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 (around April). 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.