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Posted on: May 19, 2015
SAI STREE SHAKTI series - 03
Mandir Ladies - Custodians of Sanctum Maintenance
Sai Stree Shakti is a Radio Sai special series that chronicles the forces of nature that incarnated as women of spiritual substance to serve as the chosen instruments of the Avatar, contributing significantly to the Sai Mission.
Bhagawan not only hailed their sterling virtues but also shaped them to be exemplars of duty, devotion and dedication, who stood out as ideals not only to other women but entire humanity.
To mark the auspicious 90th year of the divine advent, we salute these dynamic and divine Sai women whose contribution to the Sai mission has been strong and steady and largely silent. Starting March 19, 2015, every month till November 19, 2015, we at Radio Sai plan to celebrate Ladies Day by highlighting the life and dedication of such individuals who will go down in history as the able and capable contemporaries of the Sri Sathya Sai Avatar. Their incarnation appears to be a significant part of Bhagawan's master plan.
On March 19, 2015, Radio Sai offered its first tribute to the late Mrs. Sarla Shah under this series. (click here)
On April 19, 2015, Radio Sai featured the contributions of Mrs. Carole Alderman of the United Kingdom in the area of Sathya Sai Education in Human Values. (click here)
On May 19, 2015, Radio Sai pays a humble tribute to the 'Mandir Ladies of Prasanthi Nilayam' (a few demure and dedicated women who silently maintain the mandir).
Simple, humble and deeply grateful for the privilege, the mandir ladies maintain the cleanliness, beauty, and order that have come to define Prasanthi Nilayam. And they do so away from the public eye.
Publicity averse and photo shy, they work as a team and have clearly defined duties, with some of them reporting for work as early as 4:00 a.m. Twice daily, this group sweeps, mops, washes, cleans, scrubs, polishes, dusts, prepares puja materials and flower petals for rangoli, packs vibhuti packets... all in absolute silence, as their acts of worship at the lotus feet of Bhagawan Baba. And they have been doing this for years, twice a day, seven days a week, without a break, drawing their compensation only in the form of self-satisfaction.
Rarely heard or seen, they perform these duties as a part of their spiritual journey, always staying in the background. As they pour their devotion into their daily duties that keep the mandir activities running like a well-oiled machine, they raise their mundane actions to the level of divine worship.
This third episode of Sai Stree Shakti is dedicated to these Mandir Ladies of Prasanthi Nilayam. While these self-negating ladies refuse to be photographed, the gleaming mandir and its sparkling altar are signatures of their hard-work, sincerity and discipline.
Since founding His ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam in 1950, the twenty-five year old Bhagawan Baba taught His devotees the importance of tidiness for He advised that 'Cleanliness is Godliness'. He thus defined the ashram ambience as spotlessly clean with creative aesthetics based on the Vedic tradition. This visual perfection got further enhanced by the deep silence that pervades this sacred space, thus calming the senses and nurturing the soul of seekers who are drawn here.
For the thousands that visit the mandir every single day, the tidiness of the sanctum, the gleaming statues, Bhagawan's imposing throne, neat and clean oil lamps, polished floors, the picture perfect order and the almost audible silence is impossible to miss.
A team of silent workers, many of them aged and with physical challenges approach the mandir with prayers in their hearts and go about their chores keeping in mind that God in His recent most visit to earth built these premises and walked, talked and blessed it with His physical presence. The sacredness of its history is not lost on them as they go about their allocated tasks with clockwise precision, in an attitude of servitude. Yet, this team is rarely seen but the fruits of their labour are there for all to experience.
As it did in His physical presence, today the mandir continues to hold daily pujas for inner purification, and for universal harmony and world peace as per the grammar of the Vedas. This requires exacting levels of cleanliness, washing of puja dishes and cleaning cloths and preparing of various puja materials for use by the priest.
The mandir ladies provide all the background support needed for the daily completion of these various Vedic ceremonies every morning. These include the 5:20 a.m. Omkar and Suprabhatham, followed by the 6:30 a.m. linga abhishekam and worship of special idols as per Bhagawan Baba's directions. These prayer sessions charge the prayer hall and the entire mandir and beyond with strong spiritual energy and it is made possible, day-after-day due to the back breaking support provided by the mandir ladies.
By 9:30 a.m., the prayer hall has to be prepared to receive the devotees who come to take blessings after the morning mangala arathi. This is when the mandir ladies ensure order and discipline as lady devotees pour in after Maha Sannidhi darshan for that special soak in the charged energy of the prayer hall.
With the mandir being open to devotees every single day, these ladies too work every single day, without any fuss or fanfare, and everything in the mandir is maintained to the level of perfection and with attention to detail, that Bhagawan exemplified.
Each member of this small group of women who serve as mandir custodians has a unique story to tell of their journey to this role. The common narrative underlying every individual tale is that of gratitude for this seva opportunity which provides the perfect avenue for channelizing their love and devotion to Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba.
In 1979, the tragic loss of her brother to kidney cancer drew the now 69 year old Miss Roma Das and her mother to Baba for the first time. Today, for the past 35 years, she has been pouring her love for her personal God into her custodial responsibilities in the mandir. The solace that their first experience offered, especially after their personal audience with Bhagawan Baba, led her to stay and serve here – a privilege she covets dearly. She prefers to describe this noble vocation of hers as Lord Sai's sankalpa. She now lives in the ashram, where her basic needs are taken care of. Like several other ladies who divert their spirituality into simple chores that keep the mandir spic, span and scrubbed, Roma's mission in life is to maintain the standard that Bhagawan set when He appointed the late Ms. Lakshmidevi Amma and the late Ms. Janaki Amma as the pioneer mandir custodians in the early years.
Given the schedule of the mandir, these ladies begin their duties rather early. Mrs. Padmaja Naidu for example reports for work at 4 a.m. She concludes her morning duties by 11 a.m. and resumes her afternoon shift from 5 p.m. and her day ends as late as 8 p.m. on festival days. This has been her schedule for the past 3 years. Earlier for 20 years and counting, she performed Gokulam seva and Vibhuti packing seva simultaneously. In 1990, after her husband took voluntary retirement, the couple moved to Prasanthi Nilayam to dedicate themselves to the Sai mission. Their only son is a software engineer in America.
Despite her advanced age, since the past 50 years, Miss N.V. Seethalakshmi continues to transform her love for her Lord Sai into creative rangolis, the traditional floral patterns that she creates inside the mandir on festival days.
An early comer to the Sai mission, Miss Seethalakshmi was amply blessed by Bhagawan Baba when He gave her the very first room in the very first housing building that came up in East Prasanthi. Today, decades later, neither her poor body balance nor her hearing impairment keep this octogenarian from creating breathtakingly beautiful rangoli patterns in the mandir on special days. Bhagawan made it a point to bless Miss Seethalakshmi with a special saree every year on His birthday and the memories of His love are enough motivation for her to adhere to her scheduled duties punctually.
Miss K. Indumathi shuns any kind of attention as she goes about her duties in and around the mandir in silence. For the past 45 years, she has lived in Prasanthi Nilayam with her siblings who serve in various branches of the Sai mission. In-charge of cleaning the tall oil lamps in the mandir, she also orients the rotating Sevadal teams every seven days about their mandir duties and responsibilities.
The shift to mandir duties after a lifetime of professional nursing marked the culmination of divine grace for Miss D. Ramulamma who has a Bachelor's degree in Nursing. It was during her years of working as a professional nurse in Muscat that she came to Prasanthi Nilayam to participate in a medical camp. That is when Bhagawan blessed her to serve here. After completing nine years of nursing at the Sri Sathya Sai General Hospital in Prasanthi Nilayam, she joined the mandir ladies team 3 years ago and devotes her time, energy and talent in maintaining its sanctity, calm and cleanliness.
The mandir arathi spoon is heavy and huge and gets blackened with soot after the arathi camphor is all burned up. It is made of silver with a wooden base and if anyone knows how to polish it to gleam like brand new, it is the 87 year old Mrs. Savithri Sitaramiah. Wife of an Indian Air Force Ground Engineer, she came to serve Bhagawan along with her family in 1973. While wiping the arathi spoon she peers hard through her thick glasses as she rejoices at her good fortune of having this blessing. Through her 42 years of serving the mandir, she has done it all – sweeping, mopping, polishing, rangoli laying... while her late husband served Bhagawan as an engineer.
She gets nostalgic as she recalls how her eyes were affected by the cement dust during the early years when construction was on full swing in the ashram. The compassionate Lord sent her to Chennai for her eye surgery with none other than Mother Easwaramma as her chaperone. After a lifetime of reporting for work at 4:30 a.m., she is finally cashing in on her senior citizen privileges by starting her mandir schedule at 8 a.m. and keeps going till 11 a.m.
She breaks down recalling how Bhagawan had blessed her with the gift of a saree with His own hands just 3 months prior to Swami leaving the physical. As heart-broken as she was at His passing on, she now tries to make every visitor to the prayer hall feel welcome and loved as part of her own healing process.
The early pioneers of custodial duties in the mandir were the late Ms. Lakshmidevi Amma and the late Ms. Janaki Amma who identified and scheduled the mandir duties under Bhagawan's direct supervision and set the standard that became the benchmark for others who followed. Thereafter Ms. Hymavathi Amma and Ms. Girija Amma followed their footsteps till they both retired after years of serving selflessly.
Today, Mrs. R. Hemambujam walks their path by bringing her energy, attention to detail and love into her mandir duties which she has been performing for the past decade. She ensures the seating and discipline during the early morning prayer session of Omkar and Suprabhatham and during the 6:30 a.m. pujas in the mandir. Again for the evening meditation in the mandir, she oversees the discipline and orderly seating of the lady devotees.
Through acts of hard manual labour sum up their duties, their single-pointed devotion, unsullied love for God and humility raise their chores to the levels of highest devotion, resonating Baba's call to treat all work as worship and duty as God. They literally bend their bodies, to mend the senses and end the mind, as He advises. The mandir ladies conclude each shift with the chanting that sums it all: Samastha Loka Sukhino Bhavanthu, Gratitude, Gratitude, Gratitude. (They actually chant the word 'Gratitude' in english three times!)
Devotees who came to Bhagawan in the days of the old mandir would recollect how Bhagawan Himself would perform tasks such as cleaning the altar and garlanding the pictures. He would wake up well before all others would and even sweep the entrance and draw the traditional 'kolams'. The women devotees pleaded with Bhagawan to allow them to do these chores, but He would, with a charming smile do it all Himself. It is then that these devoted souls decided that the only way to stop their Lord from doing these mundane works, and save themselves from the pain of seeing Him do it, is to wake up earlier than Him and finish them. That is how, the old devotees say, they began waking up in the earliest hours of dawn and preparing the mandir for their Swami. It is this tradition that has lived on. And even today these women of matchless dedication, who have carried this tradition forward, teach us what it means to serve the Lord silently, wholeheartedly and selflessly. We at Radio Sai, on behalf of all devotees, salute these silent examples of supreme devotion.
Thank you and loving Sai Ram,
Team Radio Sai
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