This is the fifth article in the Trust Objects and Purposes series. It will give an account of the development of housing for pilgrims.
The second Object of the Trust Deed calls for “The shelter or accommodation for visitors staying temporarily.”
Pilgrim Accommodations – Part One
Soon after I heard about Meher Baba, I visited the Myrtle Beach Center. There I met Lyn and Phyllis Ott, whose company I enjoyed immensely. A year later I got a phone call from Phyllis saying that James Cox was looking for an architect to design a building at Meherabad for pilgrim accommodation. She asked if I was interested, and I said yes. James contacted me and strongly suggested that I travel with him to India in order to see the prospective site and get a feel for the area. That was in September 1974, and from the very first, I loved the look and atmosphere of Meherabad.
At first, Baba’s mandali were a bit nervous about the building project. They didn’t know me, so they invited me to stay at Lower Meherabad to design the building under their watchful eyes. I was given Pendu’s old room to stay in, and they provided me with some borrowed T-squares and triangles with which to work. At that time, pilgrims were only allowed to stay four days a week at Meherabad. I was allowed to stay seven days a week and I worked there continuously for about six weeks.
The site selected for the new pilgrim accommodation building was in Lower Meherabad, which was originally a military camp that had been vacated after World War I. In the beginning when this property was acquired at auction for Baba’s use, there were only a few run-down buildings that remained standing. However, one stone building 12 feet wide by 20 feet long, which had been the post office, was in relatively sound condition. It was situated between the Ahmednagar-Arangaon Road and the railroad tracks, next to the path that leads to Meherabad Hill. This was the first place Baba and the mandali stayed when they came to Meherabad in 1923. On the east side of the road, there was a large dilapidated building which had been the Army Mess Quarters. It contained two large halls and two small rooms with adjoining baths. The floor was stone; it had a tile roof, and the outside walls were constructed of earth. On both sides, there was a veranda that ran the length of the building. This building was repaired by the mandali and served as their living quarters.
A growing number of people were coming to stay at Meherabad, and in 1925 two more structures were erected to house them. A thirty-foot- square temporary structure had to be built to house the men mandali because the post office was now reserved as quarters for the women. Baba named the dwelling in which the men mandali lived “Makan-e-Khas,” which means “House of the Chosen Ones.” A dharmshala, or rest house, was needed for the pilgrims who started to come at this time. A temporary structure was built near the old well for this purpose and was named “Upasni Serai,” after Upasni Maharaj. These buildings were subsequently pulled down under Baba’s orders.
When I arrived in 1974, Padri was involved in several construction projects. He built a new building, comprised of four simple rooms, which now houses the Post Office, two storerooms, and the Labor Office. He built the Pilgrims’ Kitchen, which is now the Trustees’ Office, and he built the godown (storeroom) across from Mandali Hall.
From the time that I arrived in Meherabad, I felt very drawn to Padri and spent a lot of personal time with him. Padri and I would have tea every morning in his kitchen in Meherabad Hall. It was the newly built Pilgrims’ Kitchen, now the Trustees’ Office, with its beautiful arches, lofted ceiling, and tiled roof that inspired my design for the Meher Pilgrim Centre. Padri had designed and built it using carpenters and masons from Arangaon. Really speaking, the Pilgrim Centre is just an expanded version of that building, with interior courtyards.
In the process of finding an appropriate style and a realistic approach to building at Meherabad, I moved from trying to design a building that was original, to designing a building that would take advantage of the skills of the local artisans, as Padri had done. I have continued to take that approach because using essentially the same materials and building methods has helped to maintain the feeling that was here originally.
At first I did sketch-drawings roughly to scale. I showed them to the mandali, who were greatly relieved because the style was in harmony with the surrounding buildings. On my way back to the States, I stopped in Bombay and showed the sketches to Arnavaz and Rano.
In 1975, back in the States, I made a model to send to India. I spent a lot of time making this very detailed model, even to the point of using little sticks representing roof members. Since I had no intention of returning to India, I packed the model in a large box and sent it to Meherabad with some pilgrims.
After receiving the model and the drawings of the Meher Pilgrim Centre, the mandali hired a contractor to do the work. However, the contract for the building was what is called an “item rate” contract. It only called for the quantities and rates for plaster, stone, and brickwork, etc., and did not ensure that the building conforms to the drawings. James Cox had told me that if I wanted the building to resemble my drawings, I would have to come back to India and supervise the construction. I returned to India believing it would take about a year to finish the building, but in actuality, it took four years. However, at the end of those four years, I no longer wanted to leave India.
The skills of the local workers were definitely up to the task of constructing the Meher Pilgrim Centre. One major challenge, however, was figuring out how to build uniformly and efficiently the brick arches which were called for in the plan. To do so, I designed collapsible metal forms which were used to support the construction of the arches, and this was how the 110 arches in the Pilgrim Centre were built. We used the same forms 25 years later in building the Meher Pilgrim Retreat.
The Pilgrim Centre was designed to accommodate fifty-six people in rooms housing one to eight. The interior of the dining hall and surrounding verandas of the Pilgrim Centre are decorated by seventeen permanently mounted paintings of Meher Baba’s life by Phyllis and Lyn Ott. Two stained-glass windows by Judy Ernst adorn the east and west walls of the dining hall. On Francis Brabazon’s advice, I added the semi-circular clerestory windows on the north and south walls. On either side of the dining hall are the men’s and women’s bedrooms overlooking the courtyards.
The next buildings constructed for accommodations were the hostels. The original plan was to build four hostels to be used only for Amartithi. We built four plinths (foundations) because that was as many buildings as the land reserved for that purpose would allow. At first, tents were placed on the plinths; then permanent toilets and baths were constructed. Later, the walls were built, and cloth was used as roofing; eventually, corrugated cement roofs were put in place. The idea was to build these accommodations as cheaply as possible. To that end, the walls were built with local stone held together with lime mortar. We began making the mortar using the original lime-mortar mill, in which a bullock pulled a big wheel around a circular trough, grinding and mixing limestone, sand, and water. Later, in place of a bullock, we used a diesel-driven machine. The roofs of the hostels are constructed of thin, self-supporting corrugated cement sheets bolted together. We made a truss-like support to hold the sheets in place as they were bolted together and secured to the walls. After completing the first two hostels, we realized that since people were starting to come year-round, we would need to provide full-time accommodations for them. So, the design of Hostel D was modified to include a kitchen, cupboards, separate rooms, a veranda, etc.
Before we built Hostel D, the Dharmshala was rebuilt to be used for pilgrim accommodation and staff quarters. The Dharmshala was often used to accommodate the overflow of pilgrims staying at the Meher Pilgrim Centre. It was originally the Army Mess Quarters building, which was a temporary structure. The foundation consisted simply of rocks placed directly on the ground. It was a military # 720-type building, designating that it was designed to last 720 days. The mandali had torn one section of it down and covered it with cement sheets prior to my involvement. Later, we were forced to tear down almost the entire remainder of the building. In reconstructing it, I tried to retain the original look of the building by replicating the sloped roof and using the original clay tiles and roof beams and the original doors and windows. The dimensions of the rebuilt Dharmshala are pretty much the same as the original building, as is the layout of the rooms, but unfortunately, we lost the “funky” character of the original structure.
For Amartithi accommodation, tents are erected by a private contractor, but toilets and baths are our responsibility. There are now over four hundred of them. At first, they were simply plinths with holes in them; we used cloth barriers for privacy. Later, brick toilets and baths were constructed on the plinths. More and more were built over the years to provide for the ever-increasing crowds.
The most recent building for pilgrim accommodation is the Meher Pilgrim Retreat. The contractor for the Retreat, Mr. Vaibhau Joshi, has been involved in construction work for the Trust for 25 years. Through the medium of this work he has become a Baba lover and deserves a lot of the credit for the high standard of construction in the Pilgrim Retreat. His motivation has evolved over the years from succeeding as a businessman to doing the work for Baba. His high standards, inspired by his love for Baba, have filtered down to those who work for him; consequently, there was quality work done at every level.
In designing the Meher Pilgrim Retreat, we had as advisors the people who had managed the Pilgrim Centre for twenty-five years. There were lots of meetings and feedback from them that helped to determine the final design. The new building has two large wings, a women’s and a men’s. Laid out in the form of a “C” facing Baba’s Tomb, each wing has two floors, with twenty-four bedrooms on each, accommodating a total of two hundred pilgrims. There are singles, doubles, triples, and rooms for four. There are eight bathrooms in each wing, four per floor. Each floor ends in a reading room, whose east walls have bay windows through which one can look out across the fields toward the crown of Meherabad Hill. A third major part of the building centers around the dining hall, a large, high-roofed room designed to allow for several smaller areas for eating and conversation. Sixteen large mural paintings are mounted on the upper walls, and another large full-length portrait of Baba stands above the entrance.
Outside the glassed-in east veranda of the dining hall is a courtyard that contains the old hand-pump used by the mandali in the 1920s to pump water from the original well to the old tank near the compound at Upper Meherabad, as well as a marble statue of Baba with Mohammed the mast. To the west of the hall is the tile garden, a small outdoor area with stone benches and tables, a rosewood and neem tree, and the magnificent new tile wall. Overlooking the garden is a large terrace and the music room. Another terrace extends to the other side of the dining hall.
Of course, the greatest demands for accommodation come at Amartithi. A new set of 100 toilets and 150 baths was constructed down the hill from the Samadhi towards Arangaon, called the “New Site”. There are a number of buildings there that during most of the year are used to store paraphernalia, (tarpaulins, buckets, etc.) for use during Amartithi. When Indian pilgrims arrive in busloads, they bring firewood and food supplies with them. The materials stored in the building are emptied out and tents are set up in the area to provide shelter for 4000 people. In a few years the “Pilgrim Education Site” (near the Meher Pilgrim Retreat), will be built up similarly. Small plinths 18 feet by 50 feet have been constructed there with steel frame roofs. Tent covering material (silver-lined plastic) will be used to cover them. The tent coverings can be put on in a few minutes. Pilgrims staying there will be able to walk to the Samadhi across the top of the bund.
In the early ’70s, the first of a series of Master Plans was created in order to outline future development at Meherabad. Throughout the years, the Master Plan has expanded to cover an ever-larger area around Meherabad. If Meherabad is to become the largest center of pilgrimage in the world, as Baba said it would, the Trust needs to provide enough space to accommodate huge numbers of pilgrims. Before any construction begins, the Trust has to receive government approval of its building plans. It’s necessary to explain to the government that the Trust’s work is for the benefit of the public in general, not just for a particular religious group. This is an issue in India because of religious differences, most especially the Hindu-Muslim divide. The government recognizes the value of spiritual ashrams as long as they are not restricted to serving a specific group to the exclusion of others. Of course, Baba’s “beads-on-one-string” paradigm fits this goal perfectly.
In achieving government approval of the Trust’s building plans, Bhau’s service has been vital. His work entails accompanying officials to the building sites, summarizing what has been accomplished to date, and providing insight into how new buildings will fulfill public charitable needs. Through his untiring efforts as well as the continuing efforts of those Trust workers devoted to providing housing and infrastructure, the Trust object of accommodation is being fulfilled.
In His Service,
The next article will be part two of the pilgrim accommodation series and will discuss the evolution of pilgrim registration.