8 hours in eclectic ajmer, rajasthan’s centre for sufism

Rose essence from Hinduism’s holy city of Pushkar fills the air of Sufi Islam’s sacred dargah in Ajmer. The courtyard reverberates with qawwalis in praise of the 13th Century saint from Iran, as the faithful shuffle past his grave in deep reverence, heads bowed, eyes lowered, a prayer or two on their lips.

It is 9ish in the morning and I am at the Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Dargah deep in the heart of Ajmer’s Muslim quarter. As far back as I can remember, I had wanted to visit the tomb-shrine. Now actually standing here, it feels unreal. Surreal.

– – –

Just 15 kilometres from Pushkar, separated by Nag Pahar an ancient hill in the Aravalli range, is Ajmer—Pushkar’s antithesis.

If Pushkar is unadulterated Hinduism in belief and traditions, Ajmer is Sufi Islam’s Mecca in India. If Pushkar is laidback, almost sleepy, where time stands still and cows wander through its placid ghats and alleys, Ajmer is chaotic, bursting with colour, noise and fervour.

Yet, the two sit comfortably next to each other. But then that’s the magic of India.

Though Ajmer’s main claim to fame is the dargah of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti, there is much more to the city in terms of its role in Indian history and heritage.

Founded by the Chauhan dynasty in the 8th Century, Ajmer [or Ajay Meru meaning Invincible Hills] served as their seat till the 12th Century. That is, till braveheart Prithviraj Chauhan was defeated by Muhammad Ghori of Afghanistan, and the Islamization of the Indian subcontinent began. When Moinuddin Chishti chose Ajmer as his base in the 13th Century, the city’s future as an Islamic centre was sealed.

Fast forward to 1616, and a strategic first meeting in Ajmer between the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and Sir Thomas Roe, Ambassador of the British Crown, paved the way for British rule over India. Ajmer was handed over to the British later and right up to India’s independence remained the only region in Rajputana to be ever controlled by the foreign rulers. To add to Ajmer’s eclecticism, it has a thriving Jain population and is a significant pilgrimage centre for Jainism.

Ajmer’s chequered past has given it multiple treasures and dimensions, some pretty spectacular. Unfortunately, these are often overshadowed by the dargah and as a result overlooked by the traveller.

Here’s my 8 hours in Ajmer and the sights and stories it holds in its crowded maze-like streets. If you’ve explored Ajmer too, do share what was your favourite highlight. I’d love to read about it.

Morning: Starting Point: The 800-year-old Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti Dargah, India’s most revered Sufi shrine

Pilgrims from all faiths and all walks of life offer chadars and roses at Ajmer’s dargah as a symbol of their devotion. The devout believe no prayer goes unanswered at Moinuddin Chishti’s tomb-shrine.

Ajmer’s most iconic attraction is the 13th Century Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s dargah. For the unversed, a dargah is a shrine built over the grave of a Muslim saint. Pilgrims of all faiths, from all walks of life, came from far and wide to see him when he was alive, and to his grave after he died in the year 1236. And they still do. Just like I had.

Moinuddin Chishti [also known as Gareeb Nawaz] came to India from Iran during the reign of Iltutmish, founder of the Delhi Sultanate. His grave was believed to be so pious that the Mughal Emperor Humayun commissioned the edifice over it, his son Akbar visited the site 14 times, Akbar’s descendants paid for the shrine’s reconstruction and renovation, and the Hindu King of Baroda paid for the covering.

Since its inception, the lines between Hindu and Islamic traditions have been blurred at the dargah. Qawwals recite the Karka, a musical verse in Sanskrit, Persian and Brij, as part of the closing ceremony. The rose essence and sandalwood used in the rituals come from Brahmin-owned businesses in Pushkar.

Travel tips: 1) Visit the dargah first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds. It gets really busy over the day. 2) Please cover your shoulders and legs as a sign of respect. 3) Cameras are not allowed. Mobile photography is only allowed in the courtyard.

Morning: Stop 1: Adhai Din ka Jhonpra, one of India’s oldest converted mosques

Ajmer’s Muslim quarter surrounding the dargah is characterized by green-painted buildings and sweetmeats stacked against the walls.

The amalgamation, albeit unplanned, of Hindu and Muslim elements add a sublime charm to the Adhai Din ka Jhonpra Mosque [1199 AD] in the Muslim quarter.

Two-And-A-Half Days Hut. That’s what Adhai Din ka Jhonpra literally means. Some say it got its name because it was built over two-and-a-half days. Others claim its because of the two-and-a-half days long Urs festival [a saint’s death anniversary] which used to be held at the site. Fact or fiction, an undeniable truth is that the structure was originally a Sanskrit college.

After Muhammad Ghori of Afghanistan defeated Prithviraj Chauhan in 1192, he asked his slave Qutb-ud-Din-Aibak to convert the college into a mosque. In 1213, Iltutmish, founder of the Delhi Sultanate, added the seven-arched stone screen carved with Koranic verses in calligraphy, and with it the college’s conversion was clinched. Look closely, and you’ll notice the mutilated Hindu and Jain carvings on the pillars inside.

Despite its tumultuous past, it is a beautiful structure—the forced juxtaposition of elements both poignant and ethereal.

Brunch: Mahadev [Dhaba] Bhojnalay near the Old Bus Stand for tandoori aalu pyaaz parathas with butter and masala chai

I had three of the above and I could have had more! Seriously. They were that good. Mahadev [Dhaba] Bhojnalay by the old bus stand is no fancy place but is famous all over Ajmer for its fresh wholesome yummy grub. Easy on the pocket [an aalu pyaaz paratha costs Rs. 35] and super quick in service, there are usually long waiting lines for a table. But being mid-morning, it was relatively easy to find myself a place. 🙂

Morning: Stop 2: Nareli Jain Temple, a fusion of the traditional and contemporary

Nestled against the Aravalli hills, the modern angular Nareli Jain Temple is covered with ancient intricate motifs.

On the outskirts of Ajmer, some 7 kilometres away, is the Nareli Jain Temple built in 1994 by the owners of the mega corporation RK Marbles. Clad in soft pink marble, it is dedicated to Adinath, the first Tirthankara in Jainism and is a key pilgrimage site for the Digambar sect. Traditional and contemporary architectural styles seamlessly fuse in the gigantic structure, behind which 24 miniature temples for the 24 Tirthankaras stand sentinel on a hill.

Rajasthan has the second highest number of Jains in India [622,023 according to the 2011 Census], after Maharashtra. The 2,500-year-old religion prohibits violence at all levels, including violence against plants. Trade is one of the few accepted careers, resulting in a community that is one of the wealthiest in the country. Here’s an interesting article about the Jain community in India by the Pew Research Center.

Afternoon: Stop 1: Prithviraj Smarak, an ode to one of India’s greatest hero-kings

Taragarh Fort, now in ruins, was Prithviraj Chauhan’s home and military seat.

Prithviraj Smarak on the way to Taragarh Fort portrays the hero-king in the midst of the historic 2nd battle of Tarain.

Prithviraj Chauhan. The very name is evocative of strength, valour, and an unerring passion for freedom in the face of foreign Islamic conquest. One of India’s most legendary hero-kings, his capital was Ajmer. Not much remains of his rule some 900 years ago, except for a crumbling towering fort atop a hill which goes by the name Taragarh [meaning Star] Fort built by his ancestors, the founders of Ajmer. Prithviraj Chauhan was the last Hindu ruler of the fort.

Born in 1166, he died in 1192 at just 26 years of age during the battle against Muhammad Ghori [from Afghanistan] which led to the subsequent Islamization of India. Taragarh Fort, Rajasthan’s oldest fort, was later taken over by the Mughals, followed by the British, and eventually abandoned. Halfway up the hill, on the way to the fort, is Prithviraj Smarak, an equestrian memorial in Prithviraj Chauhan’s honour, with the horse’s one front hoof up in the air. In equestrian sculpture symbolism this refers to his dying in battle in 1192, at the 2nd battle of Tarain.

There is another memorial at the base of the hill, a tourism gimmick surrounded by a food court and joy rides. If possible, please ignore it. The one on the hill is the official one and way more atmospheric with his home, Taragarh Fort, rising from the steep rocky outcrop in the background.

Afternoon: Stop 2: Ana Sagar Lake, a 12th Century man-made lake that was a Mughal favourite

Surrounded by the Aravalli hills, Ana Sagar, named after King Anaji is one of Asia’s oldest artificial lakes.

Spread over 494 acres, the man-made Ana Sagar Lake is a breath of fresh blue expanse and a welcome break from the bustle that characterizes Ajmer. It was built by the legendary ruler Prithviraj Chauhan’s grandfather Arnoraja, also known as Ana, with the help of the local populace in 1135 – 50 AD. The Mughal rulers were particularly enamoured by the lake: Jahangir added the Daulat Bagh Gardens on its banks and in 1637 his son Shah Jahan put up a series of five graceful pavilions in it.

Afternoon: Stop 3: Soniji ki Nasiyan, a gold-sheathed cityscape straight out of Jain cosmology

Soniji ki Nasiyan depicts the conception, birth, renunciation, omniscience, and salvation of Jainism’s first Tirthankara Adinath in a glass and gold-sheathed extravaganza.

Behind a seemingly mundane traffic-laden street in the heart of Ajmer is the 19th Century Soniji ki Nasiyan with its fantastical gold-sheathed cityscape of the holy sites of Ayodhya and Mt. Sumeru. With a Jain angle.

Made of 1,000 kilograms of gold by hundreds of craftsmen over 25 years, the two-storeyed cavernous chamber covers 3,200 sq. feet inside a Jain temple complex. It depicts scenes from the story of Jainism’s first Tirthankara Adinath aka Rishabhnath, using wood models covered in gold leaf, walls and ceilings decked in Belgian and stained glass, and glass paintings.

The exquisite, breath-taking glass and gold concoction is the labour of love of one man, Seth Moolchand Soni, who wanted to illustrate the five auspicious events in the Tirthankara’s life and thereby educate the public about them. But to do it a tad differently. His family still own and run the temple complex which is open daily.

Travel tip: Non-Jains can only visit the museum housing the model of the Jain Universe. Access to the adjoining temple is only for Jains.

Final Stop: Ajmeri Fort/ Akbari Quilla, birthplace of the British Raj in India

Akbar’s Palace inside Akbar’s Fort became a museum in 1908 under Lord Curzon, then Viceroy of India. He named the museum ‘Magazine’.

Miniature painting depicting a scene from Prithviraj Raso, the 12th Century epic poem written by Prithviraj Chauhan’s court poet Chand Bardai on the ruler’s love life and illustrious career.

When Mughal Emperor Akbar annexed Ajmer in 1556 and built a fort and palace in 1570, little did he know he was charting the path for the sub-continent’s next half a millennium. All he most probably knew was that he needed a military base for his expanding empire and a resting place for his regular pilgrimages to Moinuddin Chishti’s dargah in the city.

But the fort was to witness far more momentous events in its future. As the residence of Akbar’s son, Jahangir, it was right here that the latter met the British Crown’s envoy Thomas Roe, and read the proclamation allowing the British East India Company to set up its base in India and trade with it. The rest as we know, is history.

The compact, square red sandstone fort with a palace plonk in the middle was turned into a government museum in 1908 and houses an interesting collection of Mughal and Rajput paintings, sculptures, rock inscriptions, and weapons. Don’t miss the 17th Century miniature paintings of Prithviraj Raso, a 12th Century epic poem on the hero-king’s love life and career, and the life-sized models of key events that took place inside the fort.

– – –

5 pm. The museum was closing for the day and it was time for me to go back to Pushkar! Funny how much a little bit of exploration can reveal. ❤

You may also like to read: Pushkar: Where the gods and seekers meet.

Travel tips:

  • I did Ajmer as a day trip from Pushkar.
  • Getting around: I hired a local cab from The Pushkar Route for the trip.
  • Start early so you can be at the dargah before the crowds arrive.

[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my 35-day solo and independent road trip through Rajasthan from 17 October to 20 November, 2021. To read more posts in my Rajasthan series, click here.]

11 thoughts on “8 hours in eclectic ajmer, rajasthan’s centre for sufism

  1. In Indonesia, especially on Java, we also have something akin to these dargahs and the veneration of Muslim saints by pilgrims. Often syncretizing aspects of Hindu and animist beliefs into the Islamic faith, the practice here is still very much alive despite the increasing conservatism embraced by many Muslims in the cities. I love the fact that Ajmer is close to Pushkar — the idea of different religions coexisting in harmony always attracts and fascinates me. Thank you for this lovely visual tour and the interesting historical tidbits, Rama.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked it, Bama. One of the biggest charms of India for me, personally, has always been the harmonious coexistence between its people of many cultures, faiths, and pasts and presents. I hope it always stays that way. I have learnt through my travels over the past few years here that there is no ‘one’ India but multiple Indias, each equally valid. Indonesia is very much on my bucket list too. Fingers crossed some day I can explore it to my heart’s content.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been to Ajmer, a couple of times. All work trips. I have never explored Ajmer despite visiting Pushkar umpteen times. Someday, when I do, I only 2 places on my list. Soni Ji Ki Nasiyan and Adhai Din Ka Jhompra. By the way, lassi near govt museum in the market is quite popular among the locals.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: pushkar: where the gods and seekers meet | rama toshi arya's blog

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