Reema Abbasi, the recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi Award for the literary personality of the year in 2014, previously wrote Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience, and has now written about Ajmer Sharif. There is a similarity of concern because both subjects deal with places of devotion for the minorities. In Pakistan, Hindus are a minority and in India Muslims. Religious minorities in both countries seem wrapped in desire for greater freedoms of expression and worship for all their sects and denominations, regardless of their numeral strength.
This coffee table edition, titled Ajmer Sharif, is effuse with photographs of Ajmer Sharif, the dargah of Moinuddin Chishti. It is one of the most visited shrines in the subcontinent, and surely one of the most venerated. In the past it was visited by monarchs and by ordinary people, no matter what their religious denomination was; the latter have continued since India became an independent country, even though visits by rulers have become very rare indeed.
But primarily, dargah is a place where people go to seek solace and a way out of their anguish. It may be about infertility, desire for a male child, economic insecurity, the finding or sustaining of love or a wish to be happy and content. People have been visiting the shrine for centuries, and since they still go there in droves, there must be something that they find and are gratified with.
Born in Sistan in 1141 Moinuddin Chishti arrived in Ajmer in 1192 when he was over 50-years-old, after navigating through Lahore and Multan. It appears he had travelled far and wide in Muslim lands seeking solace and light. In Baghdad, he was awarded the patched robe by his mentor Harwani and bestowed with the title of Chishti. Abu Ishaq Shams instituted the Chishtia Order as he fled from the intrigues and power struggle of the capitals of the Muslim world to a place of isolation, Chist in present day Afghanistan.
Those times were riven by Mongol invasions, people moved for safety from their places of birth, worship or profession in substantial numbers. Many of them found their way to the Indian subcontinent. Harwani equipped Chishti with advice to travel, abstain from greed, forsake expectations and camp away from settlements. It was characteristic of Chishtia Sufis to stay away from the centres of power, they avoided state patronage and insisted on their independence in matters of religious practice and societal norms.
Chishti chose Ajmer, close to the city of Pushkar, a site of pilgrimage for local mystics. Surrounding Ajmer is the Sadabahar Pahari that rolls along the banks of the Ana Sagar Lake. The city also houses the ruins of the ancient Taragarh Fort which was previously called Ajameru Doorg, named after Mahameru, the supreme mountain. The Kokla hills rise to the east of Ajmer, and to the west lies the Alif ke Ghanaywali range of hills.
Though Chishti was popular, and people called him by the title of Gharib Nawaz (the one who looks after the poor), it appeared that after his death he was forgotten for a while. Even Nizamuddim Auliya who died in 1324 did not mention him in his book Fawaid ul Fuad, but Chishti’s spiritual significance was resurrected in the 16th century, and since then countless roads have led to Ajmer.
It appears that the shrine and its interior underwent many changes over almost a millennium. Chishti’s earliest resting place was made of baked bricks under the sprawling canopy of a pomegranate tree. The first tomb was in wood, and then a stone canopy was built to protect it.
Khawaja Hussain Ragauri provided the earliest construction over his master’s tomb. In the 15th century, the Sultan of Malwa created a cenotaph in milky onyx. In 1579 Akbar reconstructed the sanctum crowning it with a flamboyant dome stone in lime with a burnt brick cone. The mother of pearl canopy on four silver posts was donated by Jahangir, while the present railing is a mark of devotion by Jahanara, the eldest daughter of Shahjahan.
The silver filigree from Mushtaq Ali Khan of Rampur adorns it while the inner ceiling wears a spread of Kashani velvet and brocade held up by metal chains with silver orbs. The circular white cupola, topped with an overturned lotus and a Kalasha finial of gold was an offering from Nawab Haider Ali of Rampur.
The Nizami Darwaza was built by the British Engineers in 1911, bequested by the Nizam of Hyderabad. As if not to be intimidated by royal offering it must be stated that the first Kalasha was installed by Alam Banjaara fashioned with a quarter gram of gold, a much humbler offering to mark the shrine as for the poor.
Chishti spent his time as a vehicle for the catharsis of the weary, letting them seek respite in dance, song and verse. The Risala–Sama, an exposition on the flair for music was compiled by Hamiddudin Nagauri on the behest of his master. Karka, originally a Rajput war song to motivate soldiers, has met assimilation here as a reminder for devotees to battle evil and abiding grace. The Karka stanzas composed in Bhojpuri claimed to be the work of either Shaikh Mitha, a devotee or Roora Mithu, musicians in the court of Jahangir.
Other than the annual urs, on the sixth day of each month of the Muslim lunar calendar Chhati Sharif commemorates Chishti’s death. He conquered fear, suspicion and religious divide of the day with poetry, music and simple philosophy of love.
The pictures in the book connects better to the place, its significance and its rituals than mere words could ever have.
Author: Reema Abbasi
Publisher: Niyogi Books, 2017