Adventures in Ajmer

nathanielkiddnathanielkidd on 1234247904|%B %d

Sarah and I have wandered on to Ajmer, another little holy oasis town in the Rajasthani desert. We passed through the city briefly on our tour with Lydia, and incidentally found it compelling enough to make another, longer visit.

While it doesn’t share the ancient lineage of neighboring Pushkar, Ajmer has its own fascinating history. Indeed, through the Mughal era, it was a site of particular religious and strategic importance. Crumbling reminders of their infrastructure still interrupt the cityscape without explanation or apology. They are all prominently labeled as “Protected Monuments” by the Archeological Survey of India, but none of these immaculate signs indicate what the ruins are, or why they are protected.

Ajmer is not a popular spot for foreign tourists. While it does boast a constellation of interesting sights to be seen, Pushkar’s fame whisks them all away quite quickly. The English-speaking taxi drivers around the railway station all know this: they unanimously push transport to Pushkar, or at the very least, to the Pushkar bus stand.

Yet Ajmer is not wanting in tourist infrastructure. It has tremendous draw for domestic tourists, and is a popular destination for pilgrims, both Hindu and Muslim, who come to pay their respects to the Sufi saint Muinuddin Chisty. Indeed, for poorer Muslims in the sub-continent, a ziyarat to the Chisty Dargah is almost as good as the hajj to Mecca that they can’t afford.

We have come to Ajmer for three reasons. First, we wanted to get out of Delhi. We enjoy catching up with our friends on Main Bazaar, but being in Delhi is stressful and claustrophobic unless we have particularly well-developed aims. Ajmer is not exactly a laid-back utopia. Streams of pilgrims pass beneath our window almost round the clock; our solace of our hotel room is perpetually disturbed by the wail of the muzzien, the invitations of roadside vendors, and the cries of limbless beggars. Still, it is not Delhi.

Second, we wanted to catch up on some reading, writing, and Hindi study. The first two are mostly a matter of finding the will to do it. On the last count, external input is extraordinarily helpful. In this respect, Ajmer is an ideal setting for Hindi study. As a conservative Rajasthani town, few people speak English. Indeed, it seems that even some of our hotel staff can’t comprehend the fact that some people do not speak Hindi.

Finally, I am interested in observing sub-continent Sufism, and perhaps accumulating a few books on the subject. On our first visit to the Dargah, I was deeply impressed by simplicity and tangibility of the devotions: the scent of a thousand flower blossoms, the smooth marble streets, the strings tied to the marble screens, the trickling of the fountain installed for ablutions. The Dargah is the fascinating fruit of a foreign religious infrastructure. I want to peak behind the curtain, and know a little more about what is behind it.

I furthermore feel a strange kinship with Muinuddin Chisty, this mysterious figure from some eight centuries ago, toward whom this strange and ancient swirl of religious activity is focused. Chisty, by divine compulsion, left his native Persia and settled in Ajmer. His broad compassion earned him the epithet “Garib Nawaz” (friend of the poor) and won him undying devotion from the natives of the country he adopted; a devotion that continues to this day.

We look forward to a couple of weeks’ worth of time to pursue these goals before returning to Delhi and striking out on another adventure.

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