Friday, 28 November 2014

Incredible India: Part 13: Delhi–New Delhi & the National Museum

world-map delhiGreetings!

This week’s offering is the first of those dealing with my explorations of the Indian capital. I was first tempted to travel there after reading William Dalrymple’s excellent ‘City of Djinns’ and although over a decade passed between closing its pages and getting on the plane, the inspiration still stands. So, head down to your local bookshop this weekend and see what they have on offer. You never know, it might inspire something great…?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

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Delhi (III)

And so I was back in the capital, the final stop on my (first?) Indian odyssey, the city that I'd read about in 'City of Djinns', which had made me think that this might just be a country worth coming to.

I arrived early in the morning, the sun still rising, and booked into a hostel, (Travellers Guest House at 600 rupees per night), near to New Delhi Railway Station, and then embarked on my quest to get to know India's many-layered capital. And I started that mission by taking the Metro, (which was to become my best friend over the days that followed), to the layer of Delhian delights that was most familiar to my palette, the British layer: Sir Edwin Lutyens' New Delhi.

New Delhi

New Delhi was the British Raj's magnificent new capital for its Indian Empire, the greatest planned city on earth, built to surpass even Washington, (which I suppose, it was largely inspired by). Whether it succeeded or not I cannot say, never having been to the USA, but most commentators judge that it does. Certainly its long, straight boulevards, majestic imperial buildings and bulky and triumphant India Gate – New Delhi's own Arc de Triomphe – are impressive. It is also an antidote to the chaotic clutter of Chandni Chowk but a mile or so away, with its open spaces and ordered lines, but that antidote is, at the same time, perhaps a little too strong. The scale here is inhuman and incomprehensible and to explain what I mean (and why) permit me to let William Dalrymple speak:

“However many times I revisited the complex, I would always be amazed by the brilliantly orchestrated flirtation of light and shade – the dim colonnades offset by massive walls of sun-blasted masonry. Yet the most startling conceit of all lay in the use of colour: the play of the two different shades of pink Agra sandstone; one pale and creamy; the other a much darker burnt crimson. The two different colours were carefully arranged, the darker at the bottom as if it were somehow heavier, yet with the two contrasting tones blending as effortlessly into one another as they once did in the quarry.

It was superb. In the dusk, as the sun sank behind the great dome of the Viceroy's House, the whole vista would turn the colour of attar of roses. I would realize then, without hesitation, that I was looking at one of the greatest marriages of architecture and urban planning ever to have left the drawing board.

Nevertheless, the more often I came, the more I felt a nagging reservation. This had less to do with aesthetics than with comparisons with other massive schemes of roughly similar date that the complex brought to mind. Then one evening, as I proceeded up the cutting and emerged to find Baker's Secretariats terminating in the wide portico of the Viceroy's House, with this great imperial mass of masonry towering all around me I suddenly realized where I had seen something similar, something equally vast, equally dwarfing, before: Nuremberg.

In its monstrous, almost megalomaniac scale, in its perfect symmetry and arrogant presumption, there was a distant but distinct echo of something Fascist or even Nazi about the great acropolis of Imperial Delhi. Certainly it is far more beautiful than anything Hitler and Mussolini raised: Lutyens, after all, was a far, far greater architect than Albert Speer. Yet the comparison still seemed reasonable. For, despite their very many, very great differences, Imperial India, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany all belonged to comparable worlds. All were to different extents authoritarian; all made much of magnificent display; all were built on a myth of racial superiority and buttressed in the last resort by force. In the ceremonial buildings of all three, it was an impression of the might and power of the Imperial State that the architects aimed above all to convey.”[1]

Yes, Dalrymple was right, for I too had seen this before; in Nowa Huta in Poland, in Milan's railway station, in Ceauşescu's Bucharest and in Mao's Tienanmen Square. Whilst always had a soft spot for a dollop of totalitarian bombast, any architecture, no matter what the political shade of its creators, that is not built on a human scale, ultimately always fails to completely succeed.

Tuk-tuk in New Delhi

In the heart of Lutyens' capital can be found the National Museum where I headed to try and gain some sort of big picture to all the wonders that I had viewed over the previous fortnight. A couple of hours and several hundred statues later, I managed to start just that, separate one layer of Indian civilisation from the next. I was beginning – though only just – to get a handle on this bewildering Pandora's box of wonders. Any culture is influenced by its forebears and neighbours and it is in those relationships that we begin to understand. Once aspect that particularly fascinated me was when Alexander the Great's incursions were discussed. Although very few concrete traces of his stay were left behind, the statues of Buddha at the time began to be dressed as a Greek noble and so it has continued to this today. It was remarkable but, despite having gazed upon images of the Buddha thousands of times during my years in the Far East, I never once realised – despite the fact that the evidence is there staring you in the face – where his costume came from.

[1] City of Djinns, p.81-2

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Incredible India: Part 12–Pushkar II

world-map delhiGreetings!
Sorry that this week’s offering is a little late. No excuse really, except that I’ve been busy booking up future travels including next April’s epic trip to North Korea and my first time on Eurostar for a few days in Paris in February. So excited!
Keep travelling!
Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

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pushkar map

Pushkar (II)

The next day I explored Pushkar, mixing the “real” India with the faux. For example, I breakfasted on falafels, unknown elsewhere on the Sub-Continent yet the meal of choice here, probably because every second tourist seemed to be an Israeli[1] before getting lost in the alleyways where not a backpacker was to be seen and the local women wore gorgeous, colourful Rajasthani dress. I contemplated visiting a shrine perched atop a nearby mountain, (a thirty minute walk my guidebook said), but decided against it; this was a town to take it easy in and so instead I decided to circumnavigate the pool, stopping off anywhere en route that interested me.

Going down to the pool at the Queen Mary or Gandhi Ghat[2] I was accosted by a Brahmin priest who conducted a ritual on me which involved marking my forehead with coloured powder and tying a sacred thread around my wrist. To be honest, it was more a money-making ploy than a genuine spiritual experience since he demanded an exorbitant fee afterwards which I tried to haggle him down from, but the threads stayed around my wrist for many months afterwards until they finally disintegrated, a reminder of my trip to that sacred pool and the eternal presence of the Divine.

The pool from the Gandhi Ghat

I visited the Brahmā Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god of creation. As another indicator as to how confusing Hinduism can be to the outsider, I thought that this was dedicated to Brahma, the Hindu One God of thousands of faces of whom all the other deities are but aspects of, but no, I later learnt that this was Brahmā not Brahma and the two are different entirely, Brahmā being one of the Hindu Holy Trinity (and thus an aspect of Brahma). Nonetheless, this Brahmā temple was rare, one of but a handful in all India.

This is all due to the legend of Pushkar's founding. Apparently Brahmā was in search of a place for Mahayagna (a kind of ritual) and found Pushkar suitable except that, after a while, a demon named Vajranash started killing people there so Brahmā intoned a mantra on a lotus flower, thus killing the demon but in the process one of the leaves fell to the earth creating the sacred pool. Once the demon had been dealt with, Brahmā decided to perform a yagna to help protect Pushkar from future demonic incursions, but to do so he needed the help of his wife. Alas, Saraswati his consort was nowhere to be found so instead Brahmā married Gayatri, a local Gurjar girl, who then performed the yagna. This act though, made Saraswati furious and she cursed her husband saying that he would be worshipped in Pushkar alone. To this day, the priests at the temple are all Gurjars.

I wandered on round the pool, stopping to listen to chanting in one temple before pausing for a shisha pipe and mint tea at the Sai Baba Garden run by a guy called Shiva Sankar. He told me about his life and invited me to a particularly auspicious Shiva temple in his village of Kharekhari nearby. I would have loved to have gone and partaken in his hospitality but, alas, my schedule was tight and my train to Delhi left Ajmer that night so I had to turn him down.

Shiva Sankar

After finishing my pipe I moved on, now on the side of the pool with few temples and even fewer tourists. By the side of the road, fenced off and with a sign declaring it to be an historical reserve, were the ruins of an ancient temple. Anywhere else, these would have been the prime attraction yet here they were all but forgotten.

I wandered over the dam and back into the town, listening to a little of the test match commentary that a hawker had blaring from his radio before returning to my hotel to relax awhile out of the midday sun.

Once rested I climbed up to the roof of my hotel which commanded stunning views over all Pushkar and there I made a video. Of course, I'd been making videos throughout the entire trip – the first time I'd attempted to record my travels in such a way – but those had all concerned individual aspects of the journey, but this was more of an overview for quiet and sacred Pushkar was the ideal place to sit back and try to get a handle on all that I'd seen and experienced. I talked about the conflicting emotions that I'd had on my trip – my initial negative impressions, the sacredness of the Golden Temple, sightseeing fatigue in Agra and Jaipur, disappointment in Ajmer and the unexpected gem of Pushkar where, I was beginning to realise I was starting to fall in love with India. I knew that I could have stayed in that little town for weeks if I'd had the time – many people do – and it was with a tinge of sadness that I knew I would be leaving that night.

I went down to the Varan Ghat once more for sunset which was indescribably beautiful again and this time I fell in with Vini from the Krishna School of Music who was teaching a rather spiritually-inclined Portuguese girl some Rajasthani folk singing. I joined in and after the sun had dropped behind the hills we retired to his school, (a room about half the size of my bedroom), where we shared each other's musical traditions in a folk-off; 'Bread and Fishes' and 'Ned of the Hill' interspersed with Qawali and Rajasthani melodies.[3]

Bidding Vini adieu, I decided to kill some time and catch-up with reality in an internet café, not entirely successful though since there was a power cut soon after I arrived. What was more fascinating though was the proprietor who was writing out the word “Rama” hundreds of times as a spiritual exercise.[4] Then I gave my short sojourn in Pushkar the perfect ending by walking down the main street to the 'Rainbow Rooftop Café' for a drink and encountering a rather boisterous and beautiful traditional Rajasthani wedding procession on the way with the groom on a horse and retainers carrying large electric chandeliers. Once again, the word that came to mind was “incredible”.


Next part: Delhi – New Delhi and the National Museum

[1] And I'm not sure why. One reason is that most were youngsters who'd finished the obligatory National Service and were taking some time out before entering real life, but even so you would have thought that they of all people would have had enough of religion in their own country without needing to seek it out elsewhere. However, the easy availability of weed may have been another decisive factor...
[2] So named because Queen Mary, the wife of King George V, bathed there in 1911 and after his death Mahatma Gandhi's ashes were scattered there.
[3] I sing folk music in a local pub most Monday nights and those tunes are two of my staples.
[4] I once attended a Pakistani Sufi session where they did a similar thing with the word “Allah”.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Incredible India: Intermission: Hinduism

world-map delhi

This week’s post is a little different, being the second of the two intermissions in ‘Incredible India’ dealing with the country’s religions. And today we tackle the most perplexing, the glorious technicolour drama of Hinduism. I’ve put my own take on it as my personal attempt to understand things. I hope that it works for you but if not, there’s only one thing for it: take a trip to India to see for yourself!

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

Intermission: Hinduism

Ever find the Hindu faith difficult to get your head around?

Me too.

Of all the world's major faiths in fact, this is the one that I really struggle to comprehend. However, after reading a variety of books – most notably Kim Knott's 'A Very Short Introduction to Hinduism', attending lectures and spending over two weeks wandering around India, here's my take on trying to comprehend it as a faith.[1]

Ok, now I'm going to ask you to imagine an alternative history for a while. The scenario that I'm going to cook up is one that probably never could have happened as it ignores some pretty major historical realities[2] but bear me out, it's the best analogy that I can think of.

Now around two thousand years ago, in the city of Tarsus, which lies in present-day Turkey, there was born a man. He was a Jew yet also a Roman citizen and his name was Saul. After years of persecuting the new Christian cult, he had a transformational experience and became a Christian himself. He felt that his mission from God was to make the faith of Jesus the Christ accessible and acceptable to all the world, Gentile as well as Jew. In doing so he transformed Christianity from just another Jewish sect into a whole separate religion.

Now imagine that that man had never been born. Christianity existed, but only as an expression of the Jewish faith, a form closed to the Gentiles. Thus Pagan Europe remained Pagan.

In Britain the faith had several key features. One of these was the priestly caste of Druids who performed the holy rituals to appease the many gods. They learnt the rites orally, father to son, sometimes even mother to daughter. They were a clean and superior caste who took care of the Divine whilst everyone else saw to more worldly matters.

But the faith was not limited to these Druids. Everyone took part in different ways depending on who or where they were. In the areas untouched by the Romans, different gods were venerated to those more cosmopolitan regions where foreign influences caused the growth in worship of the Roman Pantheon or other charismatic deities such as Mithras.

There was a big sea change though when the Romans left and waves of Angles, Saxons and Jutes came over to settle. They brought with them their own Germanic deities and also a belief in race. Whilst the old Druids were still respected, the rest of the original Celtic inhabitants of the islands began to be looked down on. Their lives were worth less under the law for they were inferior. After all, had not the gods themselves proved this beyond all doubt by granting victory to the newcomers?

And so things continued. Although in Ireland Brigit was worshipped and in East Anglia Frige, and their images in the simple temples that were starting to be built, (after the Roman fashion), different, there was also a vague understanding that they were the same, different manifestations somehow of a divine, benevolent female presence, the wife of and counterbalance to the more aggressive male deity, Thunor or Woden or Seaxneat.

This faith evolved too. Brigit/Frige appeared one day to a young noblewoman in East Anglia named Richeldis as a finely-dressed princess and commanded her to build to her honour a shrine. This Richeldis duly did, then miracles began to take place there and thousands across the country and beyond streamed to that place to pay homage to the goddess.

This worship of deities in their shrines emphasised one aspect of the faith. Whilst the ancient Druidic caste still maintained that the gods could only be appeased through rite and ritual (which they controlled), there evolved other, newer and more innovative thinkers who begged to differ or perhaps to clarify matters further.

190394_10152602216550305_1088809421_nBrahmin ritual being performed at Jaipur

One group maintained that the rites were of paramount importance because in essence the Self and the Divine are one and through the performance of ritual then that Godself can be realised and Heaven obtained.

However, another group of thinkers argued that the Self and the gods are separate and instead one reaches Heaven by worshipping the gods. This approach was popular amongst the non-Druids, especially the poor, as it gave them more of a say in their own destiny. It was they who filled the shrine to Frige at Walsingham and those of holy teachers such as the hermit Bertellin in Staffordshire who spoke with the animals and birds in the wild Peak District, Holy Dewi in Wales who caused an island to split from the land and later Mother Julian in Norwich, a spiritual teacher who had visions of Heaven and the future during a time of plague and suffering, and the countless temples dedicated to the ancient King Arthur who sleeps ready to be returned to life through prayer in an hour of need.

The Druids on the other hand, maintained the holiest shrine of them all, the one on the top of the Tor at Glastonbury, the Entrance to the Underworld where they performed their age-old mystery rituals and on which no unclean persons were allowed to tread.

Around all of these were attracted a whole host of other elements. Wandering madmen with straggling beards, cranks who pertained to perform magic spells and foretell the future, players who enacted the stories of Sir Lancelot and Robin Hood, reciters who had learnt the holy texts by rote, some mad, some holy, all colourful.

And so things continued until the cataclysmic events of five hundred years ago when a new religion arrived on the scene.

Islam was everything that the old faith – which was so diverse and eclectic that it didn't even have a name – was not. It had rules, one set holy text, an insistence on one God only and a view that all are equal before that deity. Although the Muslims never conquered Britain – Vienna was the nearest that they got – their influence was felt. In the major ports and cities mosques were built and the proselytising began. With time many began to accept and convert to this new faith, largely those who had been seen as inferior by the old. And the Druids and holy men would not have minded it too much – after all, what problem is there in accommodating one more god, this exotic Allah? - except that the Muslims would not accommodate them in return! Indeed, they went further; they declared the old ways to be wrong, evil in fact! They told people to smash their idols, destroy the sacred images and demolish the tombs of holy men and women!

It was a great challenge but one that the old ways weathered. Yes, many converted, but most did not. More than the conversions though, it caused the Old Faith to re-examine itself. It even got a name – Paganism – even though the Paganism of Wales was almost a completely different religion externally to the Paganisms of East Anglia and Yorkshire.

The Trimurti: Hinduism's Holy Trinity

Scholars and holy men came up with new ways of understanding their faith. The main Muslim charge was that the Pagans worshipped many gods which was wrong, God was One. Certainly it seemed that way with all their thousands if not millions of deities, from Woden and Brigit right down to the local oak tree or mountain, it seemed like the Pagans were very much polytheists, but in fact some scholars argued, they were not at all. Woden, Brigit, Mother Julian, King Arthur, the oak tree and the mountain, all were in fact mere manifestations of a single divine entity, one nameless, omnipresent God with a million faces, one and the same as the Muslim Allah in fact. For want of a better word, now they started to refer to Him/Her simply as 'God'.

Others worked hard to develop a canon of scriptures, although it has been hard, devotees of one deity preferring one text and those venerating another god, a different one. All however, agree on the importance of the great epics – King Arthur, Robin Hood, Beowulf. Last year the BBC made a fifty-part television epic of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Most of the country was glued to their TV screens, there have never been higher ratings for a show and whilst it was airing, offerings at Arthurian temples and pilgrimages to Avalon rose dramatically.

And so we have the alternative Britain of today, 80% Pagan, 10% Muslim and the rest a variety of other faiths or none, people offering to the gods of their choice at home in their domestic altars and going on pilgrimages to Glastonbury, Walsingham or other blessed spots where they hope that they can find favour with the Divine. In fact, in recent years they've even started to export this Paganism to Africa, Asia and America, indeed wherever the British have settled. The brand-new Pagan temple in Delhi is in fact seen as one of the wonders of the city by the locals.

And that is how I understand Hinduism except that you substitute India for Britain, the Indian names for those of Woden, Frige et al, and understand that the role played by Islam in my alternative historical analogy is that which has been played by both Islam and Christianity in the Hindu story.

And as well as getting a better grasp on Hinduism, maybe you also understand now why St. Paul is seen as such an important guy in the history of the world?

See you on Glastonbury Tor next Samhain.

[1] And I must stress, this is my personal take. What follows will make more sense if you're British as the analogies used are all ones that are rooted in British culture. However, hopefully there will be something of use to everyone in here too.
[2] The main one being the impact of a globalised proselytising Christianity on the form that early Islam took.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Incredible India: Part 11: Pushkar I

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Moving on from a Muslim holy city to a Hindu one, Pushkar is somewhere that I had no high hopes about before arriving and yet thoroughly enjoyed. Ok, so it’s got a lot of tie-dye and falafels but now and again even an old cynic like me can cope with that.

Not that you have to go all the way to India to get spiritual mind. Yesterday I headed out on a short pilgrimage encompassing three counties and five saints. I ogled millennia old carvings and meditated in a cave where an anchorite once lived before checking out a spooky crypt where I saint once had his shrine before finally crossing over to a holy island. All that before tea time. Anyway, the V-log will be up on here soon. Promise.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:

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The next stop on my itinerary after Ajmer lay just over the hills to the west of the city. Just 13km away from one of Islam's holiest shrines in India is Pushkar, one of Hinduism's holiest cities. And seeing that this trip was fast becoming some sort of spiritual odyssey and that I had explored virtually nothing of India's main faith, then this seemed like the natural place to head.

I hired a tuk-tuk from the station and, my baggage loaded in the back, off we went, past Ana Sagar, the large artificial lake to the north of Ajmer and then up the hill that separates the two holy cities. On the steep rocky slopes as my carriage wheezed its way upwards there was a tribe of monkeys playing, jumping from boulder to boulder, and it seemed that once we'd conquered the summit, we were in a wholly different India entirely, a land of craggy peaks, the sprawling urbanity but a dream, instead a small town of temples clustered around a holy pool. This was the India that I had imagined but so far not experienced.

Tuk-tuks are not allowed into the maze of streets that surround the holy pool of Pushkar, so I was dropped off on the edge of town and wandered on in until I found a hostel, one of dozens of similar backpacker establishments, this one named the 'Rainbow Hostel' charging a princely 300 rupees per night making it my cheapest sleep in India. Then, my bag deposited, I went off to explore.
People who've known me for some time will be aware that, despite having done more than my fair share of backpacking, I am no fan of mass backpacking and rampant commercialism associated with independent travellers. That's one of the reasons why I so love Eastern Europe: it is affordable and interesting but has none of the fake counter-culture hassle that plagues so much of South East Asia.

And Pushkar.

Pushkar was, without doubt, one of the biggest backpacker hotspots that I have ever set foot in; an Indian Pham Ngu Lao, all tie-dye and tantric tack. Vegetarian cafés, CD shops, yoga hawkers and hostel after hostel after hostel. Yet despite all this, despite the fact that I longed to despise it all, for some inexplicable reason, whilst I didn't exactly like it, it didn't bother me either. Pushkar could cope with it and, what's more, despite it, Pushkar was still incredible.

Pushkar is small, less than 15,000 souls according to my guidebook, which may explain its appeal: unlike anywhere else that I'd been in India it was manageable and one could get to know it intimately. Even so, that is not the reason why I liked it so much. My guidebook said that the town has “a magnetism all of its own, and is quite unlike anywhere else in Rajasthan” and from the little that I've seen, I would agree. Clustered around its pool which itself is only 300 metres across, are to be found a plethora of temples with bathing ghats at the water's edge. That's because the pool is said to have appeared when Brahmā – the Hindu god of creation and the first in the Hindu Trinity along with Vishnu and Shiva – dropped a lotus flower. Such an outwardly fanciful tale demonstrates why I, with a Western mindset, struggle so much to comprehend Hinduism, but at Pushkar such theological difficulties do not get in the way. The place is holy even if you don't really get why. I wandered through the bustling backpacker-brimming streets before heading down an alleyway to the pool itself and then strolled barefoot over the ghats before sitting on the stone steps of the Varan Ghat and watching the sun set over the temples and mountains. How can I describe that scene? The dying sunlight twinkling on the ripples in the water caused by bathing devotees, drums sounding out a rhythm as the temple priests marked the close of the day, a flock of birds taking off and circling the waters whilst the sky-blue buildings lining the waterside passed into shadow as the sky above them turned to orange. It was spiritual, it was beautiful, it was incredible, the Incredible India of the tourist brochures and yet, unlike the palm-fronded beaches of white sand or Alpine peaks topped with snow or ornate stone cities frozen in the pre-modern world, this paradise image not only lived up to the dream, it surpassed it as faith saturated every stone and that is something that even the best photographer cannot capture.

And I drank it all in with joy and thanks.

Sunset over the sacred pool

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Incredible India: Part 10: Ajmer

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Sorry for the late posting again this week, I’ve been enjoying the hospitality at the marvellous Dovedale House up in the Peak District whilst writing another book on local saints. Oh well, back to reality now.

This week’s posting, like so many in India, is rather religious. In the city of Ajmer I manage to visit a Muslim shrine, a Sikh gurdwara, a Jain temple and a Christian cathedral and I’ve something to say about all four. That said, perhaps the largest impression of the city is that it didn’t quite live up to my high expectations of it. Faith is like that sometimes; it can’t be forced, it just happens, hitting you sideways when you least expect it and at other times failing to rise. Nonetheless, a trip to Ajmer is always a worthwhile one, as you can now discover.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt
Flickr album of this journey

Links to other parts of the the travelogue:


In 'Jodhaa Akbar' Emperor Akbar has arranged with the Maharajah of Amber to marry his daughter, the Rajput Princess Jodhaa, but at the engagement she lays a condition: that she be allowed to keep her Hindu faith. Unsure of what to do, Akbar makes the pilgrimage to Ajmer, to the Shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, to seek the saint's guidance. Whilst there he is told by the shrine's keeper that Muslim pilgrims are being hassled as they pass through the Hindu Rajput lands. Akbar sees this as a sign to help the pilgrims and all peoples by marrying Jodhaa to unite and bring peace to the region's disparate peoples. Then, at his wedding, a group of dervishes, thankful for the Emperor's actions, sing and dance in celebration/ their song, “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” (Saint, my Saint), is the most moving and beautiful episode of the entire film, particularly when the Light of Allah blinds Akbar and he gets up and joins in their mystical whirling dance of devotion.

Bollywood, like Hollywood, is often liberal with historical facts and the dedicated scholar of Mughal history can pick 'Jodhaa Akbar' apart in seconds. But for outsiders and beginners such as me, films like this can provide a great introduction and insight into Sufi devotion. You have a problem, you travel to the tomb of your beloved saint to seek an answer and whilst on pilgrimage your mind is heightened, on the look-out for signs. Yes, I understand the film's Akbar, for I am none too different when on my pilgrimages. And so it was that I would visit Ajmer and attempt to access something of the wisdom and sanctity of the most famous of all the Chisti Sufis.

Born in 1141 in Chisti in modern-day Afghanistan. His parents died when he was fifteen-years old and he inherited a windmill and orchard from his father. From an early age his piety had been noticeable to all his neighbours and legend says that one day whilst working in his orchard he was visited by Shaikh Ibrahim Qunduzi. Moinuddin offered the Shaikh some fruits and the Shaikh gave the young man some bread which he ordered him to eat. The moment he bit into it, Moinuddin became enlightened and entered a different world. He then disposed of all his worldly goods, renounced the world and left for Bukhara in search of knowledge. There he became a disciple of Usman Harooni, the fifteenth link in the Chisti chain, (which stretches back to Ali, the Prophet's cousin).

Moinuddin, like Guru Nanak later on, then began a series of extensive journeyings around Central Asia and the Middle East before the Prophet appeared to him in a dream and told him to head for India. He duly did so, settling in Ajmer where he amassed a considerable following, thus establishing the Chisti Order in the Sub-Continent where it flourished and where he died in 1236, his dargah becoming the “Mother Dargah” of all the dargahs in India. And so, having already visited two of the children, (Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi and Salim Chisti in Fatepur Sikhri, (as well as exploring Bukhara over a decade before), it was now time to see meet mummy.

The 09:40 to Ajmer rumbled through a flat, arid and empty landscape which the Afghani Moinuddin doubtless had felt quite at home in. the most interesting sights for me though were the marble quarries on the edge of the city of Kishangarh. Beyond that, the book in my hand was far more engrossing.

Two hours later I arrived in Ajmer. I left my baggage at the station and then indulged in some streetfood before heading up through the twisting, ancient streets of the bazaar to the shrine itself. My experience at the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin told me that that it was customary to leave an offering at the tomb so I bought some rose petals and a cloth emblazoned with Arabic script, (the traditional dargah offerings) as well as a couple of pictures of the shrine, one for myself and the second for the Imam at work, a devoted Sufi.

ajmer1 The gateway to the dargah

Around the gate it was absolutely heaving with devotees, even though the day was not a special one. I was disappointed to learn that, unlike the dargah in Delhi, photographs and videos were not allowed here and so after reluctantly leaving my video camera at the gate along with my shoes, I was escorted to the shrine itself by one of the shrine guardians, who, like all guardians, was a direct descendent of the saint.

What can I say of the Dargah of Moinuddin Chisti? It's a huge complex, far bigger than the one at Delhi and far more crowded. I went to the tomb and deposited my offerings there before sitting on carpets outside amidst the other devotees and meditating awhile. But despite all that, in Ajmer I felt nothing. Perhaps it was the crowds, perhaps the fact that I'd already prayed at two other Chisti dargahs, I know not. All that I do know is that, despite the fact that I wanted to feel as Akbar once felt, I did not. It was interesting but that was all.

Except that that was not all. Indeed, my meditations at the dargah caused me to start thinking of the Temple in Jerusalem; the Temple where Christ once visited hoping to find the presence of God and instead encountering the money-changers and hawkers. The whole operation at Ajmer, so slick and efficient was it - “Walk the way sir; place your cloth here sir; now sprinkle some rose petals, make a wish, yes the Khwaja will bless you! Next please!” - had reminded me of that, a house of prayer becoming a house of commerce if not outright thieves. The bumper stickers ask us, “What would Jesus do?” I know the answer all too well, yet did I do it or did I instead purchase their wares like all the other multitudes around me? Put like that, is it any wonder that I felt so little?

Nonetheless, despite the fact that the profit-savvy guardians and the thousands of faithful might have marred it for me, in another way I was glad that the dargah was so crowded. Islam, in my opinion as an interested and at times sympathetic outsider, is going through a crisis at the moment, a crisis as traumatic and gut-wrenching as the Reformation that Christianity endured half a millennium ago. Like that Reformation, it is probably necessary, a sad by-product of the trials of coming to terms with the shift from a myth-dominated Pre-Modern World to the overtly rationalistic Modern Age. But in Islam to a far greater degree than had been the case in Christianity, the money is on the side of the Puritans. The fervently iconoclastic Wahhabis with their offshoots in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere have the backing of serious oil money and whilst the West may think that their undeniable anger is being directed at Christianity and the dominant cultures of Europe and North America, in fact it is traditional Islam that is bearing the brunt of their ire. From Mali to Malaysia, Sufism, for centuries the form of the faith that succoured and nourished the majority of the world's Muslims, is under attack. Labelled backward, superstitious, heretical and un-Islamic even, big money is making sure that it is being rejected for a formulaic – and in my opinion spiritually dry – Salafism. For one who lives in a country where the Reformation destroyed virtually all our holy shrines and closed our monastic houses, I can only cry tears of pity for those Muslims who do not know what beauty and sanctity the Saudi clerics are telling them to discard and destroy. But here in India at least, with the second-largest Muslim population on earth, there is hope; Sufism is alive and prospering; the masses are still coming to know Allah through His khwajas.

And if the cost of that is spoiling my “spiritual experience” a tad then, hell, it's worth it.

I left the dargah and headed through the bazaar to one of Ajmer's other main sites, the Nasiyan Jain Temple. En route I spied a small gurdwara at which I decided to pause and pray, much to the amusement of a little girl who peered at me from behind a pillar. There in the presence of the Guru Granth Sahib I found the quiet and repose that I'd hoped to enjoy at the dargah.

The Nasiyan Temple is pleasant enough from the outside, but inside in the main hall it took my breath away. The whole room – which was the size of a school hall – was filled with two gigantic models, one of the Jain Universe and the other of the Jain holy city of Ayodhya executed in gold. Unfortunately, understanding very little of Jainism, I was unable to make much sense of the glittering temples, flying deities and warrior-laden chariots, but nonetheless, the whole thing was incredible to behold.

Walking back from the Nasiyan Temple to the railway station, I came across the Church of North India Cathedral, a little piece of Britain in the heart of Rajasthan and I decided that, since I'd been visiting the holy houses of everybody else's religions, then I might as well check out that of my own and so I popped on in and got into conversation with the verger. He told me that the church had originally been Presbyterian, built by Scots and that the first minister had ridden on horseback all the way from Bombay to take up his post.1 I asked him about some of the things that I had talked about with my taxi driver on the way to Fatepur Sikhri. To begin with, he refuted the allegations that many people convert for money saying that these are only rumours spread by Hindus unhappy that so many of their brethren are turning to Christ. He then went on to say that the national census greatly underestimates the numbers of Christians in India, putting them at around 2-3% of the population whereas in actual terms he believes the figure to be closer to 20% with certain provinces being majority Christian such as Mizoram where over 90% of the population profess the faith. Again he put this down to the Hindu establishment feeling threatened by Christianity which is growing in India at unprecedented rates amongst all sections of society and indeed this growth is reflected in Ajmer itself which he reckoned to have over 50,000 Christians (circa 10% of the population).

After the verger had left I stayed awhile, enjoying the peace and quiet of that place in amongst the chaos, and once I had collected my thoughts, I made a short video on my reactions to Ajmer. The cathedral itself though, left me with a dilemma: on the one hand I liked it for its sturdy elegance and Britishness – it was clean, ordered and familiar – and like all British churches I was heartened that it was free from hawkers and the invasive commercialism that so affects the Sufi dargahs, yet on the other hand that very Britishness troubled me, for if a religion is to flourish anywhere, it has to become native; a Christianity that stays British will forever be scattering its seed on stony ground.

ajmer2 Ajmer Cathedral

1The Church of North India (CNI) was formed in 1970 by a merger of the Anglican, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Brethren, Methodist and Disciples of Christ denominations. It looks after the spiritual needs of Protestants in all of India save for four states in the south which are covered by the Church of South India (CSI), a sister church, also formed by a merger in 1947. The CNI has approximately 1.5 million members and the CSI 4 million.