Pilgrim Accommodations - Part Three
In this article, part three of the pilgrim accommodations series, we will focus on the Trust's arrangements for housing large groups of pilgrims, especially those who come from India.
"News had already reached Bombay by the evening of 31st January 1969, and lovers rushed to Ahmednagar by all available means. Several had arrived soon after Baba's body had been placed in the Tomb. . .Overnight Meherabad was transformed from a peaceful, quiet, remote spot into a crowded place of pilgrimage. Rows and rows of conveyances crowded onto the roadside as buses, cars, taxis, bicycles, motor scooters, tongas and bullock ox-carts assembled. A board was erected, directing people up the Hill, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for Padri to help the ever growing crowd. To accommodate [the rush of people], every inch of space surrounding the Hill was utilized. There was no food available, but a roadside refreshment stall was set up to supply tea.
"Chhagan cooked and brought food on February 2nd, and did so again on February 6th. [On other days, food was brought from Akbar Press; Roshan and Manu helped to prepare it for the Mandali and immediate family. Jal Dastoor also brought food from the Ashoka Hotel].
"There was no electricity in Meherabad then, but sufficient illumination was provided [as a ] full moon shone in the starry night sky the entire week. When Chinta Sarva Rao and Majety Rama Mohan Rao of Vijayawada arrived, they arranged for a generator, and a ring of fluorescent lights encircled the Tomb. A makeshift white cloth awning stretched over bamboo poles was erected in front of the Tomb to give a little shade from the scorching sun to those waiting to take darshan." – Lord Meher, pp. 6728 - 6730
Thus began the work of providing accommodations for the stream of devotees who would continue to come in greater and greater numbers throughout the years to pay homage to Beloved Avatar Meher Baba at His Samadhi.
In the first few years after Beloved Baba dropped His body in January 1969, most of the pilgrims who came to Meherabad only stayed for the day. In those early years, pilgrims who wished to stay for longer periods would often stay at hotels in Ahmednagar, such as the Lucky Hotel, the Daulat Hotel and the Ashoka Hotel. Some Parsis would stay at the Parsi Fire Temple in Ahmednagar. They, along with Western pilgrims, would also stay at Viloo Villa, Sarosh Irani’s residence, which is located in the military district of Ahmednagar. Viloo Villa got its start as a guest house when the Luck brothers asked to stay there following Beloved Baba’s interment, as they wished to stay on in India until the 1969 Darshan.
Since there were no rickshaws at that time, the pilgrims who were staying in town made the ten-kilometer journey to Meherabad on bicycles, in tongas or on one of the local buses. It soon became obvious that more convenient accommodations were needed. In a letter to the Trustees dated 21 November 1969, Sarosh Irani stated:
"Many Baba disciples and lovers find it difficult to stay in the city and then go to Meherabad---at times there are no hotel accommodations and there is al- ways a transport difficulty. Therefore I feel that it will be a good gesture on the part of the Trustees if they can allow Baba lovers in small groups not exceeding fifteen to stay at Lower Meherabad dur- ing their visit to Baba’s Samadhi. I have met many Baba lovers from Bombay, Poona, and other places, and they seem to be very much disappointed for all the inconvenience they have to undergo for their stay at Ahmednagar proper city. We have a lot of space at Lower Meherabad and a room or two can be allotted for this purpose. The visitors can make their own arrangements for food, transport, etc. . . ."
The Dharamshala, originally known as the "Old Bungalow," was constructed in 1916 and served as the officers’ mess hall for the British Army camp. It later became the early Mandali’s residence. After 1969 it began to be used to house pilgrims. If there was an overflow, Padri would sometimes allow pilgrims to stay in the Meherabad Mandali Hall. In 1982, the southern half of the Dharamshala building was demolished and rebuilt to provide extra space for pilgrims.
During the 1970s several other buildings in Lower Meherabad were also used to accommodate pilgrims. Dr. Donkin's Quarters were used to house up to six pilgrims, during four-day stays at Meherabad. The small buildings behind Donkin's Quarters were constructed at that time to serve as a dining room and kitchen. Also during this period, the Interview Cabin was used to accommodate up to three pilgrims at a time. The old dispensary room in Mandali Hall (room #4) also housed pilgrims occasionally. All these rooms were later used as staff quarters.
Thus, by 1976 there were two types of lodging arrangements at Meherabad: the Dharamshala and the Pilgrims' Rooms. Pilgrims who stayed in the Dharamshala were required to provide their own bedding and see to the purchase and cooking of their own rations. In the Pilgrims’ Rooms, lodging was available from Monday through Friday morning; pilgrims were permitted to have only one bath during their stay there. Up to twelve pilgrims could be accommodated in the Pilgrims' Rooms. Bedding with netting and linen was provided, breakfast and two meals a day were available, and the menu was fixed vegetarian. The diet consisted of rice, dal, chapattis, and vegetables in season. If pilgrims required any special foods, such as butter, bread, coffee, fresh fruits, they were asked to purchase them in town before coming to Lower Meherabad. Accommodations expanded for smaller groups of pilgrims when the Meher Pilgrim Centre opened on 19 June 1980; it could accommodate fifty-six in rooms housing one to eight people. Men and women were housed separately. Several Baba groups generously donated various household items to help setup the MPC.
In 1980 work began on the Hostels which could be used for large groups who came during the year as well as Amartithi. The plan called for four identical buildings to be constructed. Four foundations were built, which ultimately became Hostels "A," "B," "C," and "D." Initially, at Amartithi, tents were set up on the four foundations. The following year walls and roofs were added to the foundations of "B" and "C," and the tents were again set up on all four foundations to house pilgrims at Amartithi. In 1982, Hostels "B" and "C" were completed, but Hostels "A" and "D" still consisted of just the foundations, where tents were again set up for Amartithi.
Hostels "B" and "C" were designed to accommodate 500 people each. Also a block of 20 latrines and 26 baths for each building were constructed nearby. As the number of pilgrims greatly increased, Hostel "C" was remodeled to include a verandah, inside toilet, kitchen, dining hall, and storeroom. Steel cupboards, bedside tables, etc., were purchased. It was used to accommodate larger groups of Indian Baba lovers as well as overflow pilgrims from the Pilgrim Centre and the Dharmashala. This was possible because Hostel "C" had movable cupboards which could be cleared to the side to allow the hostel to accommodate the ever-increasing number of pilgrims who came during Silence Day and Amartithi. It is also used for the annual Meherabad Young Adult Sahavas.
Hostel "D" opened in August 1988. In the original plan, all the hostels were to be the same, but when it was built, Hostel "D" was made into a dharamshala. It was designed and built with two kitchens, two storerooms, and two dining halls, one set for the food catering service, and one set for the pilgrims who wish to cook for themselves. Hostel "D" normally accommodates fifty pilgrims in fifty beds in six bays. Double the usual number of pilgrims could be housed in Hostel "D" by spreading additional mattresses on the floor. At Amartithi, the verandahs are enclosed to accommodate more people.
Hostel "A" eventually became a centre for music and dramatic arts, but at Amartithi, it is used to house between 600-700 pilgrims, who bring their own beddings which they spread on the floor. In recent years, the number of pilgrims coming for special occasions has increased, and the Hostels have helped accommodate pilgrims who come during those times. Up to 1200 pilgrims have come to Meherabad to observe Silence Day, and many stay for more than one day. Thus, the need for accommodations for pilgrims has grown substantially over the years.
Due to the increased number of Indian pilgrims arriving for Amartithi, in the late 1980s the Trust opened the "New Site" at Upper Meherabad, which accommodates thousands of pilgrims. The Trust increased the number of tents behind Hostel D, which made it possible to accommodate more pilgrims. As the numbers grew, the Trust has also had to give greater attention to security arrangements and water supply. Traffic also grew around Meherabad. A great number of Amartithi pilgrims arrive by tourist buses and other vehicles, large and small. By 2008 the number of vehicles totaled 506, of which 51 were tourist buses.
The first Amartithi in 1970 was attended by about 500 pilgrims. In the early years during Amartithi, tents were placed at Lower Meherabad and catering was done by outside canteenwalas. Padri would have the residents vacate their staff quarters and sleep in tents, as their rooms were turned over to pilgrims. By 2008 the registered number of Amartithi pilgrims had grown to 12,586, and on January 31 as many as 25,000 were present for the fifteen minutes of silence at noon. It is necessary to plan for even greater numbers in the future, for as Baba pointed out during the 1955 Sahavas, after a period of seventy-five years Meherabad would be the centre of world pilgrimage. Consequently, the Trust initially plans to accommodate up to 4000 pilgrims in an area called the "Pilgrim Education Site" which is located to the south-west of Baba's Samadhi. It is the area you see at the top of the hill, to the left, as you travel along the road towards the MPR. This area in time will be developed to accommodate tens of thousands of pilgrims for Amartithi.
On June 15, 2006 new pilgrim facilities opened at the recently constructed Meher Pilgrim Retreat, an 88,000 square-foot pilgrim facility located in upper Meherabad that provides meals and overnight accommodation for up to 200 pilgrims. Although this beautiful building provides for many more pilgrims than the Meher Pilgrim Centre, which is no longer used to accommodate pilgrims, there is still a need to extend dharamshala-style facilities.
The Trust intends to construct a new dharamshala and will do so as funds permit. For thousands of years, dharamshalas, or rest houses, have been built throughout India to provide essential shelter for people on pilgrimage. When it is built, our Dharamshala will provide lodging for hundreds more pilgrims in the most simple of accommodations at reasonable charges.
It is an ongoing challenge to meet the needs of large numbers of pilgrims from diverse backgrounds and simultaneously provide each one with the space and time to have intimate moments with the Beloved.
"After I drop my body, lakhs [hundreds of thousands] will come here just to gather, just to kiss the dust of this place." – Meher Baba
Jal Dastoor, Shrider Kelkar and Ramesh Jangle
The next article in this series will deal with the third object enumerated in the Trust Deed: provisions for the housing of persons from the West and the East who wish to serve the Trust as residents.