One of the ten Mega Kitchens in India, Shree Sai Prasadalya in Shirdi feeds free food to as many as 70,000 people on a busy day.
I have made many trips to Shirdi Sai baba temple since childhood and have literally seen it transform into this tiled huge complex with various sections for different requirements of devotees from a small place with mud paths and different thatch roofed shelters where my mother used to sit for hours saying her specific prayers whenever we visited Shirdi.
‘Darshan’ of the serene marble deity was not such a difficult task then as far as I remember and the free meal ‘prasad’ was a simple aubergine potato curry with rice and chapati.
For a long time, after I got into daily grind of life, I did not visit the temple. It was only recently that a sudden urge to seek blessings of the ‘fakir’ God made me travel to Shirdi. I also wanted to have prasad meal but the old hall for meals that I remembered visiting as a kid was nowhere to be seen.
After much to and fro on the main road, I found the new improved and larger Shree Sai Prasadalaya.
Powered by 73 large discs of solar panels, the complex with a statue of Sai Baba and a cooking pot at the entrance, can seat 3200 people in one sitting for free meal. However there is another seating area where those who are not comfortable mingling with masses can avail meal of their choice on payment.
The solar energy generated by these enormous panels is used almost for everything from cooking to dish washing and lighting.
With a huge footfall the entire day, the large dining hall with rows and rows of steel dining tables and stools is always buzzing with activity. As soon as one batch of people finish eating, the workers swiftly clean the dining space of all spilled food, another set of workers arranges fresh plates and tumblers and the serving staff is ready to serve with wheeled trolleys full of steaming food.
The efficiency of workers and volunteers is indeed commendable.
For the dining space of such magnitude, the kitchen catering to it needs to be of ample space that can accommodate not only enough people to carry out the task 0f preparing food but also the utensils, and cooking spots.
I was curious and tried taking permission at the office but the office manager was not available and I decided to have my meal instead. There in the dining area were several ‘orange kurta’ clad men of different age groups volunteering at the dining hall.
For volunteering at the Prasadalay, the main office in its complex connects one to the Shirdi Sansthan. The Shirdi Sai baba Sansthan at the temple complex accepts donations for education, food, accommodation of poor and upkeep of temple in cash or card payment if one so desires.
Mr Subhash Agarwal, an important member of Rotary Club, New Delhi was one of the volunteers who travels to Shirdi once a year to offer services in temple complex. It was he who obliged to take me on a tour of the splendid large kitchen where things worked like clockwork.
A quick peek is all what he offered since he needed to return to his assigned task at the dining hall.
Moving towards the kitchen doors, I met some women volunteers sorting the vegetables later to be diced manually on ‘darati’ a sickle like curved knife mounted on small wood planks. The number of these curved knives itself was a proof of amount of work that goes in the preparation and number of volunteers that throng the huge kitchen.
The main kitchen bustled with activity. Large cauldrons with dal were simmering on the fire, woks were manned by men with long handled ladles, the chapati making machine was being cleaned to feed next batch of devotees and three dough making machines had been put to work. A large machine washed and peeled the potatoes before transferring it to the dicer.
Hygiene, time and taste parameters were strictly followed in the mega kitchen. The kitchen once open, serves food continuously throughout the day.
The dedication of volunteers and kitchen staff in providing clean and warm food for thousands of devotees was indeed humbling. It is because of such people and such selfless acts that the belief in humanity is somewhat alive.
- Shirdi, a small town in Ahmednagar District, Maharashtra is home to 19th century saint Sai Baba.
- It is 296 km from Mumbai and nearest to Ahmednagar and Nasik.
- Shirdi has now a railway station ‘Sainagr Shirdi’ operational since 2009 and is connected to Chennai, Mysore, Vishakhapatnam.
- Many buses and taxis ply from nearby places like Pune, Kopargaon, Manmad, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Mumbai, Ahmednagar.
- Online booking for darshan are available. It cuts down on the waiting time needed in the queue.
- There are lot of touts who bug the devotees for bookings, accommodation, offerings and visit in the temple. Do not entertain them.
- Ticket counters at the entrance gates are the better options for information on temple.
- The prasadalay is about half a kilometer from temple. There is large parking space available in front of the complex.
- There is a choice of paid food at the prasadalay. The food though similar is accompanied by side dishes and served on individual tables.