This is the sixth article in the Trust Objects and Purposes series. This article discusses how the housing needs of pilgrims from around the world have been met over the years.
Pilgrim Accommodations – Part Two
Standing by His tomb-shrine on Meherabad Hill in 1958, Meher Baba told His followers, “When I leave this body, it will have its rest in the Tomb on this Hill. After 70 years this Hill will turn into a place of world pilgrimage where lovers of God, philosophers, and celebrities will come to pay homage to the Tomb. How fortunate you all are that you are here in my living presence and that you could come up the Hill with me.”
Now, forty-nine years later, people journey here from all over the globe on pilgrimage to take Baba’s darshan in the Tomb.
Where do these people stay if they want to spend a night, a week, a month in the divine atmosphere of Meherabad? Foreseeing every need as always, when the Trust Deed was drawn up in 1959 Beloved Baba gave as the second object: providing “shelter or accommodation for visitors staying temporarily”.
Up until the morning of January 31st, 1969, the only humans staying at Meherabad were those expressly allowed by Baba. At noon that same day, Beloved Baba dropped His body in Meherazad, and by evening the gates of Meherabad’s seclusion burst wide open: anyone in the world could come to the Tomb to pay their respects to Baba’s form lying in the crypt. Suddenly Meherabad had pilgrims.
Over the next few years, most of Baba’s Indian lovers came without fail for Amartithi, the anniversary of that time. To accommodate them over the three-day Amartithi observance, every available room in lower Meherabad would be opened, and temporary tents would spring up all over the property. But after the crowds would leave on 2nd February, Meherabad would quietly slip back to its rural serenity.
During those early 1970s, a small number of intrepid pilgrims from overseas began showing up at Meherabad and Meherazad. At first, they stayed with Sarosh and Villoo at their home, or in hotels in Ahmednagar. Dr. Goher would occasionally show up at the Daulat Hotel to see whether the Irani proprietress was taking good care of “Baba’s children”. Once during a cold winter, after inspecting the place and finding it wanting, she brought blankets to give the Baba-lovers staying there. Across the street from the hotel was the Trust Office, in what was then still called “Khushru Quarters”, where one went to Adi K. Irani (Adi Sr.) to “register” one’s arrival by filling out the required forms for the police, a service Adi provided so that Baba-lovers would not have to go to the police station.
When the mandali trustees discovered that this small trickle of pilgrims was not going to slow down or stop, they put their heads together and came up with a plan for accommodating pilgrims at lower Meherabad: a maximum of 12 people could go to Meherabad from Monday to Friday, and stay in one or other of the old buildings there. Padri was “host” to these “loonies” (as he called them), and near Baba’s Jhopri, he oversaw construction of a charming one-room dining room of his design (whose arched verandah was an inspiration later on for the design of the Pilgrim Centre.) You would sign up for this Meherabad stay with Adi or his assistant, and later with Mani or her assistant.
Those four nights at Meherabad in the 1970s gave many people a taste of the simple life lived by Beloved Baba and the mandali at Meherabad. Kerosene lanterns provided the only light, and the food was vegetarian: rice, dal, a vegetable, and chappatis. Rano Gayley took it upon herself to provide plates and other necessary items for the pilgrims’ use.
At night as you came down the hill after Arti, the stars leapt out from the deep dark sky, and when the train roared by you could see the bright orange glow of the coal-fires stoking its steam engine. In the glare of day you’d see 3 or 4 buses at the most trundling down the road, weaving in and out of bullock carts, bicycles, an occasional pony-drawn tonga and women in bright saris striding along balancing brass water vessels on their heads.
Having had a taste of Meherabad life for four days at a time, naturally, Baba-lovers wanted more. And there were more and more lovers to want it. The trickle had become a stream. In 1976, a Baba-lover from the United States, James Cox, set in motion the plan for a bigger building, one where all the pilgrims could stay together at Meherabad and for a longer time. With the generous help of James and then many other Baba-lovers, the Trust constructed the Meher Pilgrim Centre over the next four years, by fits and starts as money became available. Finally, the bricks and mortar walls were up; the teak doors and windows were in place; the iron beds were ready. But there wasn’t money for sheets or mattresses or plates. Coming to know of this, Baba-lovers in Navsari sent huge bolts of bright material to be made into bed-sheets, an Andhra lover donated stainless steel plates, and so it went on with donations-in-kind until the Centre was fully ready.
On 7th June 1980, Mehera turned her own key in the lock on the Pilgrim Centre gate, entered the foyer and with Mani garlanded Baba’s photograph. Then all the mandali came into the dining room for the first Pilgrim Centre meal. On 19th June, Padri threw open the gate to a small crowd of 17 pilgrims (“Welcome” was the extent of his opening speech) and pilgrims began staying in this new building at lower Meherabad. Mohammed Mast called it, “Dadacha bungla”, “Baba’s bungalow.”
A following article in this series describes how other accommodations sprang up at Meherabad during these years: more permanent structures to shelter pilgrims at Amartithi, Hostel D for the accommodation of larger groups, almost all from India, who wanted Indian-style food and a simpler accommodation, Hostel C for groups who wanted to do their own cooking and also for special occasions, and the Dharmshala.
So in the 1980s or ’90s, a pilgrim from India or overseas could enjoy at stay at Meherabad in one of four places: the Pilgrim Centre, Hostel D, the Dharmshala or Hostel C.
This pattern continued up until March 15th, 2006, when the Pilgrim Centre closed as a pilgrim accommodation. Three months later, on June 15th, 2006, Meheru and Meherwan stood in the foyer of a new building for pilgrims, the Meher Pilgrim Retreat, and garlanded the same Baba photo that Mehera and Mani had garlanded to open the Pilgrim Centre twenty-six years before. A message from Bhau, the Trust’s chairman and guiding force behind the Retreat, welcomed pilgrims into a new era of pilgrim stays at Meherabad.
The Retreat, in style and architecture an expanded version of the Pilgrim Centre, is the first pilgrim accommodation to be located on Meherabad Hill. Its 96 rooms can house 200 people (100 men and 100 women) at a time. The new building has two large wings for pilgrim accommodation, a women’s wing and a men’s, each with two floors. Each floor ends in a reading room, whose east walls are all windows, through which one can look out across the fields towards Baba’s Samadhi, along the crown of Meherabad Hill.
In a third wing stands the dining hall, a large, high-roofed room with several smaller areas (both indoors and outdoors) for eating and conversation. A number of works of art focused on Baba were created just for the Retreat and they warm the building with beauty: two huge murals, sixteen mural paintings, a full-length portrait of Baba, two stained glass windows, a marble statue of Beloved Baba and Mohammed the Mast, a mosaic, woodwork, and 2,145 tiles hand-painted by Baba-lovers around the world. Hundreds of large archival photos of Baba ensure that you see His lovely form in every room of the building. And from the three roof terraces, one can enjoy His creation in a 360-degree panoramic view for many miles out across Ahmednagar valley.
Non-Indian pilgrims now complete their registration formalities at the Pilgrim Centre instead of the Trust Office in Ahmednagar where Adi Sr. began registering pilgrims thirty-seven years back.
So at this writing, between the Retreat, Hostels D and C, and the Dharmshala, there is an accommodation style for everyone who wishes to stay at Meherabad.
How gracious and compassionate of Beloved Baba to have made this provision in the Trust Deed for those who tread the ancient path of pilgrimage to His feet.
In His Service,
The next article will be part three of the pilgrim accommodation series and will discuss the accommodation of large groups who come from across India and want simpler accommodation.