated between Baba's residence at Poornachandra Hall and the Prashanthi Mandir, this vast enclosure can accommodate over 20,000 devotees at a time. The white-domed, multi-coloured, somewhat excessively festooned two-storeyed sanctum contains the prayer hall on the ground floor, and a few rooms flanked by a balcony on the second. On a large pair of silver doors in the balcony are inscribed the symbols of the major faiths of the world.

As queues of devotees gather every morning for darshan, the atmosphere is charged with anticipation and an almost palpable yearning. One of the most remarkable features of Sathya Sai worship is its air of quiet discipline. Unlike the quintessential Hindu shrine that is invariably characterised by a clamour of voices, Sathya Sai devotion is a peaceful affair, and there are volunteers appointed to keep it so. As pilgrims huddle close, cross-legged, one is struck by the breathtaking diversity of cultures and religions that are represented here.

Soft instrumental music heralds the arrival of Sai Baba. The focal point of every gaze in the hall, he glides down the rows of devotees, stopping to bless one, smile at another, accept a letter of fervent appeal from a third.

Although he may have reached mythic proportions in his lifetime, Sathya Sai Baba presents a small and slender figure in physical terms, not more than 5 feet 3 inches, barefoot in his orange gown, his distinctive blaze of hair adding inches to his otherwise diminutive frame. He sometimes picks out a few people for an interview (highly sought after by everyone present), after which he disappears into the temple. The music slowly fades out.

The hushed silence, the music and the near-tangible adoration of those congregated may have something to do with it. But most agree that there remains a lingering feeling that one has been in the presence of no ordinary man.

Poornachandra Auditorium: Built in 1973, this large auditorium (60 metres by 40 metres) can seat well over 15,000 people. Situated behind the office block, this grand hall - somewhat baroque in its lushness - with its many domes and balconies is used for discourses, cultural events and conferences.

The unique feature is the absence of a single pillar to support the structure, making it ostensibly the only example of its kind in Asia. To the right of the platform where Baba sits are murals and sculptures of the avatars of Vishnu, and on the other side are images of the myths associated with other faiths. Engraved all around the hall are the many aphoristic utterances of Baba himself. Baba's more austere living quarters are evidently upstairs above the stage.

Sarva Dharma Aikya Stambha: This 50 foot high column of blue reinforced concrete stands in the garden near the Sai Kulwant Hall. It represents the essential unity of all faiths in the world, and was built on the occasion of Sathya Sai Baba's golden jubilee celebrations and the World Conference of Sathya Seva organisations held in November '75.

Vata Vruksha: Located on the hill behind the Prashanthi Mandir, it is possible to find several devotees meditating here. The sapling of this tree was apparently planted by Baba himself. He also materialised a metal plate with a ritual diagram (yantra) which was placed under the roots in 1950. It is believed that this encourages a contemplative spirit among those who meditate here. The place is designated as a silent zone, and men and women are seated separately on either side of the tree.

Samadhi of Baba's Parents: The samadhi or memorial shrine that houses the mortal remains of Baba's parents is built of black stone and is situated off the main street down Samadhi Road.

Kalpa Vruksha: It is believed that as a young boy, Baba materialised a variety of fruit on a tamarind tree on the hillside near the Chitravathi river. This gave it the name of kalpa vruksha or wish-fulfilling tree. There are several devotees who have testified to this miracle. The tree exists to this day.

Eternal Heritage Museum: This three-storey museum is dedicated to the perennial interior journey of mankind. Scriptural extracts representing all the faiths, audio and video material, a reading room with a wide array of spiritual literature and miniature reconstructions of famous places of worship around the globe can be found here. The museum is open between 10 am and noon on weekdays.

Baba's Birth Place: A small unobtrusive little Shiva temple marks Sathya Sai Baba's birthplace in the still charming village of Puttaparthi. It was inaugurated by Baba in 1979. Since he was born on Karthika Somvara (a day associated with Shiva worship), the shrine was dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Venugopalaswamy Temple: This temple dedicated to Krishna or Venugopala has an interesting mythological genealogy. Apparently, Gollapalli (Puttaparthi's earlier name) was a prosperous village of cowherds at one time. However, evil fortunes fell upon the village when one incensed cowherd hurled a stone at a cobra that was sucking milk from the udder of one of his cows. The dying cobra cursed the village, and as a result, the cattle began to perish, and the place was infested with ant-hills. Its name was now changed to Valmikipura (the word 'Valmiki' denoting 'anthill' in Sanskrit, and Puttaparthi being the Telugu equivalent of the same).

In an attempt to appease the spirit of the dead snake, the villagers installed the blood-splattered stone in a shrine and started worshipping it. Sathya Sai Baba instructed them to wash it and smear it with sandal paste. On doing this, the outline of the figure of Krishna (or Venugopala) holding his customary flute, became discernible. The temple was now called the Venugopalaswamy temple, and the curse on the village of Puttaparthi came to an end.

Satyabhama Temple: This temple dedicated to Satyabhama, consort of Krishna, was constructed by Baba's grandfather, Kondama Raju. This was in response to a dream in which Kondama Raju saw Satyabhama in distress in a storm (having sent Krishna away to pluck flowers for her) and beseeching him for his protection.

Other Sites: The other highlights in the village include the mosque (which was constructed and inaugurated by Baba in 1978), the Anjaneya Swami temple (where the idol of Hanuman stands in a cave with a Shiva lingam from Kashi installed by Baba outside it) and the Sri Pedda Venkappa Raju Kalyana Mandapam (a free marriage hall that was originally a temple).

Cultural Centres: Since it is primarily a pilgrim spot, cultural activities at Puttaparthi remain circumscribed. The sprawling Poornachandra Auditorium within the Ashram is customarily the site of cultural events. Daily bhajan (religious song) sessions are held at the Prashanthi Mandir. School cultural events are held annually in the Sri Sathya Sai Hill View Stadium on January 11. During Navaratri celebrations, dancers of repute from various parts of the country are frequently invited to give performances.

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