Centred on the mega-metropolis of Mumbai, Maharashtra has always been India’s most ambitious state. First came Pune’s meteoric rise as an IT, education and automobile hub. Next came the Indian wine industry, expanding rapidly in the hills around Nasik. Now attention has turned to Shirdi, the peaceful pilgrimage centre where the guru Sai Baba preached a message of sharing, humility and detachment from material possessions.
Overlooked by international tourists but thronged by devotees of the revered spiritual leader, Shirdi now has a gleaming new airport, poised to open for domestic flights in July, with international flights pencilled in for not long after. Air India will be the first operator to land on Shirdi’s freshly-laid runway, but budget carrier Trujet also plans to make Shirdi a stop on its popular hop between Aurangabad and Hyderabad in Telangana.
In terms of tourist attractions, the focus for most visitors is the samadhi (burial site) of Sai Baba, the mendicant holy man who fused Hindu and Islamic ideas in the late 19th century. A temple and mosque mark the spot where the guru dispensed wisdom for 60 uninterrupted years until his death in 1918, leaving behind just his modest robes and garden.
Outside of India, the name Sai Baba is more commonly associated with Sathya Sai Baba, who rose to become one of India’s most powerful and wealthy religious leaders, before his sudden death in 2011. Despite allegations of abuse and corruption, Sathya Sai Baba – who claimed to be a reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi – was treated almost as a living deity by more than six million followers and presided over an empire worth upwards of US$5.5 billion.
When flights to Shirdi begin in mid July, most passengers are expected to be devotees of the gentle, ascetic original Sai Baba, but the airport has potential for international travellers looking for an alternative hub to crowded Aurangabad, with easy access to the winelands of Nasik and the famous cave temples at Ellora.