Ajmer is a big Muslim pilgrimage town, containing a major tomb/shrine to India’s top Sufi saint, a “miraculous” mosque and a ruined fort on an overlooking hill – which contains yet another Muslim tomb.
The Dargah Sharif, or Dargah Khwaja Sahib, is the tomb of, and shrine to, Moinuddin Chishti, India’s favourite Sufi saint. In a pitifully embarrassing admission of the impracticality of their religion’s demands, Muslims in the subcontinent treat seven visits to the Dargah Sharif as equivalent to one visit to Mecca. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the site every day.
To get there, I had to navigate through the narrow, crowded alleyways surrounding the tomb. The Rough Guide describes them as retaining “an almost medieval character”. It’s a superfluous sentence: show me an Indian town which doesn’t. I found my way to the main street leading to the Dargah, and realised what the book meant, when I was swept up in the dense mass of pilgrims, shuffling along, picking their way over crippled beggars and pushing forward to get their chance to worship relics.
There’s no shoe deposit system in place at the entrance to the Dargah. Just a huge pile of dirty sandals abandoned out front and trampled by the hundreds of sweaty grockles going in and out. Obviously I wasn’t going to leave my boots to that fate, so I fought myself a little bit of admin space and stowed them in my bag. But when I tried to enter, I was stopped, first by one priest who told me to leave my bag at the cloakroom inside, another trying to sign me up for some donation-heavy ritual, and a third telling me there was no cloakroom, and I’d have to leave everything in a hotel around the corner. Meanwhile I was getting jostled and manhandled by the aforementioned grockles.
Screw it, I thought. If you’re going to make it such a damned hassle to visit your shrine, I’m not going to bother. I already know what it’s going to be like, and what I’ll think about it: the ornamented tomb of a man who tried to preach the unity of all religions, being venerated as an idol by thousands of people who aren’t supposed to venerate idols, and who believe quite strongly that their religion is different from everyone else’s.
ADHAI DIN KA JHONPRA
I put my boots back on and headed down a side street to the Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, which turned out not to be a shoes-off affair, and was relatively hassle-free after the previous experience. It was also relatively dull: a courtyard, some arches, some Arabic script carved into sandstone. Seen it all before. But it was quite nice to look at, and the courtyard was fairly peaceful, so I sat down to take a break and admire it.
I was soon interrupted by a boy who started asking me questions about myself. I wasn’t in the mood for chat-harassment, whether it was commercially driven or not, so I made up some story about being John Smith from New Zealand, who’d never had a job, or a girlfriend, or anything an Indian might want to know more about. But after a while I realised that the boy, Ziya, was actually quite a nice chap, and was just a solo traveller like me, looking for some company.
He told me the apocryphal story about the Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, which translates to “Two and a Half Day Building”: that after the Hindu college on the site was destroyed by Muhammad of Ghor, it was rebuilt, in two and a half days, as a mosque. Since this is clearly impossible for humans, Ziya argued, it must have been a miracle performed by angels. Of course, the story’s complete nonsense. There’s no evidence that the building was completed in two and a half days; that’s just an assumption based on the name. Historical research shows that the site was actually host to an annual festival, lasting two and a half days. I tried to explain this to Ziya, pointing out that, as a law student, he should know that any claim must be backed by evidence, not just accepted on hearsay. He was impressed with the idea that I’d come to visit the Adhai after doing historical research on it (ie reading the Rough Guide paragraph) but seemed unconvinced.
Ziya wanted to visit Taragarh Fort, on a hill a few km outside of Ajmer, but wasn’t sure about doing it on his own. I was enjoying his company by this point, so I suggested we walk up together. It’s a steep climb from the town, and I marched him hard to test his determination, but he kept up. At the top, both sweating and tired, we sat down at a table to rest. A baby goat jumped up on it and tried to eat Ziya’s bag. I thought it was cute, but when I took a photo, I realised how freaky goats look.
Taragarh Fort has great views of Ajmer and the lake, hills and valleys around it, but itself isn’t much to see. Most of it is ruined or disappeared. The site’s still inhabited by a busy village, centred on the Dargah Miran Sayeed Hussein Khangsawar, the tomb of Muhammad of Ghor’s head tax collector. We looked at it from the outside, but didn’t bother going in. Ziya wanted to take the other path out of the fort and back down to Ajmer by a different route; he seemed to think there was a point of interest on the way down. About half way, we found it: a large boulder, surrounded by a crowd of people touching it reverently and taking photographs. Apparently, it was miraculously thrown up the mountainside by a famous magician. Oh, Ziya, Ziya, Ziya. Haven’t you learned anything? It’s just a bloody rock somebody’s painted white. What’s the evidence it’s anything more than that?
I tried my best, but I don’t think I managed to instill a sense of scientific scepticism into Ziya, who when I left him still believed I was John Smith from New Zealand.