The Idea of India
The Rose Of Ajmer by Britt Sloan


His life has been draped with legends, many of which tell of his miracles and powers. One of the most popular legends is of the evil wizard Jaypal who, on the orders of a local raja, attempts to drive the Sufi fakir Moinuddin Chiti away from the region and attacks him with burning coals. But the power of Jaypal is no match for the righteous and this preacher of the gospel of love and tolerance simply holds up his hands and transforms the coals into roses. The wizard, shocked and angered, retreats in humiliation and his defeat forces the raja to fall at his feet and ask Moinuddin Chisti for forgiveness.

The rose of Ajmer is grown in fields along the Anasagar Lake.  The waters of the lake are used to cultivate the fields. The pink rose remains unique to the area. And where the wizard once cast hot coals at him, his devotees today cast the rose. The dargah at Ajmer remains the only shrine in India where garlands and handful of roses are thrown at the tombstone. An act of devotion and repentance, and act of reconciliation and atonement.

Britt Sloan is a young photographer from Radnor, Pennsylvania, USA.  She is currently a junior at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts.  She is majoring in International Relations with a focus on transitional justice, conflict resolution, and crisis management. She authors the blog site Lal Gulab

Further Readings:

Troll, W.Christian (ed) Muslim Shrines In India

Currie, P.M. The Shrine and Cult of Mu’in al-Din Chisti of Ajmer

Ernst, Carl W. & Lawrence, B Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chisti Sufi Order in South Asia and Beyond


The Rose of Ajmer

By Britt Sloan

The gulab—a symbol of devotion, commerce, prayer, and peace laces a delicate thread through the heterogeneous topography that surrounds the Dargah Sharif, the impressive shrine to the Sufi Muslim saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti of Ajmer.  More than a flower, the gulab is the bearer of blessings for devotees and a declaration of love for pilgrims; it is a mechanism of mutual exchange for shopkeepers and a promise of wealth for residents.  The Ajmer rose builds a humanity that transcends secular life and religious boundaries and constructs a community that shares in both commercial gains and spiritual pursuits.  I set out across this rich landscape on a journey to discover the intricate web of diverse relationships and luminous metaphors.

As the concrete and metal landscape melted into green and pink, I chased the rising sun.  My anxiety about capturing the right light, the perfect subject, the proper composition dissolved the instant I saw the sprawling ocean of magenta roses.  The sun cut shimmering crescents across the faces of three beaming girls.  Tara, Puja, and Suntos invited me to follow them into the fields.

To the girls, I merely observed their daily chore of picking flowers for sale at the bazaar around the Dargah Sharif.  They giggled as I clicked my camera in their direction.  These girls were from a family of mali, the traditional gardeners of India, whose flower farm suggests a mundane lifestyle that grandfather has passed to grandson, and mother has passed to daughter.  What the girls did not realize is that their history was part of a vibrant story of faith, commerce, and coexistence.

The story of the Ajmer rose has no beginning and no end.  Instead, the native flower has a ubiquitous presence that meanders from the flower farms of the countryside, to the dim stalls of the Dargah bazaar, and into the tomb of the saint, lovingly known as Khwaja Gharib Nawaz.  To each person who encounters these flowers, the rose has a different meaning.

Narayan Saini oversees the administrative side of the flower farm where the Tara, Puja, and Suntos pick the Ajmer roses.  Narayan’s life is a series of measurements and notations.  Every day at six in the morning, Narayan arranges along the edges of the fields large canvas bags, which the girls fill with over a hundred kilos of flowers.  At precisely ten o’clock, Narayan arrives at his storeroom in the Dargah bazaar, where his scale seesaws under the weight of the flowers.  He peers at the scale as if contemplating the worth of his life.

I follow Narayan out of the storeroom.  He stops by the stalls of Hindu shopkeepers in the bazaar and those of Sufi vendors inside the Dargah.  He chats with buyers and occasionally accepts chai.  Although a sharp mark in his ledger book punctuates the end of his visits, the intermingled voices of Narayan and his customers linger in the space.

As I begin to explore the shrine, other voices express similar ideas.  “We are materialistic.  I am not shy about that,” Anas admits, caressing a rose.  Anas Kaptan is a thoughtful and progressive khadim of twenty-three.  Although the life of a khadim revolves around the spiritual maintenance of the Dargah Sharif and the guidance of its pilgrims, Anas explains the khadim have become very wealthy from nazrana, monetary gifts from their followers.

Many khadims have invested their assets in restaurants and guesthouses above the Dargah bazaar and rent the ground shops to largely Hindu shopkeepers.  The close proximity of Sufi and Hindu has the potential to fuel sectarian tensions, and the opportunism of Hindu shopkeepers so close to the spiritual site could breed resentment.  Nevertheless, Anas insists that any jealousies that may exist remain unspoken.  Instead, Anas emphasizes the value of tolerance.  “We respect each and everything that belongs to the shrine space,” he says referring not only to the pilgrims, but also to the flowers.  “The moment they touch the shrine, they become sacred.”

To many pilgrims, the unique spirit of Ajmer grows out of the doctrine of love and acceptance espoused by Khwaja Gharib Nawaz.  Today, people of all religions coalesce at the Dargah Sharif.  Ishrat Khatri, a Sufi devotee from Mumbai believes that whether Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Parsi, the rose is a gift of peace and purity from God that is available to all.  “The faith is in the flower,” Ishrat proclaims.

The young woman’s soft cheeks glisten as the evening namaz ends.  Ishrat has come to Ajmer with her new husband to offer her thanks directly to the saint.  Nevertheless, she maintains that wherever she goes Khwaja Gharib Nawaz is with her.  She digs into her purse, searching for a tissue to dry her eyes.  A bag of rose petals sits prominently among her possessions.  This flower is the “blessing of Baba,” as she calls it, a constant reminder of the gracefully intertwining lives of Ajmer.

I write now, staring down from time to time at the Hindu henna that Puja drew on my hand.  I have pinned in my hair a rose that I took from the flower shop, but few can see it beneath my headscarf.  I can feel that my eyes are all lit up as I reflect on the gift given to me by the three mali girls.

I had been at the farm for over an hour when Suntos looked at me with a devious smile, appreciably aware of my camera.  “Lal gulab,” she says pointing at the rose that I had been photographing.  I set down my camera and tried to mimic her words.  The girls laughed hysterically at my pronunciation.  I repeated the words aloud.  “Lal gulab,” the girls recited encouragingly.  Laxmi called the girls in for chai, and we sat sharing the few other Hindi words I had learned.  The sun was high now, and Tara, Puja, and Suntos stood to return to the fields.  Suntos looked back at me.  “Lal gulab,” I chanted.  Red rose.  The girls echoed “lal gulab.”

The lifecycle of the rose embodies the syncretism of the place, the parallel reality of faith and commerce and the symbiosis of Hindu and Muslim.  Few know of the legendary existence of the Ajmer rose and even fewer seem to imbue the rose with a conscious definition.  The rose is a means of income and it is an offering of beauty, but at its core, the rose of Ajmer is a symbol of coexistence and beacon of hope.

November 1, 2009 | Filed under Ajmer, Shared Landscapes, Sufism, Syncretic Religion, Works By Contributing Photographers and tagged with , , , , , , , .

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