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. 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”.