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.
Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti and the Urs Mela
Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti and the Urs Mela
Born in Afghanistan in 1156, Khwaja Muin-ud-Din Chishti, India’s most revered Muslim saint, began his religious career at the age of 13, when he distributed his inheritance among the poor and adopted the simple life of an itinerant Sufi fakir (the equivalent of the Hindu sadhu). On his travels, he soaked up the teachings of the great Central Asian Sufis, whose emphasis on mysticism, ecstatic states and pure devotion as a path to God were revolutionizing Islam during this period. Khwaja Sahib and his disciples settled in Ajmer at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Withdrawing into a life of meditation and fasting, he preached a message of renunciation, affirming that personal experience of God was attainable to anyone who relinquished their ties to the world. More radically, he also insisted on the fundamental unity of all religions: mosques and temples, he asserted, were merely material manifestations of a single divinity. Khwaja Sahib thus became one of the first religious figures to bridge the gap between India’s two great faiths. After he died at the age of 97, his followers lauded the Bhagavad Gita as a sacred text, and even encouraged Hindu devotees to pray using names of God familiar to them, equating Ram with “Rahman”, the Merciful Aspect of Allah – a spirit of acceptance which explains why Khwaja Sahib’s shrine in Ajmer continues to be loved by adherents of all faiths.
The anniversary of Khwaja Sahib’s death is celebrated with the Urs Mela, one of Rajasthan’s most important religious festivals, held on the sixth day of the Islamic month of Rajab (approximately May 5, 2014, April 26, 2015 and April 13, 2016). Pilgrims flock to the town to honour the saint with qawwali (Sufi devotional) chanting, while kheer (rice pudding) is cooked in huge vats at the dargah and distributed to visitors. At night religious gatherings called mehfils are held. It isn’t really an affair for non-religious tourists, but the city does take on a festive air, with devotees from across the Subcontinent and beyond converging on Ajmer for the week leading up to it.