Many years ago my great-uncle Vishnu, who claimed some fame as a palmist, peered at my hand and pronounced me a very serious girl who would take a spiritual turn at the age of 28. I roared with laughter, pronounced him nuts, and launched upon a decade and a half of enthusiastic excess.
So I thought he would have approved of me driving along winding black roads under a thunderous monsoon sky, towards the world-renowned dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty at Ajmer. It was raining so hard that the road was veiled in spray. Days of this unusual bounty had reupholstered the desert in a thin but luxuriant layer of greenery.
‘We haven’t seen this much rain in five years,’ said the man at Albertina Farms, where we stopped for a cup of tea. ‘People have been dying of drought. Now they’ll die of floods. Where are you going?’ The answer caused him to choke, cross his arms and pull his earlobes, reel backwards, and otherwise indicate that he wouldn’t be joining us.
‘Toba toba,’ he breathed. ‘I’m from there, and I only want to get as far away from it as possible. They’re liars and cheats. Every thief and charlatan on earth, even if he travels the world first, will eventually end up in Ajmer-Sharif. Who needs to work when you can beg for alms and eat for free at the langar?’ But, I protested, surely there’s something to the dargah? ‘Oh it’s so crowded and filthy! In the rain, all the mud spreads, and…’ He was overcome and could say no more.
Forty minutes later we branched off National Highway 8 towards the low hills that cradle Ajmer. An ugly stretch of marble vendors in what is dubbed ‘Marble Town’ soon gives way to the outskirts of the city, sprinkled with posters advertising the holy city. It’s inevitable, given that Ajmer’s other attractions are cement and power.
Despite an irritation with such clumsily commercialised piety, there is always something profoundly moving about making a journey to a spot where so many have come before, united in a single purpose (discounting, for a moment, the purpose stated by the Albertina Farms man). Muhammed bin Tughlaq, Mohammed Khilji, Sher Shah Suri, four Mughal emperors, Queen Mary, Lord Curzon, and dozens of Rajput royals were only the more famous visitors to the dargah. The paramountcy of Ajmer as a pilgrimage destination is, like all pilgrimage destinations, entirely thanks to the faith of an mighty tide of nameless commoners through the ages.
‘We get about five lakh visitors during the urs,’ Dr Gopal Bahiti, chairman of the Urban Improvement Trust in Ajmer, told me -- as if it were a Friday night party rather than a monumental infrastructural headache. My mind boggled, because despite massive support systems set up by the government during that time, and over fifty guesthouses and hotels, the city’s population doubles amid its woefully narrow streets, open drains, and ambient muck.
During the urs, up to 800 buses packed with pilgrims roll in each day. ‘Over nine days,’ said Subhash Rastogi, Executive Officer in charge of the Urs -- a quiet, efficient, endlessly busy man -- ‘2700 buses come in. We have to make arrangements.’ The city spends one month, and between Rs 15 lakh and Rs 20 lakh, preparing to accommodate people. In one permanent and two or three temporary camps outside the town, it provides parking space, lighting, toilets, tents, extra water, electricity, vehicles, medical facilities, food at Rs 6 per head per day, milk, kerosene, and kitchen articles, and a PA system. It seems a terrible trauma for a city to take. ‘No,’ said Dr Bahiti firmly. ‘That’s the beauty of Ajmer, we receive them as guests. Nobody minds.’
Try as I might, I can’t imagine the crowd in those tiny streets. An anthropologist friend went to the urs at Ajmer a few years ago, and while she spoke eloquently of the grace, boundless hospitality, and beautiful all-night qawaali sessions of her hosts, words failed her when it came to describing the streets. ‘Don’t go if you don’t like crowds,’ she said lamely. Five people lost their lives in a stampede some years ago. For better or for worse, I’m missing the six-day urs by weeks; this year it falls on September 19.
Ajmer lies along one side of a lake called the Ana Sagar, and is ringed by a wall built by Emperor Akbar. Five lakh residents, of which Dr Bahiti estimates only about 40,000 are Muslim, share their space with visitors who come from all over the world to pay their respects to the great sufi saint who was laid to rest at the spot where he lived and taught from 1190 c.e. to 1236 c.e. The dargah is now buried in a warren of tiny bazaar lanes in the west of the town.
A friendly aside: don’t take your car into the bazaar, though the locals will wave you on, unless you enjoy executing a 75-point turn on a lane the width of an autorickshaw, with oncoming traffic beeping apoplectically and cows making moody love to your boot. Besides, pilgrimage is about roughing it out on foot: even Akbar walked -- all the way from Agra -- to pray for a son. Later the same, spectacularly extravagant son, Jahangir, himself dismounted a few miles from town to complete the journey on foot.
When the rain stopped I walked up to the shrine. The road leading to it is lined with shops selling beads, chaddars and flowers to be offered, and caps and scarves to cover the heads of the unprepared. A population of perfectly robust beggars patrols the street with grim persistence. Visitors’ shoes are strewn at the entrance. I suspiciously dismissed the tall, confident young man who introduced himself as Mehfooz, a khadim -- one of that community, a few thousand strong, who inherit by birth the duty and privilege of maintaining and managing the dargah. Eventually, since we had no idea where to go or what to do, he suddenly seemed less shifty and we let him take us around.Entering the precincts of the shrine is like entering another world. The clamour of the street falls away under an enormous marble gateway built by Emperor Shahjahan. There are hundreds of people within, but a sussuration of soft whisperings and prayer muffles the air. Had General Musharraf visited as planned, the khadim would have taken him in hand at the entrance, for they have de facto as well as judicially recognised authority over the shrine premises.
Strong faith seems to accrete around, thicken, and reshape places of worship over time, the way that accretions around sand create pearls in oysters. Mehfooz, pointed out the main gate of the shrine, erected by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1911, and a red sandstone mosque built by Akbar. Two huge iron degs, or cauldrons, were donated by Akbar and Jehangir respectively, to feed the poor. Beyond is the place where, as the official booklet of the Anjuman Syedzadgan dargah managing committee puts it, Shahjahan “got constructed a big matchless mosque (Jumma Masjid) of pure white marble”. Emperor Aurangzeb built a third mosque, the Alamgiri Masjid, over Mahmood Khilji’s construction. There is also a madrassa within the compound, and an ablution tank over which Queen Mary had a roof built.
But the accretions are not merely physical; faith is also a quality of the air, which is what makes a pilgrimage site special. The surrounding hills, lined with the houses of the khadim, tower protectively over the shrine. ‘Even during Partition,’ Mehfooz told us proudly, ‘our people protected the dargah.’ He was in his mid-twenties, but he seemed perfectly at ease and content with his circumscribed life in the shrine. He showed us more living quarters for the khadim, arranged in galis around the shrine, neatly numbered and organised like any neighbourhood.
In the centre of the compound lies the mazaar, or grave, which is the focus of all the fuss. Around it is a golden railing donated by Emperor Jahangir, and atop it, a couple of kilos of gold. Lamps hang from the ceiling. The khadim are restoring the golden inlay work at the threshold. Outside, pilgrims pray, play music, or talk quietly.
Inside the two silver doors, the hush deepens further, although the small space is terribly crowded. The jewelled mazaar, covered with gold cloth, is protected by two silver railings draped with chaddars. A plastered stone dome 65 feet in diameter swells gracefully above the mazaar. The interior walls are panelled with velvet curtains, including one from Mecca. Prayers are said constantly, flowers fly through the air.
‘Ten, fifteen lakh people come for the urs,’ Mehfooz told us. You couldn’t really blame him for exaggerating, if it was an exaggeration. In a confined space, a few dozen constitute a crush.
The khadim led us around the mazaar, placed a green chaddar over our heads, and recited a prayer intended to bless us and fulfil whatever wishes we’d made. (Unfortunately, I didn’t hear him tell us to make a wish, so I wasted my chance for life-long happiness on the idle thought that this chaddar was very green indeed.) With red thread tied around our necks, we completed the perambulation that people come from all over the world to perform; Ajmer-Sharif is so holy that those who can’t perform the haj to Mecca are said to gain the same rewards from a trip to Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s dargah.
There seemed something extraordinarily moving about this small, body-sized patch of earth sustaining and driving such deep-rooted fires of faith in so many people. ‘Do you know,’ Dr Bahiti later told me with some pride, ‘that more Hindus than Muslims visit the dargah?’
I wondered about this Persian man, orphaned at 16 and heir to an orchard and a windmill, suddenly enlightened by an encounter with a dervish and set upon a path of spirituality. His arrival in Prithviraj Chauhan’s Ajmer in 1190, aged 52, must have ruffled some feathers in the court when people began to turn to him and convert to Islam. But his gentleness, and the sheer force of his spiritual presence, seems to have won over his most antagonistic opponents. I wished I’d met him.
He was also known as ‘Garib Nawaz’. To date, his dargah is an enormous feeding mechanism. Each day, twice a day, the khadim cook a thin gruel of barley and salt to distribute to the hungry. Because of the simplicity of the langar, the dargah manages to feed two thousand people twice a day, at the cost of Rs 800 a day.
The iron degs in the courtyard -- with a capacity of 120 maunds and 60 maunds respectively -- affixed in masonry, are heated from the ground, and reached by a set of steps. During the urs, the khadim put on boots and leap into the hot cauldrons to ladle food out from the bottom of the deg.
When the coins and notes thrown into the empty vessels amount to Rs 40,000 or more, a meal is cooked. (Valuables are tossed in with equal fervour; I counted three respectably-branded watches, a leather belt, and many necklaces.) Some people make a donation and ask that a meal be prepared.
The scent of flowers and incense, the utter lack of aggression, and the intensity of the devout combined to create a palpable sense of community within the shrine. I could see how one might be seduced, here, into lapsing out of real life for a while, in order to sit, walk, listen to music, and contemplate one’s thoughts.
Mehfooz gave us a few protective tabiz to give to our loved ones, and led us back out to the street. For all my rampant atheism, I was moved by Ajmer-Sharif. I haven’t found religion, not by a long shot, but I’m still wearing the red thread, and carrying the tabiz, with a vague sense that it’s good for me. I’m sure great-uncle Vishnu is smiling to himself.