A bandh was observed in Shirdi on Sunday against Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray's statement on the birthplace of Saibaba, a prominent spiritual figure of the 19th Century who has been equally revered by Hindus and Muslims.
However, the Saibaba temple remained open throughout the day with no report of devotees facing any inconvenience even as shops and eateries downed their shutters and vehicles remained off roads.
A former member of the Shri Saibaba Sansthan Trust (SSST) said residents of Shirdi provided food and water for the devotees visiting the shrine.
He said the bandh will continue until CM Thackeray withdraws his statement on the Saibaba birthplace.
However, Shiv Sena MP from Shirdi Sadashiv Lokhande said that the bandh will be called off after midnight.
Lokhande made the announcement after a meeting with locals on Sunday evening.
He said Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray has convened a meeting in Mumbai on Monday to discuss the issue.
Representatives from Pathri and Shirdi, Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, Lokhade and Shirdi temple trust CEO will attend the meeting called by the CM.
The bandh was observed to protest against Thackeray's announcement of grant of Rs 100 crore for development of facilities at 'Sai janmasthan' (birthplace) at Pathri in Parbhani district, nearly 273 km away from Shirdi in Ahmednagar district.
The shutdown was also observed in at least 25 villages around Shirdi.
"The bandh was near total. None of the devotees coming from outside faced any problems, as distribution of food, eatables, water was arranged by residents of Shirdi," Sachin Tambe, a former member of the SSST, told PTI over phone.
On Sunday morning, a rally was taken out by devotees of Saibaba and locals around the Shirdi temple.
"The rally started at the Dwarkamai temple. Several devotees hailing the name of Saibaba participated in the rally. he procession passed through Palkhi route around the Saibaba temple. It later concluded at the Dwarkamai temple, located on right side of Saibaba temple's entrance," Tambe, a BJP functionary, said.
The bandh began at midnight, but the devotees were allowed to offer prayers at the temple, officials of the temple trust and Ahmednagar district administration said.
The 'prasadalaya' and the temple kitchen were also open to ensure devotees were not inconvenienced, they said.
Long queues of devotees were seen in front of the 'prasadalaya', breakfast centre and 'laddoo' sale centres of the temple.
"Commercial establishments, shops, restaurants and local transport (autorickshaws and other private vehicles) are closed and a complete shutdown is being observed in the town as well as in 25 villages around Shirdi," Tambe said.
Devotees who made pre-bookings at hotels were allowed to stay and taxi services from the airport to the temple were also unaffected, the district administration official said.
Shiv Sena MP Lokhande had also extended his support to the bandh.
"I am a Sai devotee first and an MP later. I support this protest. Saibaba came to Shirdi when he was 16. He never revealed his caste or religion, so he should not be divided. I am going to speak to the chief minister about the issue," he said.
Tambe said locals of Shirdi didn't have any issue with the development of Pathri village.
"We have no issue with that, let the CM make Pathri of gold. Our objection is to calling Pathri the birthplace of Saibaba, who had never said that he was born there," he said.
Tambe said a meeting of Shirdi locals will be held on Sunday evening to decide on attending the meeting with the CM on Monday, for which he said no official message was received.
The issue of Saibaba's actual birthplace came into prominence in 2017, when President Ram Nath Kovind stated that Saibaba was born in Pathri.
There are many beliefs about the actual birth place of the mystique saint, who enjoys a massive following in India and among Indians abroad.
Residents of Pathri village often cite Saibaba's biography 'Sri Saisachharitra' to claim that he was born in their town.
Referring to the President's reference, Lokhande said, "Some devotees say when President Ram Nath Kovind came here on October 1, 2017 for the inauguration of centenary of Saibaba's samadhi, he said Shirdi was baba's karmabhoomi and Pathri was his birthplace. I went to meet the President along with some Shirdi locals and explained to him about his comments regarding Pathri."
"The President said he had spoken information given to him by officials. He even expressed regret," he claimed.
Lokhande said he would meet Thackeray and try to resolve the controversy over Saibaba's birthplace.
SSST CEO Deepak Muglikar said locals of Shirdi and Pathri, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil and Lokhande will attend the meeting.
He said the Shirdi Sansthan will show 'Sai Charitra', and other documents to the chief minister.
Pushing the argument that Saibaba was born in Pathri, member of Pathri's Sri Sai Janmasthan Temple trust, Sanjay Bhusari, claimed that ample evidence existed in this regard.
"(Saibaba's disciple) Das Ganu Maharaj had mentioned Pathri as the birthplace of Saibaba in his biography. Periodicals dating 1990s also mentioned the same. The Shirdi Sansthan itself had published documents mentioning Pathri as Saibaba's birthplace. We will show these proofs at appropriate time," he said.
Bhusari accused Vikhe Patil of doing politics over the issue.
"Why Vikhe Patil didn't oppose the file for development of Pathri when he was a minister in the erstwhile Devendra Fadnavis government?" he questioned.
He said devotees have been visiting Pathri to take darsan of Saibaba's birthplace.
"It was all routine in Pathri on Sunday as well," he said.