The path to Sai Mandir Olst
Before telling my story, I would like to mention a question put to me almost every day of my life. Every time when I meet people no matter where and when, the first question is: “How come your name is Etienne, that’s not an Indian name? Then I have to explain it, whether if I am in the mood or not.
When my mother was pregnant of me, she overheard the name Etienne.
This was in Moengo, a beautiful and peaceful town in the east of Suriname in South America. Suriname was a colony of The Netherlands and got independent in 1975. Our ancestors are from India, Bihar and UP. The first Indians left for Suriname in 1873. Suriname is a neighbouring country of French Guyana, still a Colony of France.
My parents lived next to a Chinese shop. People from French Guyana used to visit Moengo to do business. One day my mother heard the name Etienne. There was a boy in the shop whose name was Etienne. He was with his parents from French Guyana.
When my father came home that evening, she told him that if the child would be a boy, he should be named Etienne. My father agreed. I was the first born of seven children. So I was given the name Etienne. My grandfather gave me the 2nd boy’s name Bhagwan. After me 3 boys and 3 girls were born, and my father gave all of them an Italian first name followed by an Indian second name.
Etienne was a famous Monk in France, called Saint-Étienne (Holy Etienne). There is a big city in the mid-east of France called Saint-Étienne, since the 13th century.
For Indians it is almost impossible to pronounce my name. Most people in India prefer to call me Bhagwan, since it sounds familiar to them. Moreover, it’s a common boy’s name in India.
Now I would like to tell you how Sai Baba came into my life. Thanks to Him, I was allowed to build the Shirdi Sai Mandir in Olst, The Netherlands.
The first time I heard about Shri Sai Baba, I was about 8 years old. We lived in Moengo (Surinam, South America). A maternal uncle from Paramaribo (the capital of Surinam), came into our yard and I overheard him telling my father about Shri Sai Baba. When I heard this name, I experienced great turmoil, and felt a recognition from my previous life. This has always stayed with me, since then. My parents used to have a nice statue of Shri Shirdi Sai Baba. There were an oil lamp and incense burning constantly, in front of the statue.
My father, André Bisnoedat Premdani, was a spiritual man and a freemason. He was always seeking the truth. Only later in life he dealt with Shri Shirdi Sai Baba. With him he sought his salvation. My father loved traveling and India was one of his beloved destinations. He passed away unexpectedly on November 10, 1993, at the age of 59 years. It was a great shock to our whole family. We were saddened by our loss and it was difficult to come to terms with it. But, we consoled ourselves, that his time had come and he was now with his maker, as we all have our time too. During that particular period in time, I was busy finding my salvation in Hinduism and spirituality. I had attended primary Catholic school. So I was not really aware of Hinduism, though borne in a Hindu family.
Father’s ash in the Ganges
It was much later that my father’s ashes had to be brought to the Ganges, in the month of February 1994. Myself, together with my wife, Beena, my mother, Ilse Premdani, brother Ricardo and my aunt from my father’s side, aunt Betsy Ramdhani, we brought the ashes of my father to Haridwar in India. It was his wish to have his ashes scattered in the holy Ganges according to the Hindu rituals. The place on the Ganges where the last rituals took place is called Kankal. The local pandit (priest) held a prayer service together with my father’s guru, Swami Pragyanand from Delhi, Saket. After the service I was allowed to sprinkle my father’s ashes in the Ganges. I still remember how clear the water was. The shaft was quickly absorbed by the river and within a few seconds I could no longer see the ashes. Recorded and became one with the holy Ganges.
After the service we went back to New Delhi. There my guru instructed me to go to Shri Sai Baba in Shirdi, Maharashtra. In fact I did not want to go, I had enough of saints, but he convinced me to go to Shirdi.
He said : “ Son, you have to go, you will find your real Guru”.
Till this day, I am grateful to Swami Pragyanand for his wise advice.
Swami Pragyanand has a beautiful Sai Mandir in Saket. This Mandir was initiated by my father.
He arranged our flight from Delhi to Mumbai early next morning. The taxi, an old Fiat, was waiting for us at Mumbai airport. The morning when we left for Delhi airport, was also the first day Swami allowed people to sell flowers and books of Sai in front of his mandir. I bought a book of Baba, called Sai Baba, an unique saint. I started reading the book all the way to Shirdi. Moreover, the same night I watched the movie “Shirdi Ke Sai Baba” of Manoj Kumar at our friend’s place in Delhi, where we were staying. As you can imagine, I hardly slept. I was in a trance.
Before we left for Shirdi from Mumbai airport, we visited the famous Indian bhajan singer Hari Om Sharan and his wife Nandini in Bombay (now: Mumbai). Hari Om Sharan-ji had visited the Netherlands in 1982 and stayed with us for a week. In fact Hari Om Sharan-ji was the first person who enabled my meeting with Shri Sai Baba. This I will explain later. He was glad we were going to Shirdi and said that we were blessed. He sang some beautiful bhajans at his home. Songs like Sai Teri yaad me, Dheere Dheere, etc. He and his wife waved us goodbye. Later on I realized that he was perfectly right. After a journey of about eight hours, in the scorching heat, as at that time there were no AC’s in cars, we arrived in Shirdi. There was a gentleman, who was running behind our car. When we came out of the car he brought us to a shop to buy flowers and coconuts and showed us the way to the Samadhi Mandir. When I turned back to thank him and give him some money, he suddenly disappeared. Though I never experienced such a thing before.
We arrived at the Samadhi Mandir, we could sit for hours at the Samadhi (the tomb with the image of Sai Baba above). In those years it was not that busy in Shirdi. Now there are about 100,000 devotees a day on an average.
It may take hours before you arrive at the temple. My mother Ilse Premdani could sit for hours at Baba’s Maha Samadhi. After visiting the Samadhi Mandir, we visited the famous places in Shirdi, such as the Guru-Sthan by the neem tree, Dwarkamai (Masjid), the cottage of Lakshmibai to whom Baba gave his last nine coins and Kandoba Mandir where Baba arrived for the first time, and Lendi garden, where Baba used to plant flowers. All these places give you a sense of peace and tranquillity.
Since my first visit in Shirdi my life changed completely. All my sorrows started diminishing day by day and since then I experience Sai miracles every day.
My First meeting with Sai
My first meeting with Sai was in 1982, the bhajan singer Hari Om Sharan and his wife Nandini came to Amsterdam, The Netherlands, for a few concerts.
I was fortunate to drive them around for a week. Before they left, they wanted to give me something in return. I did not want anything. Then Hari Om Sharan took a picture from his shirt pocket and handed it to me. He said: “Put this picture in your mandir (temple) and pray to Baba. He will protect you.” It was the photo that he himself had worshipped for many years. At that moment I did not realize that it was a picture of Shri Sai Baba, because Hari Om Sharan-ji didn’t mention the name. Nandini also wanted to give me something, but I did not want anything from her either. I had gladly done my sewa (unselfish service). She then took a small pot of vibhuti (sacred ash from Dwarkamai dhuni) from her bag, put her right thumb in the pot and rubbed the vibhuti on my forehead with her thumb. I felt an electric shock. I asked what it was. She said: “This is Baba’s vibhuti, it will bless you.” This was the first time I heard about vibhuti. I put the picture in my mandir in front of my marble Radha Krishna Murthy and prayed to Baba every day for twelve years, without knowing who this Baba was.
Baba in my Life
When I went to Shirdi in 1994, I realized what kind of value I had received from Hari Om Sharan. It was a picture of Shri Shirdi Sai Baba. Baba came into my life through a picture in 1982. I am very proud of it now. A few weeks later I went to Shirdi again, and fervently and spontaneously expressed my wish in Dwarkamai, the Masjid. I asked Baba to give me blessings to build a temple for HIM in the Netherlands. Since that time I went to Shirdi a couple of times every year, together with my wife Beena.
In early 1996 we went to Putta Party on the advice of a wise Ayurvedic doctor, Dr. Khim Naram from Mumbai. He knew Satya Sai Baba very well. In his house there were a lot of Vibhuti on the photos of Satya Sai Baba. In White Field at Baba’s Ashram, Beena and I got eight Darshans. At the last Darshan Satya Sai Baba came to me, materialized Vibhuti and rubbed the Vibhuti with his right hand on my left shoulder. An electric shock went through my entire being. He looked very deep into my eyes for a few moments while His hand full of vibhuti was on my left shoulder. Later I would understand that this was called “Yoga Drishti”. Then He asked what I wanted with a gesture. I wanted to say a lot, but I could not say a word. Then He lifted up his garment and I was allowed to do Paad namaskar and touched both his feet. Even then I felt electricity tingling in my fingers. Then He went to Beena and she also received His blessings. Shortly thereafter, He announced that in future Paad namaskar was not to be practiced anymore. I was in ecstasy for a few days (Samadhi). This was because of the Yoga Drishti. After our return to the Netherlands, Beena was found to be pregnant. The time to be blessed with a child had arrived. Pawan was born on 21st January 1997. A month before his birth, we moved from Oosterhout to a larger home and practice in Leersum. The blessings from Shri Sai Baba were felt all the more clearly and vibrantly.
The farm in Olst
In the year, 2002 I received a request from a contractor to come directly to Olst where a farm was for sale. He knew that I was looking for a farm. I had never heard of Olst. The farm in question appeared to have a lot of overdue maintenance and that was a big financial risk for me. The farmer had an aerial photograph of the farm in his living room and I asked if I could have one. Because we had already booked a flight to India, I decided to go to Putta Party again. I was lucky to know the brother of Satya Baba, Janaki Ramaya. I went to his house and he gave me a V.I.P. pass for the next morning darshan so that I could come very close to Baba. Pawan and I were in line. I had put the photo of the farm in a large sealed envelope and only wrote BABA on it. Baba took letters every day from people selectively as He went on His rounds. Deep in my heart, I believed that He would accept the envelope. That would be a sign for me that I could buy the farm without risk. Baba came by and looked deep into my eyes again. He looked at Pawan and then again at me. I stood with out-stretched arms with the envelope in my hand. Baba took the envelope, put it without opening it under his left armpit, shook his head, like go ahead, as a sign that I had permission to buy the farm.
I returned, back to Netherlands, went to the farmer with Pawan, who started running all over with joy as if it belonged to him already. Little Pawan put his both hands in the pockets of his trouser and looked at me and his eyes were sending the message “please” to me. I asked him : “ Do you want to live here, shall we buy it ? “ He jumped and nocked his head saying with a big smile “yes”. In the same year I bought the farm on Dussehra (Holy day on which Baba left his body, October 15, 2002).
In the month of December, 2014, I was back in Shirdi. When I entered Dwarkamai, I realized that I had made a promise in 1994 to build a temple for Shri Sai Baba. Upon returning, I informed Beena and Pawan that I wanted to fulfil my promise. I received a lot of encouragement from them. On January 3, 2015, I would be 60 years of age and I wanted to focus my life more on spirituality. Luckily, Beena and Pawan agreed with the plans. I began to search diligently for a building for the temple. But I could not find a suitable building.
On Thursday, January 15, 2015, Markar Sankranti, I had an appointment with a neighbour. He said: “Dr. Premdani, do you know that there is a Church for sale in the village? The building will be auctioned on Thursday, January 29th.” I got goose bumps and my excitement knew no bounds. My neighbour went away after a few minutes of discussion. I wondered if this was the umpteenth miracle of Shri Sai Baba? Thursday is also the day of the guru. I went to the village in search of the church. It turned out that I had never noticed the church before. I started talking to the authorities about my plan to convert the church into a temple and I got all the cooperation from them. After I received the necessary permits, I immediately started the renovation.
Trip to Jaipur, India
I travelled to Jaipur, India on Thursday, March 19, 2015 to purchase a murthy (image) for the mandir in Olst. Jaipur is the cradle of the Murthys, where families have been making murthys since generations. I wanted a replica of the image in Shirdi, same size same looks. After 3 days of intense search, with the help of a Christian priest, I found the right family. It was then Navatri (period of 9 holy days). The purchase was made on Sunday, March 22, 2015. My wish was that the sculpture would first go to Shirdi to be blessed before it came to the Netherlands. I flew back to Mumbai and from there I went to Shirdi to wait for the statue. On Saturday 28 March (Ramnavmi) the statue arrived in Shirdi all the way from Jaipur, where it was consecrated by a priest from the Shirdi Sai Baba Temple, Shri Dilip Sulakhe. The driver drove the whole night to be on time. From there, the statue was taken to Mumbai to be shipped to the Netherlands. Three weeks later, the Murthy arrived in the Netherlands. On Tuesday, March 8, 2016 (Maha Shivaratri) it was inaugurated in the Sai Mandir Olst. On Monday, May 9, 2016 (Akshaya Tritiya) the temple was officially opened.
Babu Saheb Talim
It is worth mentioning that in the mandir there is a Kachua (marble turtle) that was made by Rajiv Talim. He is the grandson of the famous Babu Saheb Talim who made the marble statue of Shri Sai Baba in Shirdi.
I met Rajiv Talim, along with my wife Beena and son Pawan, on August 15, 2015 in his studio in Mumbai. In the same studio his grandfather Babu Saheb Talim made the image of Shri Sai Baba where Baba appeared to his grandfather so he could make the clay model. It moved me to be there at such a sacred place. I have also been allowed to touch the clay model (prototype) of the statue of Shri Sai Baba. I feel blessed that Rajiv Talim made the Kachua for the mandir in Olst.
Later I understood why I had to buy a farm first.
Baba has His way of playing His Leela, which we will never understand.