Shri Sai Baba of Shirdi lived in Shirdi, a small village in the state of Maharashtra in India, for about sixty years between 1858 to 1918. Earlier He was at and around Shirdi for about two years between 1852 and 1854. When He first arrived He was in a God-intoxicated state, without any consciousness of His own body, of society or of time. He used to sit and meditate under a neem (margosa) tree, wander around and live all by Himself. A kind village woman called Bayaji took pity on Him and used to search Him out and force Him to eat. One day in 1854, He suddenly disappeared, only to reappear in 1858. No one knows where He was and what He did during this period.
The exact date and place of birth, family name and parentage of Baba are still shrouded in mystery, although researchers speculate that He was born in a village called Pathri now in Maharashtra (India), somewhere between 1835 and 1838. Whether He was a Hindu or a Muslim is still not clear, because Baba never encouraged questions on such issues. He sported a beard and moustache, donned a long robe and hand gear and head gear like some of the Sufis, and yet had a perforation in the ears like the Hindus. He spoke in Urdu, Hindi, Maharashtrian and some South Indian languages. He participated in Hindu and Muslim festivals. His approach in short, was universal and humanitarian.
On the second arrival, He stayed in a dilapidated mosque on the outskirts of Shirdi for about sixty years, although He spent some nights in an adjacent place called Chawdi. He used to be visited by some fakirs and Sufis and also Hindu sadhus. He used to beg in a few houses daily in Shirdi and share His food with dogs, birds and poor people. For some time He used to treat people by administering some kind of herbal medicine. His name spread gradually to many parts of India and hundreds of visitors started coming to Shirdi every day, as if visiting a temple. Their experiences with Sai spread his name further and became the folk lore of that time. Worship of Shri Sai and the composition of devotional songs about Him started then. The mosque known as Dwarkamayee looked like the court of a king, with thousands of people appearing before Baba for help and the Sadguru helping them every day.
Shri Sai renovated the mosque and the temples in Shirdi and got the village well cleaned. Baba planted trees with His own hands on a piece of land which is now known as Lendibagh garden. He created an atmosphere of mutual support covering all aspect of social life in the villages. He participated in all religious festivals, encouraged group dining and group worship to bring all the devotees together. He got built three rest houses called wadas with the help of His devotees. These rest houses, called Sathewada, Butiwada and Dixitwada were built for the convenience of the visiting devotees. At times Shri Sai even used to cook food Himself and serve the devotees, and cured their sickness by giving the sacred ash from his fireplace called the Udi. This practice continues even today and the people are getting the benefit. He even took care of the animals and birds in the village. He was the biggest social reformer of His time, because of which many of His devotees started similar humanitarian activities wherever they went. Nationalist leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and others used to visit Him for solace and direction.
Shri Sai left His bodily form on 15th October 1918. His body was entombed in a place called “Samadhi Mandir”. The Samadhi Mandir, Dwarkamayee Mosque, Chawdi, Lendibagh, the Gurusthan and the sweet neem tree, and the temples of Khandoba, Hanuman, Ganesh and Shani are the places visited by devotees.
From the earliest days, Baba would give udi - holy ash from the dhuni - to his visitors. The healing power of Baba's udi is well documented and there are numerous cases of people being healed of pain or sickness by taking Baba's udi both before and since his mahasamadhi.
Baba would sometimes apply udi to his devotees when they arrived, or when they were taking leave of him, and he often gave out handfuls which he scooped up from the dhuni. The Sri Sai Satcharitra tells us that "when Baba was in a good mood" he sometimes used to sing about udi "in a tuneful voice and with great joy": "Sri Ram has come, Oh he has come during his wanderings and he has brought bags full of udi." Udi is still collected from the fire for distribution. Since this is a continuation of Baba's own practice, and the udi comes from the very fire that Baba himself lit and tended, it is considered extremely sacred. Today a small tray of udi is kept for visitors near the steps.
For devotees of Sai Baba there is an emotional attachment to udi as a tangible form of Baba's blessings, a vehicle for Baba's grace and a link to Baba himself. People usually put it on the forehead and/or in the mouth.