The Nag Pahar (“Snake Mountain”), a steeply shelving spur of the Aravallis west of Jaipur, forms an appropriately epic backdrop for AJMER, home of the great Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti, who founded the Chishtiya Sufi order. His tomb, the Dargah Khwaja Sahib, remains one of the most important Islamic shrines in the world. The streams of pilgrims and dervishes (it is believed that seven visits here are the equivalent of one to Mecca) especially pick up during Muharram (Muslim New Year) and Eid, and for the saint’s anniversary day, or Urs Mela.
Although Ajmer’s dusty modern roads are choked with traffic, the narrow lanes of the bazaars around the Dargah Khwaja Sahib retain an almost medieval character, with lines of rose-petal stalls and shops selling prayer mats, beads and lengths of gold-edged green silk offerings. Finely arched Mughal gateways still stand at the main entrances to the old city, whose skyscape of mosque minarets and domes is overlooked from on high by the crumbling Taragarh – for centuries India’s most strategically important fortress.
While most of Rajasthan consisted of princely states, Ajmer was under British rule, and colonial-era relics can be found scattered across the city, among them the Jubilee clock tower opposite the railway station and the King Edward Memorial Hall a little to the west. The famous Mayo College, originally built as a school for princes and now a leading educational institution, is known in society circles as the “Eton of the East”.
For Hindu pilgrims and foreign travellers, Ajmer is important primarily as a jumping-off place for Pushkar, a twenty-minute bus ride away, and most stay only for as long as it takes to catch a bus out. As a day-trip from Pushkar, however it’s a highly worthwhile excursion, and as a stronghold of Islam, Ajmer is unique in Hindu-dominated Rajasthan.
A fort was first established at Ajmer in the tenth century by local Rajput chieftain Ajay Pal Chauhan, whose clan, the Chauhans, went on to become the dominant power in eastern Rajasthan until they were beaten in 1193 by Muhammad of Ghor. The Delhi sultans allowed the Chauhans to carry on ruling as their tributaries, but in 1365, with Delhi on the wane as a regional power, Ajmer fell to the kingdom of Mewar (Udaipur).
During the sixteenth century, the city became the object of rivalry between Mewar and the neighbouring kingdom of Marwar (Jodhpur). The Marwaris took it in 1532, but the presence of Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti’s dargah made Ajmer an important prize for the Muslim Mughals, and Akbar’s forces marched in just 27 years later.
The Mughals held onto Ajmer for more than two centuries, but as their empire began to fragment, the neighbouring Rajput kingdoms once again started giving the city covetous looks. It was eventually taken in 1770 by the Marathas, who subsequently sold the city to the East India Company for Rs50,000 in 1818. Thus, while most of Hindu-dominated Rajasthan retained internal independence during the Raj, Ajmer was a little Muslim enclave of directly ruled British territory, only reunited with Jodhpur and Udaipur, its former overlords, when it became part of Rajasthan in 1956.