Distance: 389 km SW of Delhi
When to go: Best in winter. Pushkar and Kishangarh can be charming during the rains. Summer is best avoided
Tourist Office: Rajasthan Tourism, Tourist Reception Centre, Hotel Khadim (RTDC), Ajmer
STD code: 0145
Air: Nearest airport: Jaipur (145 km/3 hrs).
Rail: Ajmer Junction
Road: Route NH8 to Ajmer via Dharuhera, Behror, Shahpura, Dudu and Kishangarh
Faith and history define Ajmer. The town’s closest association is with the Dargah Sharif, the final resting place of Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, whose disciple’s included Mughal emperors. Devotees now visit from all over the world. At the tomb chamber, the air is thick with the scent of roses, incense and the fervour of prayer. Outside, even in the lanes of the modest town, you can glimpse the past.
Once a stronghold of the Chauhan Rajputs, Ajmer (then called Ajayameru) was lost by the legendary Prithviraj Chauhan when Muhammad Ghori defeated him in 1193 CE. Akbar made it a part of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century. It was at Ajmer that the first English ambassador Sir Thomas Roe presented his credentials to Jahangir in 1617 CE.
Like the Mughals, the British used Ajmer as a centre for exercising control over the region, but they also built educational institutions – including the Mayo College, set up for boys from India’s princely families.
Things to see and do
Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, popularly known as Garib Nawaz (helper of the poor), is a giant figure on the Sufi map of the sub-continent. Born in the 1130s in East Persia, he became a disciple of a Chishti saint in his youth. He travelled widely in Central Asia, came to Ajmer in 1191 CE and settled here for the rest of his life. Among the first Sufi saints to come to India, he led an illustrious line of Chishti saints in India, including Nizamuddin Auliya and Salim Chishti. The Khwaja was revered for his austere life that spanned a century. He survived on a dry chapati a day, wore a simple tunic and distributed all the gifts that the Delhi Sultanate sent his way. In 1235 CE, he withdrew to his cell, asking not to be disturbed and embraced death. Devotees believe that he intercedes on their behalf to the almighty to answer their prayers.
The dargah is a complex full of many structures. The entrance gates, which loom 70 ft over the congested bazaar, were built by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1915 CE. To the right, steps lead to the red sandstone Akbari Masjid (1571 CE). Ahead lies the grand 15th-century Buland Darwaza. Next come two degs (cauldrons), gifted by Akbar and Jahangir, to cook food sponsored by devotees for mass distribution. On the right spreads the Mehfil Khana, a hall opened only for the Urs, and on the left, the Langar Khana, a hall where free food is served.
Ahead lies the compound in which many buildings stand around the tomb. The first is the Sandali Masjid, built by Aurangzeb. The path to the right leads to the tomb of the Khwaja’s daughter, Bibi Hafiza Jamal; the tomb of Nizam Sikka, a water-carrier who had saved Humayun’s life; and silver Jannati Darwaza, rarely opened. Overlooking these is Shah Johan’s Jami Masjid (1638 CE), a building of white marble.
From the outside, the marble tomb chamber is a serene structure, with silver doors and a golden finial. In the chamber, the man who said, ‘a faqir is one who is free of all needs’, lies under a silver canopy covered with costly silks, attar and sandal, and gold and silver zari chaadars.
The vast courtyards on either side of the tomb are often occupied by qawwali singers. The facet on the left is called the Begumi Dalaan, built in 1643 by Shah Johan’s daughter Jahanara. Its walls were gilded in 1888 CE and the ceiling etched with gold.
Walk down a congested alley to the left of the dargah entrance to see the exquisitely carved 12th-century Adhai-Din-ka-Jhonpra, built by Sultan Qutub-uddin Aibak and completed by Iltutmish.
There are some charming picnic spots in Ajmer. These include Ana Sagar, an artificial lake; Ajaipal, where the founder of Ajmer retired after his reign; and Foy Sagar, another artificial lake outside the town.
Also on the tourist’s itinerary is the unbelievably ornate Golden Hall of Jain Nasiyan Temple, located near Ana Sagar. It is replete with gold models of the life of Tirthankara Adinath. The Taragarh Fort is 5 km from town, offers nice views and can be easily visited by car or auto.
Where to stay
Hotel Mansingh Palace (Tel: 0145-2425702/ 855; Tariff: INR 5,400-9,000; www.mansinghhotels.com), near the lake, is Ajmer’s finest hotel. Hotel Embassy (Tel: 2425519, 2623859; Tariff: INR 1,995-3,995; ajmerhotelembassy.com) is also a good choice. RTDC’s Hotel Khadim (Tel: 2627490/ 536; Tariff: INR 1,500-3,000; www.rtdc.in) has rooms for all budgets and has a restaurant. It’s worth opting for Badnor House (Tel: 2627579; Tariff: INR 3,000; www.badnorhouse.com) as well, which offers a bed-and-breakfast stay in a lovely private house.
Where to eat
In the lanes around the dargah, you’ll find roadside eateries specialising in biryani. Among the better-known restaurants is the multicuisine Honey-dew on Station Road (Continental and Mughlai). Rasoi in Swami Complex, on Suchna Kendra Road, serves a variety of delicious food and is quite popular. Ambrosia on Lohagal Road serves good food and has good views of the Aravallis. Enjoy a meal facing the lake at Sheesh Mahal, the restaurant at Mansingh Palace. Silverleaf, the restaurant at Hotel Embassy, serves only vegetarian Indian, Continental and Chinese cuisine.