Sunday, 2 November 2014

Incredible India: Part 10: Ajmer

world-map delhi

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.

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