Shirdi: The temple town of Shirdi, where Sai Baba remained till his death, became the centre of controversy on Saturday when townfolk threatened a shutdown over a row on the birthplace of the 19th-century saint 102 years after he took samadhi.
As per reports, the Saibaba Sansthan Trust had decided to shut down the temple town for visitors indefinitely from January 19. "We have announced to close Shirdi against rumours from January 19. A meeting of villagers will be convened Saturday evening to discuss the issue. Devotees will not face any difficulty if they come to Shirdi," news agency ANI had quoted B Wakchaure of Saibaba Sansthan Trust as saying.
However, dismissing rumours, a top temple management official said the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple will remain open and all facilities will continue as usual.
"The temple will open as usual, all pujas and ceremonies will be performed, devotees will be free to take darshan of Saibaba, the prasadalaya will be offered and pilgrims' accommodation facilities, etc, will continue as normal," the Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust (SSST) Shirdi CEO Deepak Muglikar told IANS.
The Shirdi town shutdown call was issued after Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray reportedly said that Pathri village in Parbhani was the birthplace of the 19th century saint revered equally by people of all communities. He also announced a special grant of Rs 100 crore for the development Pathri to attract pilgrims and tourists there.
Muglikar, however, said the temple administration has not made any official statement on the "closure" of Shirdi planned by some individuals.
About two dozen villages around Shirdi are expected to join the bandh, which may be extended till the government considers their demands, according to one of the organisers.
"The locals are unhappy with Thackeray for describing Pathri as the birthplace of Sai Baba. There is no document available about Sai Baba's birthplace. Sai Baba himself never shared any information about his birthplace or religion during his stay in Shirdi," Kailasbapu Kote, former trustee of Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust, was quoted as saying by The Times of India.
Later on Saturday evening, an official statement said Thackeray will hold talks to resolve the controversy over Saibaba's birthplace.
Nitin Kote, a local resident who is spearheading the stir, was quoted as saying by TOI that the peaceful agitation would continue till the CM clears his stand on the issue. "It could be possible that Thackeray was briefed wrongly on the issue," he was quoted as saying.
The report further said that Shirdi temple and all its units like the Sai Prasadalaya, Sai Hospital, Sai Bhaktaniwas and the local medical shops have been kept outside the purview of the bandh.
The buses of Maharashtra State Regional Transport Corporation (MSRTC) and the hotel will also function as usual. However, public transport vehicles are likely to remain off road and could pose hurdles to tourists visiting the temple town by air or by train. The airport is around 15-km from the temple town and railway station is about 2-km away.
Thackeray's act of sanctioning Rs 100 crore to develop Pathri has created a political row with BJP MP Sujay Vikhe-Patil threatening to wage a legal battle over the issue.
"There was no such dispute until now. Why has the claim that Pathri is Saibaba's birthplace come up only after the new government has taken over? The people of Shirdi may resort to legal action," warned Sujay Vikhe-Patil, in whose constituency Shirdi town is located.
On the other hand, senior NCP leader Durrani Abdullah Khan has dismissed the shutdown call saying "there is enough historical evidence" to prove that Saibaba birthplace was Pathri.
"Pathri is Saibaba's 'janmabhoomi' while Shirdi is his 'karmabhoomi.' Both the places have equal significance for all his devotees," Khan said.
He said the people of Shirdi are not concerned about the funds granted by the government, but only object to the reference of Pathri as Saibaba's place of birth.
"Some locals apprehend that if Pathri becomes popular and developed, then the flow of devotees to Shirdi could fall and affect the local economy," Khan told media in his hometown Pathri on Friday.
Pathri also has the 'Shri Sai Janmasthan Temple' which attracts a large number of devotees, and where Thackeray paid a visit this week.
Shirdi, in the prosperous western Maharashtra, came on the airmap two years ago as part of the centenary celebrations of Saibaba's Samadhi in October 2018 and the year-long festivities saw the presence of President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and over one crore devotees from around the world.
Adopting a stance of consensus, PWD Minister Ashok Chavan said Pathri should not be deprived of development and creating infrastructure facilities on account of the dispute over Saibaba's birthplace.
Meanwhile, representatives of the local villages will meet later this evening to chart out their course of action for tomorrow's proposed bandh and other issues.
The locals claim that during his lifetime and many years spent in Shirdi, Saibaba never mentioned his birthplace or his religion and that there were only certain unauthorised reports on it circulating for some time.