By Ann Conlon
I have been to Meherabad many times, but I remember it best the way it was in 1971 – simple, austere, fiercely beautiful – still much as it was when Meher Baba walked up that hill.
Not many pilgrims came then, and some of the original buildings were enough to house those who did. I remember staying in Donkin’s old cabin, with meals being cooked outside on an open fire by the lovely woman who had cooked for Baba. The only light at night was provided by oil lamps and their soft light lent a special glow to everything. So when electricity was installed, it was a shock and some of us jokingly plotted with Mansari to take an axe to the power lines. I remember Padri, one of Baba’s “pillars of Meherabad.” He pointed out the stars on incredibly clear nights, and one evening called us to see an unusual lining up of the planets. He described what it was like for Mohammed the mast to be able to see the 7th plane but not be able to cross the chasm that kept him from it, and it was the first time I understood how the planes work. I remember being able to spend as much time as you liked at or in the Samadhi because there were no lines waiting. And going to town by bicycle because there was no Pilgrim Centre and no Pilgrim Centre bus. And crashing my bike into the back of an oxen cart in the pre-dawn because it was easier to pedal without the wheel-driven bike light. That was a time when, staying in town, I did get up long before dawn so I’d be at Meherabad in time to help Mansari clean the tomb, dispose of yesterday’s flowers, lay a new cover and be ready for whoever might come that day. There weren’t so many of us then that we didn’t all have at least a small part in the tomb-cleaning, whenever we liked.
I remember the one day a month when the women came up the hill to place flowers and have arti in the Samadhi. To see them walking through the gate was like seeing a living Rembrandt painting. Those days, only a short time after Meher Baba dropped his body, were marked for me by Mehera’s heart-breaking grief. Even so, she was very conscious of other people around her and she spoke to each of us as she walked back to her car. Always, when she looked at me, she smiled and said, “Do you remember? Don’t forget.”
I remember finding I felt Baba’s presence less in the Samadhi than I did under a lone tree west of the tomb, where he must have walked many times. That tree is still there but more difficult to find because it’s now surrounded by the many more trees planted as part of a beautification plan. You used to be able to walk out of the Samadhi, look to the West and see an empty, rugged landscape that stretched to the horizon far, far away. There are interruptions in that view now, including a water tower that somehow managed to get itself placed smack-dab in front of the setting sun.
Tea in those days was served by Mansari in her tiny kitchen on top of the hill. We sat on small benches and Mansari always sat in a low-slung beach chair, as the water boiled for tea and birds flew in and out of the kitchen.
Among those who came up to the tomb then was Chhagan-master, one of Baba’s earliest disciples. He was one of the most impressive men I’ve ever seen: tall, straight, rock-solid. Margaret Craske said of him and the other men around Baba in the early days that she knew nothing could happen to Baba as long as those men were with him.
These days, Amartithi, which celebrates Baba’s passing at the end of January, draws something like 15,000 pilgrims from all over the world. There were far fewer in the early 1970s, but it was still a crowd vibrant with love for Meher Baba. For a few years, a torch was lit at Meherazad in the early morning darkness, then run in relays through the street of Ahmednagar and on out to Meherabad where crowds waited for its arrival and the lighting of the Dhuni. There was music all the time and one year the Pune musician Manasuden wrote an haunting chant, “Meher Doon”, that could be sung by Westerners, as well as Easterners, without making too much of a disaster of the pronunciation. Plays were mounted by some of the Westerners, using whatever materials were at hand. If they needed a leaf-laden tree and the trees were bare, they spent hours cutting leaves from green cloth and tying them to dead branches.
Eruch stayed up all night on the hill at Amartithi and those who could stayed up with him. I only managed it once, but it was a glorious mix of his Baba stories and those told by Easterners he occasionally pulled from the milling crowd.
I don’t know how many of you saw the inside of the Samadhi before Helen Dahm’s murals were restored, but in 1962, they were very faded. In the early 1970s, Panday, the Ahmednagar photographer who took so many beautiful photos of Baba, was given the job of restoring the paintings. While he was working, we could not enter the tomb, although we could see what he was doing through the open door. One day, when we arrived, the door was closed. We thought nothing of it, but a couple of days later we learned why. Panday had decided to use a cleaning fluid on the murals before starting to repaint them. To his horror, the murals simply disappeared. I can’t image what he went through before they just as suddenly reappeared. I must say he kept his composure in front of all of us; we had no idea anything had gone wrong.
But I think the most memorable day on the hill for me was the day when the marble slab, imported from Italy, was laid in the Samadhi. I was staying out at lower Meherabad at the time, but Padri, in charge of the event, flatly announced that no one, including the mandali, were to come to Meherbad that morning, because he didn’t want anyone getting in his way. But the night before he told me and a friend that we could come because he knew we wouldn’t try to tell him what to do. The marble was still in its crate, lying on the pandal, some little distance from the Samadhi. Padri had spent considerable time building a wooden arrangement that would, when liberally coated with liquid soap, allow the slab to slide easily into the Samadhi to be lowered onto the tomb. A large number of Arangaon villagers had arrived to help carry the slab from the pandal to the Samadhi. They became impatient and, not waiting for Padri, lifted the slab from the crate, not too steadily. Mansari sent someone running down the hill to call Padri and he arrived very quickly, roaring at the top of his lungs. It took a great deal of effort and some time, but it was an awesome sight: a good dozen villagers hefting that slab, carrying it to the Samadhi, laying it on the wooden slide and then, as it slid into place, shouting “Avatar Meher Baba, Ki Jai!”
Of course, Meherabad has changed, some of it forced by growing numbers of people and some of it by the Trust’s attempts to carry out Meher Baba’s wishes as outlined in the Trust deed. It is very beautiful. But I can’t help being nostalgic for the way it was, in all its rough, untamed glory. I feel very fortunate to have been there then.