The journey to Pandharpur, where the great Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham was camping, revealed to me the hidden beauty of our countryside unaffected by the trappings of modern civilisation. The train from Kurudwadi to Pandharpur is pretty old and the seats in the tiny compartments are very small. People, mostly pilgrims and villagers, squatted on the floor in the compartments. The two hours and a half journey early in the morning was a pleasant ride through green land. This train, a curious relic of a bygone age, arrived at the sleepy Pandharpur station on the dot. Even passenger trains run on time on the Central Railway!
Despite my broke Hindi, I could get the information I needed. On the train a passenger, a villager, told me that "Sri Sankaracharya Maharaj" (that is how He is called there) was staying a few miles away from the Vitthala temple. Everyone there spoke in Marathi making courteous enquiries about the purpose of my visit. At the station the only available transport was the tonga. The tonga driver looked as self-assured as the moustache-twirling autorickshaw driver of Delhi. He dumped people and luggage in his ramshackle cart and drove away lecturing to the crowed passengers on a variety of subjects ranging from the dangers of travelling in buses to the glory of Lord Vitthala. Offloading me at a hotel, he drove off with a nonchalance that conveyed his dominance in the realm of transportation in Pandharpur.
An hour later I allowed myself to be taken care of by another tongawalla who offered to take me to 'Sri Sankaracharya Maharaj' and bring me back to the lodge for Rs. 15. He told me of the long distance he had to drive including the last lap across the bridge on the river Chandrabagh. Later, however, I realised that it was after all not such a long journey.
The river Chandrabagh, so named because of its crescent-shape formation at Pandharpur according to my guide, the tongawalla, looked serene. Pilgrims from the Vitthoba temple on one side of the river were being ferried across to the other side for Sri Sankaracharya's darshan. As the morning sun was briskly rising in the sky, I walked up to the abode of the Swami. It was a shed-like house. All was quiet as I entered the portion. There was an assortment of people from the south, north and west. In the hall inside some devotees and been waiting since early morning for His darshan. One of the inmates of the ashram was carrying messages from someone in the hall to the Swami inside. "When will the sage come out? What is the darshan time?" anxiously asked a few. A little later, as the number began to swell to over a hundred, we were all asked to move into the front verandah where the Swami would come shortly. A line was formed and two wooden tables were arranged to regulate the queue. Two constables came in asking people to form a line. There came a hefty chowkidar-like person issuing instructions to the devotees.
A young girl led a chorus a devotional hymns: "Hara Hara Sankara, Kaladi Shankara". The air was filled with an atmosphere of Bhakti. A young man raised his voice singing the bhajans louder than the others. There were three doors to that place and the Swami would come out through the front door at which some women and men were all ready to offer flowers, fruits and arti when he came out. Behind them was a middle-aged man who being happy to be ahead of others in the line asked his wife and daughter standing a few yards away to get behind him. He and his family and now acquire a vantage position. Minutes passed. All eyes were riveted to the front door.
Suddenly there was a mild flutter. The Swami accompanied by an assistant came out through a different door! People turned around shouting "Jai Jai Sankara". He waved His hand gently asking everyone to sit on the floor. His orders were instantly obeyed. The chowkidar prostrated before the Swami. His Holiness recognising the chowkidar smilingly greeted him by his name and the huge man rose, his face radiating happiness at the honour done to him.
The Swami then retreated to the corner of the door and sat there enabling everyone in the line to go near him to receive His blessings. One by one men, women and children went near him, prostrated and left as he gently raised his hand and blessed each of them making kind enquiries about their welfare. Some talked in emotion; some totally surrendered at his feet and some spoke in unconcealed innocence.
I am reminded of an incident narrated to me by an ex-official of the India Express. Once he went to Kalaai near Kanchi where the Swami was staying after taking over the Peethadhipathyam. (I too saw him once there and it was most touching to see poor villagers explaining to "Periyaval" their worries and problems such as the loss of a dear one, daughter eloping with a married man, or son taking to liquor. The Swami would offer them advice or guidance and they would leave, having passed on their 'burdens' to Him). When the Express official went to the Swami, he found Him totally silent. He was in a trance, the people there thought, and so they sat there quietly waiting for Him to look at them. A little later a poor villager came there literally sobbing and supplicating the Swami's help for his daughter's marriage. The Swami opened His eyes and asked him about the problem. "My daughter's marriage is fixed. The groom's party wants ten gold sovereigns. You must help me".
"Where do I have the gold? What can I give you"? the Swami asked.
"You have been guiding me all though my life. How can you say 'no' to me now? You only can help me", he persisted.
Finding the poor fellow unrelenting, the Swami said: "You know we are all the children of Mother Kamakshi. You go to Her temple and pray. She only can help you".
"I have no God except You. I pray to You only", he continued.
"I am telling you, go to Mother Kamakshi and pray to Her with all your heart".
The fellow left reluctantly, tears streaming down his cheeks. The Swami was moved by the situation.
Another long spell of silence. Quite a few were there waiting anxiously to speak to him. After nearly an hour He began to hear the others. Another hour passed. The Express official got his chance to speak to Him. In the meantime came a Gujarati couple. Prostrating before the Swami they offered fruits and some gold sovereigns in a plate. Looking at the plate and the gift, the Swami said that He would not accept any gifts and asked them to take the plate away.
"We took a vow that we would offer You eleven gold sovereigns for You blessings. We have been saved by Your grace and we must fulfil the vow. You may do anything with them, Swami, kindly accept them," they insisted.
Asking them to wait, the Swami enquired whether anybody there had a car. The Express man instantly said that his car was ready to go anywhere.
"You saw the poor fellow? Go to Kamakshi temple and fetch him here without telling him anything."
In less than half an hour the car returned with the fellow still sobbing. He fell at the Swami's feet.
"Have you prayed to the Mother with all your heart?" the Swami asked.
"I know no prayer; I just cried before the Mother", he replied.
"The Divine Mother is pleased with your prayers. Take Her gift here". His Holiness pointed to the place.
The poor fellow's face turned pink with ecstasy. He looked at the sovereigns. "I want only ten Swami, not eleven" he pleaded still sobbing, this time in joy.
There was not one there without moist eyes. To the poor fellow and the people there is was nothing but the grace of His Holiness that solved the problem. To others it might seem a miracle or just a coincidence.
I was filled with such thoughts that I stood motionless at Chandrabagh for a while after the darshan. What did I ask for? Nothing, What could I seek? What greater boon could one ask for than to be in His presence even if it was for a minute or two? As I left the place with a heavy heart I was greeted by the river, the temple on the other side of the river bank and my tongawalla friend.
In the town the Vitthala temple is surrounded by a pantheon of Gods and Goddesses, which no pilgrim misses. I went to the Vitthala temple. But I did not visit the cluster of other temples around. I had the darshan and blessings of a living God. As I journeyed back, my mind was filled with the memory of those few minutes when His Holiness spoke to me gently. I did not remember much of the journey part on my way back. Nor did I feel the fatigue of the long journey from Pandharpur to Secunderabad via sholapur.
The great sage, His small figure, His benign smile, His raised hand blessing the devotees, His radiant face all are vivid in my memory. It seems as if I was in His great presence only a little while ago. Perhaps another such moment will be granted to me and countless people like me.