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Phil's 1998 India Travelogue


Flew into Bangalore, which has three important attributes:

1. it is the transportation hub to South India
2. it's the silicon valley of India
3. It is close to Sathya Sai Baba's ashram

Bangalore seems to be a nice city, and exemplifies the cleanliness of South India in contrast to the North. It is the place where high-tech is remodeling India for the next century, and India will be a major force in high-tech. This means that there are about 600 internet cafes within a mile of my hotel, so I am easily wired in.

I'm staying at the Highgates hotel, a mid-range place in the "MG Road" area, one of the hip areas of Bangalore, where there are a lot of high tech companies and Indian yuppies about. The hotel is nice, but the housekeeping guy won't bring towels unless you're there, so he can get a tip. I tell you, I'm grateful for being comfortable financially, but the handout scene can get annoying. The beggars keep getting more aggressive. One time, while walking down the street in Bombay, I saw a begger mom sitting on the sidewalk with a bunch of kids - as soon a she saw me, she dispatched her little buggers after me, which really pissed me off. I usually give kids only candy which throws them off - it throws them out of beggar mode into kid mode - they take it, run away, and then there's a confused look on their face - hey, wait I'm supposed to be out for rupees!

Anyway, being here has brought me down a couple of notches from the high level buzz of Bombay, and I can sleep a little better. Before coming here, I had a choice to make - should I go to the samadhi site of Shirdi Sai Baba, or go see a living human being who claims to be the reincarnation of him. Since I've done major temple and samadhi site action, I decided to take a leap of whatever and go see Sathya Sai Baba. Hey, who knows when I'll ever be in this area again, and why don't I go see someone who claims to be an 'avatar'.

Adventures in Sai Baba Land

Sai Baba's ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam ('abode of peace') lies in the town of Puttiparthi, about 3 hours taxi ride from Bangalore. So I went to a hotel that is run by devotees (the Bombay Anand Bhavan, a nice old place), and rented a taxi. My goal was to be a surgical strike - drive in, get darshan, and get out. But it has to be timed right, as Sai Baba gives darshan twice a day, once at 7:00AM and another at 3:00PM.

So my driver Mustak Hamad, a nice young man and I set out around 10:30 to catch the afternoon darshan. The drive is pleasant, with the exception of one railroad track overpass that is under construction. Mustak says that the construction work has been going on, not for three months, but for three years! He says, the people of Bangalore are lazy. I say if someone took three years to complete an over- crossing in America, he'd be shot, which made Mustak laugh. Mustak knows 5 languages, as they all cross in this area - Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and English. And they are all very, very different.

The countryside is similar to the Rajasthani desert, and marked with several ranges of medium size mountains, and as we ventured north towards Puttiparthi, it got increasingly hot (Bangalore has very, very comfortable weather). As soon as we crossed into the state neighboring to the North (Andhra Pradesh), leaving Karntaka (pronounced like 'Connecticut'), I began to notice a distinct energy, like the Sai Baba field extends that far. Sai Baba has an enormous, enormous following, I couldn't even pinpoint it, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people, mostly Indian, but also a huge non-Hindu following across the globe.

One of the interesting turn of events today Nov. 23 is that it is Sai Baba's birthday today, which means it'll probably be very crowded, but on the other hand, perhaps something special. As an event, it is certainly special - the Prime Minister of India shows up for Sai Baba's birthday, among other Indian VIPs. Sai Baba is big news.

When we got to the near the ashram grounds, a one lane road off the Bangalore-Hyderabad two lane 'highway', I was stopped by the police, who checked my passport and questioned me, which I thought was a little extreme, but with the Prime Minister on hand, it is understandable. Mustak informed me that on a day like today, there are 4 thousand police on the ashram grounds just to give you a indication of the level of scale of this operation.

In fact, as we approached the town of Puttiparthi, which essentially is built around the huge ashram grounds, we passed the Sathya Sai Baba High School, the Sathy Sai Baba hospital (great service - free heart and eye surgery to all), which looks like a Maharaja palace, and the Sathya Sai Baba Airport.

On the way, I asked Mustak, who is a Muslim what he thought of the whole Sai Baba phenomena. Muslims, as you probably know, consider the avatar, incarnation of God idea as anathema, and reject all forms of anthropomorphism, believing only in the formless aspect of Allah (but IMO anthropormophism still sneaks into Islam). He didn't believe in him at all, but he said that he's done great work for the poor of this area, with the hospitals and education services that have been setup in his name. I said to Mustak,"Bismallah erachman erahim", a most famous tenet of Islam, which means, 'there is no God but God'. In other words, you can stuff it with your avatar nonsense.

The police force made us drive all the way around the back, and finally we found a parking spot. Then Mustak warned me, watch your money and belongings, as there are all sorts of characters at a Sai Baba darshan occasion. I took his advice but it did raise a Spock-like eyebrow.

So Mustak and I walked through town to the entrance of the ashram. On the way I devoured several bananas, as I've learned to fast and sit in the front seat of the taxi to minimized the car-sickness that I seem to get in Indian taxi (thanks to Ed Plotkin for the seat advice). Well, if you know how Indian cab drivers drive, and the conditions of the road, you'd understand how easy it is to get car sick!

Anyway, Mustak let me off and I wandered into the huge ashram area. I had absolutely no clue as what to do or where to go - there were about 500 Indians for every westerner. I saw an street on the right and a huge queue/line forming to go down the street, which I figured was where I was supposed to go. So I dropped off my shoes against a wall and got on the line.

This is where it started to get insane or inane. There were all sorts of Sai Baba ushers in addition to the police trying to work the line, some of them giving contradictory orders. And lines themselves are pretty foreign to Indians so it was major work. And so many men were trying to cut in line, it was so adolescently ridiculous (there is a separate ladies queue down another street, probably for the same reasons as ladies compartments on trains).

The line was moving slowly, and it was blistering hot - even the Indians were having trouble and getting antsy and uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable but hot,dry weather is like where I come from in California, so it wasn't so awful. But we waited for a long, long time, and I couldn't understand what the ushers were telling people, speaking in Hindi or Kannada or Telugu. So the ushers made 5 or 6 lines out of the huge queue, and we just stood there. But despite the heat and anxiety of the people, I did notice a palpable peace over this entire area - that is the best description I can make - it was just peace, making an almost unbearable situation bearable.

At one moment, someone broke the unspoken contract and just headed down the street, then another, then another, and in a matter of seconds, in was a mob seen like I've never experienced before - at times I was swept by this huge force of mankind behind me. Fortunately, being a bit bigger and stronger than the average Indian, I found how useful a good elbow to the rib cage can be, it certainly makes room for me.

But nevertheless it was a scene of utter chaos and desire, but I didn't know what the people were heading towards. Finally as I moved on, or was moved on by the mob, I saw that the street was actually a side entrance to a huge outdoor hall for darshan. And it was all filled up - aha, they kept us in line because they didn't know what to do with the rest of us thousands!

So people were scrambling for spots along the sidestreet, along an iron fence that was the perimeter of the hall, raised steps, trees, anything to give them a better view. But there were still people getting into the hall, but you had to have one of those special 'delegate' or VIP cards. The rest of us great unwashed had to fend for ourselves.

The crowd thinned out till and I finally found a seat on one of the entranceway roads into the hall. The stage was about several light years away from me, but I could still see people on the stage. So we waited and waited there, past 3:00PM. Then this swoony, sexy Indian music started to play over the loudspeaker, and the people in the hall were all roused up - apparently Sai Baba was in the building. People in front of me were standing up, and people behind them were yelling to sit down, goddammit, and again everyone stood up, and rushed the gate area that formed the main entrance to the hall. After this mad rush, we all sat down again in even smaller quarters per person.

By this time, I was getting so fed up I was starting to laugh at the whole scene, which drew some strange looks from people, and avatar or not, this is insane! Finally there was a buzz in my section of crowd, and people stood up. And there was Sai Baba greeting us, in famous orange robes and Afro hair (but since he's Indian, I guess it would be Indo hair - am I being too irreverent here?).

He stood about 40 feet from me, and I could see that he aged a bit from all the pictures that I've seen of him. And I was definitely feeling something, but it is hard to tell - was it coming from Sai Baba, or was I just picking up the enormous devotional feeling that was welling up in the moment? This is an interesting question, this whole thing about 'transmission' - my feeling is that teachers' transmitting power is exemplified by the size and level of maturity of the people around him/her, as they can act as unconscious conduits of the force generated. In fact it is in the _relationship_ to the teacher that the force is amplified - it is not necessarily coming from the physical locus of the teacher - this is not a linear kind of logical situation here, but you might say an arising of spiritual energy becoming present in any moment, without a where or who - it is just present.

Now the feeling of peace was being turned into an electric charge running through the back of my body, odd as that sounds. But while this is going on, people are pushing and shoving and vying for a better position. I said to myself, "self, you had your two nanoseconds of darshan, let's get outa here!". Then Sai Baba left this area to walk around somewhere else in the hall, and there was such a funny response (to me) from the people - they started clapping!

And when Sai Baba went to other areas of the huge hall there was clapping there also. I started walking back the same street where I came from, catching much better glimpses of Sai Baba roaming around. Many people around me were emotionally moved by seeing him, but for the most part it was a sea of people trying to get a better look. At one point, I asked a guy next to me "kahan hai" (where is he?), and he gracefully opened a space for me, and even got one of the ushers to give me a closer look for two seconds - ah, a refreshing breath of common courtesy and sharing in this insane scene!

I have to admit, the more I stayed, the more of a 'hit' I got, and that made some difference (but not enough to ever come here again!). So as Sai Baba left the stage after 30 minutes of darshan to the swoozy, sexy music, there was another rush, now in the opposite direction. I was annoyed and electrified at the same time - at one point I had to force my way through a stream of people flowing in the opposite direction - I kicked some major ass to get through - being a bigger bully does have it rewards, used sparingly and in the right place. So I finally got out of the whole Sai Baba lane mob scene, but that was not the end of my day:

Someone stole my shoes.

Some sneaky motherfucker went off with my shoes. And I was thinking, considering Mustak's warning, and some of the seedier element I saw here, while on line, "I shoulda hid my shoes better, someone will probably steal them." Sure enough, I looked and looked all over the area I left and came to the conclusion that since they were cool looking trek shoes, they stood out way too much, in contrast to the mostly beat-up flip-flops that all the Indians wear, and were fair game for a thief.

So I walked through town, this time being real extra careful to avoid the cowshit, spit and assorted other crap in the street. I did run into a flip-flop vendor and purchased a pair of flip-flops for the ripoff price of 1.50 US$. But they made do. When I got to the car and told Mustak, he made some rather colorful remarks about the Indian race in general.

So we got the hell out of Sai Baba land, and on the way back, stopped in a little town, where they had a shoe store, and now I'm the proud owner of a pair of Force-10 sneakers, fighting crime wherever I go. Not bad for only 10 bucks US!


Next, Kochin

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