The Idea of India
Believers, Blasphemers and Beggars In Ajmer, The City That Love Built And Life Sustains

When they celebrate the death anniversary of a saint, they come in crowds from far and near to his tomb; and reaching there on the day of the ‘urs’, they perform more devotions than they do for obligatory (Islamic) rituals. To solve their worldly problems, they address their supplications to the tombs…They pray to the saint in his tomb to ask for children and food; they offer costly veils for the tomb, sprinkle perfume on it, burn incense ; thinking it meritorious they adorn the tomb, light lamps; they think that with this superfluous expenditure, they will please the saint who resides in the tomb and will reach his proximity. They thus do thousands of such acts in the same way as the Hindu polytheists do for their idols.

From the Al-Balagh al-Mubina 19th century tract condemning Saint worship (Urdu text, page 37 & 38)

The Mapilla (term used to describe a Muslim from Kerala) is indignant; the beggar, whose family originally comes from a Hindu village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, insists that he should buy him a meal. But the Mapilla doesn’t speak Hindi and the beggar does not speak English or Malayam. A Sikh woman, who with her husband and her four children, who has come here from Faridkot in Punjab, has been offering to buy the beggar food, but only after she has been able to complete her ziarat (devotions) at the shrine. An older woman, probably a companion to the beggar, is whispering things in the background that I cannot quite understand. Her mala makes loud noises in the morning air as she gesticulates to explain something to the beggar who every few minutes turns to look at her quizzically before turning back to his ‘target’. The Mapilla lights a cigarette and smiles at me. A bearded man, sitting at a nearby tea stall, jeers at the beggar, telling him in a fine, cultivated Urdu, that he is losing his touch and should retire from his ‘business’. The men around him, many from a local Hindu owned flower shop, smile and continue sipping their first morning cup of hot tea. The marketplace is starting to come to life and the narrow alleys are filling up with bodies and business. The policemen guarding the Eastern entrance to the shrine are preventing a group of European tourists from entering the shrine – they are inappropriately dressed but can’t seem to understand why so. A senior police officer, a medium built but stern Sikh man, is explaining to them the dress code, while a large group of mendicants and street vendors gather to plead to the tourists to buy their wares. A group of young khadims – hereditary caretakers of the shrine at Ajmer, are also sitting at the tea stall. They look tired but are in good spirits. Their conversations veers from discussions of late night music sessions to anecdotes about the intricacies of business investments that have failed to bear profits. They are young and though dressed in traditional kameez and chooridars they could just as well be urban youth dressed in jeans and t-shirts.

The sound of parathas (fried Indian bread) being placed on the stove brings smiles to the faces of the patrons. Across the street, at a Vaishno dhabba (vegetarian food only), the Hindu owners and servers are cleaning out the tables as cups of tea are sent across to fortify them and help them prepare for the day. The Mapilla continues to smoke his cigarette and I see that he is now holding a cup of tea. The beggar has not moved and is sitting on on the ground nearby. A nearby pa’an shop (beetal leaf) is already doing a lot of business, as men stand around catching up on the morning news and greeting each other with loud shouts and slaps on the back. A preacher is reciting verses from the Quran to a young man who looks confused but attentive. A fresh pa’an is in his hands, but he seems afraid to eat it while the older man is reciting. A basket of roses sits near by feet – my friend has told me that these flowers are produced by the Mali caste near the city of Pushkar, some two hour drive from here. The man now sitting next to me invites me to another cup of tea – he is from Bangalore and here because his wife has insisted on visiting the shrine though he refuses to believe in such shrine visits. Now as she sits inside, he prefers to wait outside. They are Hindus, but he proudly tells me that his beliefs are deeply secular. So why have they come here, for aren’t there many important shrines closer to their home? Gharib Nawaz is the exalted one, he replies, somewhat sheepishly, and our son is ill. I say nothing but nod.

The world that revolves around the tomb complex of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti is now alive; businessmen, tourists, mendicants, preachers, shoppers, vendors, beggars, the poor, and more are here bought by the desire for money, salvation, opportunity and possibilities. It is a carefully negotiated world, I realize, as I sit and watch it go by. Religious and sectarian identities are gently set aside to seek out larger concerns. The shrine invites all, refuses no one, and offers a universal salvation. The world that has come alive around it, from the large Hindu neighborhoods, to those of traditional caretakers, musicians and preachers of the shrine itself, is a microcosm of India itself and a reflection of the cultural heterodoxy that can be found in most any Indian city, but here, in Ajmer, seems only to be magnified and made obvious. As I sit and watch what appears to be a human cacophony emerging, I feel a calm at the realization that no one cares who I am and what I am. Here, in this city, this negotiated social world, I can be whatever, and somehow it will find a way to accept and accommodate me. I want it to. A look at and I see the Mapilla gentleman walking away down the street. The beggar is holding a pack of cigarettes while the old woman looks disgusted.


4:00 am Ajmer, Rajasthan: The shadows around me whisper their daroods and offer their salaams to the saint. The khadim stands next to me – I am here, at this early hour when the darkness still covers the city and the shrine of one of India’ greatest Sufi saints Mu’in al-Din Chishti in Ajmer, Rajasthan, at his invitation. He had wanted to me to see the morning Khidmat- the ritual performed by the khadims to clean and prepare the shrine before the arrival of the pilgris. Walking to where we had agreed to meet I was filled with doubt; early morning hours have never been my finest or most lucid. The men standing around me are the caretakers of the shrine – most all of them direct descendants of the saint himself and have gathered, as others have each and every day of each and every year since the 13th century, to begin the first of a number of daily rituals performed at the shrine. The silver plated Eastern doors of the shrine are locked, but already some of the men around me are touching them and saying quiet, personal prayers. The baridar (key keeper) is asked to proceed, as the khadim whispers the azaan to himself. The keys turn, with a practiced fluidity of an act repeated over the centuries, and the doors are pushed open. We step inside.


His life is surrounded, perhaps even veiled, in myths and legends. The hundreds of thousands of people who arrive and cram the streets and alleys around his shrine in Ajmer, Rajasthan come here seeking solace, forgiveness, assistance, amnesty, deliverance and mercy. Khwaja Mu’in al-din Chishti, also know to most by the affectionate Gharib Nawaz (carer of the poor and needy), is seen and understood as a simple holy many who used his miraculous powers to defeat evil kings, subdue demons, bless the poor and serve the needy. In dozens of music and video stores that line the stalls of the sprawling and chaotic bazaar around the shrine people can stand and watch films that re-enact his miracles. He is shown to have the power to fly, control the elements and nature itself, mix portions, cure diseases, give life to the dead, compel the powerful to bow to him and communicate directly with God himself. The acting is amateurish, the special effects unconvincing, the production values those of a high school film club at its worst, and dialogue so staccato that one wonders if the actors were simply the first people who walked across the director’s office window. But the viewers see past this – their eyes transfixed at the television screens hanging on storefront awnings, as stories of his benevolence and piety are played back.

The dargah of Mu’in al-Din is visited by all; Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and others. His powers and piety are respected by people from all over India. I remember receiving a vivid reminder of this in Jammu, Kashmir where the Hindu owner of a cloth store across from the Hanuman temple near the Bagh-e-Bahu kept a model of the Eastern doors of the Ajmer shrine in his shop. When I asked him about it he told me that he had asked his sister to buy it for him when she had traveled to Ajmer for a pilgrimage to the shrine. He is a holy man, a man of God, and we seek the blessings and protection of all men of God he explained to me with a smile.


4:30 am Ajmer, Rajasthan: The inner chamber is near black but the men move around it with practiced knowledge and familiarity. The doors of the chamber have been closed behind me. Senior khadims are preparing to clean the tomb before the arrival of the first pilgrims and the opening of the tomb complex to the public. Depending on their seniority they stand at various distances from the central tomb itself. The fragrance of the rose – sweet, near intoxicating, is overwhelming and sharp. I can’t see much and stand back. A man steps forward – one of the senior khadims, and begins to light candles around the tomb. I can see the sej (a garland of flowers that drapes the tomb) as it is lifted and placed inside a basket. It will later be carried to the nearby shrine of Bibi Hafiz Sahib, daughter of Gharib Nawaz, and draped over her tomb. Other men are lifting the ghilaf (cloth sheet) off the tomb itself, allowing petals and offerings to fall to the floor of the shrine. There is a rustling sound. I can make out men sweeping the floors with colorful, fan like implements – peacock feather sweepers. The petals that lay across the floor of the shrine are carefully collected. Soon thousands will scramble to possess them – the saint’s soul in the body of a flower. The sounds of the azaan floats across the still, cool, pre-dawn air.


Ironically the music and video stores do not tell the thousands who come here of the saint’s real power. Far from performing magic or subduing demons, the Chishti saints were perhaps the most influential religious order responsible for the spread and growth of Indo-Muslim states in regions of South Asia. They bought the Muslim dynasties to regions in India that had never previously been influenced by Islamic rule. The Kings came here to pay homage and some stayed. It was not uncommon to consider dynastic fortunes to be associated with the Chishti order, a belief that begins in the early 14th century during the period of Tughluq rule. The power and influence of a saint is believed to adhere to the site of his shrine, and hence rulers and the common wo/men alike traveled to these sites. And with nearly all the most important shrines of the shaikhs located within South Asia, kings and rulers were compelled to arrive in these lands to pay homage and seek blessings. They later became crucial totems of legitimacy for rulers looking for Islamic legitimacy and Indian authenticity.

Thus Chishti shaikhs repeatedly participated in the launching of new Indo-Muslim states. From 1342 to 1347 founders of independent Indo-Muslim dynasties in both Bengal and the Deccan patronized local Chishti shaikhs whose own spiritual masters had migrated from Delhi, where they had studied with the imperial capital’s preeminent Sufi shaikh, Nizam al-Din Auliya (himself a disciple of Mu’in al-Din Chishti). For example, the Gujarati Muzaffar Khan proclaimed his independence from the collapsing Tughluq dynasty after marching to the shrine at Ajmer and paying his respects at the shrine of Mu’in al-Din Chishti In 1404 the former governor of Malwa, Dilawar Khan, declared his independence from Delhi and announced himself a follower of the Chishti shaikh Shaikh Nasir al-Din Mahmud, a disciple of the famous Chishti shaikh Nizam al-Din Auliya. The pattern continued and in fact intensified with the arrival of India’s first Mughal King, Babur, upon entering Delhi in 1526, prayed at the shrine of the Chishti saint Bakhtiyar Kaki, while his brother-in-law rebuilt the tomb of Nizam al-Din Auliya. Akbar not only visited the shrine on a number of occasions, but built his great city of Fatehpur Sikri near the hospice site of Salim Chishti, and a tomb to his father Humayan near the shrine of Nizam al-Din Auliya in Delhi. Not by coincidence, Salim Chishti tied the royal turban on the head of Akbar’s son Jehangir to announce him as the future successor to the throne. Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahan Ara wrote a biography of Mu’in al-Din Chishti Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb, in his attempts to construct another great Indian empire, visited many Chishti shrines and made large contributions to their upkeep and renovations. As the historian Richard M. Eaton argues (see Gilmartin, D. & Lawrence, B.B. Beyond Turk & Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia)

Rulers of the entire Mughal dynasty, believing that the blessings of the Chishti shaikhs underpinned their worldly success, vigorously patronized the order. Two of Akbar’s fourteen pilgrimages to the shrine of Mu’in al-Din Chishti at Ajmer [Rajasthan], those of 1568 and 1574, were made immediately after conquering Chittor and Bengal, respectively. Discussing his military successes with the historian ‘Abd al-Qadir Badauni, Akbar remarked ‘All this (success) has been brought through the Pir [Mu’in al-Din Chishti]’. Vividly dramatized by Akbar’s pilgrimages from Agra to Ajmer, several of them made by foot, the Mughal-Chishti partnership even survived the collapse of the Mughal state. In a sense it persists to this day. The ceremonies, the terminology, and the protocol still found at the Chishti shrines generally, and at the Ajmer shrine particularly, reflect the extraordinary intrusion of Mughal courtly culture into that of the Chishti order.

The dargah itself is a hub of belief, piety, reconciliation, solace, and perhaps most importantly, the cultural integration of different religious communities in the Indian subcontinent. Many today, including the famous shrine in Ajmer, continue to have this influence and it has been argued that they play a greater role in inter-communal harmony than even the saint did in his lifetime. The social, economic and political world that revolves around a dargah represents the complex inter-mingling and collaborative coexistence India’s diverse people, ethnicities, religions and cultures. (See Britt Sloan’s The Rose of Ajmer).

In his essay (see Troll C.W (Ed.) Muslim Shrines in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1978) “The Early Chishti Dargahs”, Iqtidar Husain Siddiqui points out that:

Unconverted Hindus also often remained sincerely attached to the dargah, paid visits there, and made offerings in case of kind. Their descendants followed this tradition. It is worth recalling that in medieval times Hindus and Muslims often vowed offerings to a patron saint or deity if their prayers were answered. Sometimes, faced with serious problems such as the illness of an only son or the desire for a male child, Hindus seem to have vowed that they would accept Islam. For Hindus, and often for new converts to Islam whose conversions were partial, the dargah was a substitute for the idol.

In fact, it was not uncommon for Hindus to be employed as mutawallis (caretaker) at the Ajmer shrine itself. This was an argument in a court case brought by the Ajmer dargah committee against the Dargah Khwaja Saheb Act of 1955 (XXXVI of 1955) which was, according to the court documents (link to document is here), ‘An Act to make provision for the proper administration of the dargah and the Endowment of the dargah of Khawaja Mu’in al-din Chishti, generally known as Dargah Khawaja Saheb, Ajmer.’

The past history of the Endowment for centuries showed that its management was always vested in mutawallis appointed by the State, some of whom were Hindus, and that the pilgrims who visited the Dargah and made offering were not confined to Moslems alone but belonged to all communities.

The appointment of Hindus as mutawallis, an appointment made by the Mughal emperors themselves, was used as an argument against the special rights of the Chishti denomination to the offerings and donations made to the shrine. The fact of non-Muslim participation in the rituals and care of the shrine at Ajmer is also pointed out by Syed Liyaqat Hussain Moini (see Troll C.W (Ed.) Muslim Shrines in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1978) points out that:

The appointment of non-Muslims to the important posts of mutawwali (custodian) and amin (revenue officers), etc., their participation in the ceremonies at the shrine in an official capacity, the grant of stipends and daily allowances to Hindus – including zunnardars (Hindu priest), bairagis (Hindu fakirs) and the fixation of their shares in the daily langar (free food) – reflected the increasing presence of non-Muslims in the internet management of the dargah. But this development did not cause any tension or discord, and the atmosphere has remained as serene as it was before this significant development.


7:30pm: The calls for the evening prayers is washing across the roofs of the city. The khadim mutters something about overzealous mosques in the neighborhood trying to outdo each other by being the first to say the evening azaan. I see men walking up towards the outer walls of the central tomb carrying drums. The candles are being lit as we begin to walk and initiate the evening services. The candles are placed in small plates – agardanis, and then carried into the chamber. The crowds around us are waiting, anxiously, with their eyes tracking each movement of the men who are about to perform the ritual. The sound of drums breaks through the silence as some men begin to walk holding candles towards the central tomb. A crowd of men move closer, asking for blessings from the khadims carrying the candles, and continue to follow the khadims into the tomb itself. I am pushed me aside unable to keep up with the khadim who has stepped inside the chamber. From outside I see a broad, gentle, dancing light begin to emerge from within – the candles around the tomb, many hanging in special silver holders, are being lit. The crowd is silent, reverent, participating and yet still. There is a conversation with the revered, as the candles become acts of submission and humility, signals of devotion and respect. I look across at the women who have gathered near the shrine of Gharib Nawaz’s daughter. There is still one last candle to light – that at the shrine of Bibi Hafiz Jamal, and the women wait patiently. It is the final stage of the Roshni ((illumination) ceremony. The khadim emerges, candle in hands, and walks past the crowd of women, waving the candle over their heads as he walks past. A few minute later a glow emerges from within the daughter’s tomb. And the women enter the main shrine.


The Chishti shaikhs founded some of the earliest dargahs in India. Mu’in al-Din Chishti who arrived in India from Central Asia, died in Ajmer in 1235 and was buried there. The shaikh was fleeing the chaos caused in the regions of Khurasan by Chingiz Khan’s invasions. A number of magical and historical legends grew around him including one that claimed that the shaikh arrived in Ajmer during the reign of the Rai Prithiv Raj and suffered under his rule. This continued until his piety, perseverance in the face of the harassment converted the Rai Prithvi’s head priest. This was probably the root of a famous legend that tells of Gharib Nawaz defeating the evil wizard Jaypal, sent by the Hindu King to drive the shaikh from his lands, by turning the hot coals cast at him into roses.

More reliable sources however reveal that Mu’in al-din Chishti arrived in Ajmer (see S.A.A. Rizvi’s A History of Sufism in India Vol 1, New Delhi: Munshilal Manoharlal, 1978) during the reign of Sultan Shamsuddin Iltumish well after the Hindu resistance in the region had been subdued. But the fame of his dargah at Ajmer emerged during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar. By the 14th century it had become customary to visit the prominent Sufis of the Chishti order, and by the time Akbar ascended the thrown, the elite and and people would frequent the dargah itself, which was located on an important trade route between Gujarat and Delhi. Akbar however became a devotee and came to the shrine on a number of occasions which only increased the veneration and prestige of the shrine. But religious devotion to the saint and his shrine were never a reason for political devotion; Akbar banished the mutawalli of the shrine, Shaikh Husain Ajmeri, when it was suspected that the Shaikh Ajmeri opposed Akbar’s religious policies and could spread dissent amongst the population from his position as caretaker of a powerful and influential shrine.


10:00 pm: The courtyard of the shrine is filled with the sounds of the qawwals – the khadims will be preparing to close the doors of the shrine for the night. I stand near the sandali mosque where the flower petals will be deposited in the large disposal bin that has been constructed here. The petals are swept of the floor of the shrine and are considered blessed, as are the farrashas (peacock feather sweepers) that are used to clean the floors of the shrine. Small children are gathering around me, excited and playful. Sufi shrines, much like mosques, are often filled with the sound of children play. I have always loved this aspect of Asia’s devotional spaces – the accepted and celebrated tolerance of children at play. Now as the ghariyali (time keeper) calls out that six gharis have passed (24 minutes) I sit and watch these small souls light up this world, otherwise seeped and lost in devotion and prayer, with their smiles, endless joy and careless banter. There is a sudden change in the sound of the music – Bhojpuri says the young khadim standing next to me, its a local dialect that the qawwals are now singing in. The flowers are being dumped into the hold and the children are excitedly picking up petals that falls out of the baskets being used to carry them. The pilgrims continue to ask for blessings, as if trying to capture ever last essence of the saints mercy and influence. I hear the doors to the shrine close shut. The karka ceremonies are over. At the gates the policemen are holding back yet more pilgrims – tomorrow, tomorrow. Come back tomorrow. They will.


Nowadays in Hindustan many followers of the Prophet have been engulfed in shirk…I have therefore decided to show the people, in the light of the Quran and Traditions, the Right Path…I have used the ‘language of Hind’ (Hindi) so that all Muslim brethren can understand it…In the same way that the heathens worship the idols, Muslims started worshiping the tombs of saints whom they believe to be as powerful as Allah…I beseech those who have read this tract, to read it to Muslim men and women and to explain it to them…hoping that they will understand what is tauhid and will repent from shirk.

Khurram ‘Ali Bilhauri, Nasihat al-Muslimin (1909 Lucknow Edition)

The orthodox continue to rail against the shrines, ironically damning the very shaikhs and spiritual practices that allowed and enabled Islam to arrive in India and find a home here. Orthodox mythology would like to suggest that pious, God-fearing men introduced the religion to the pagans of the sub-continent. That temples were destroyed, heathens converted or killed, and the word of the Prophet bought to the land by pious and God-fearing men driven by a spiritual zeal that eclipsed all else. Nothing could be further from the truth. For not only were the Central Asian kings who laid the foundations of Islamic states and empires in India not iconoclasts, they were also not religiously motivated or driven. The first Mughal emperor Babur, left us a vivid idea of his life and joys in his magnificent work The Baburnama. If Islam found a foot in this complex land of many beliefs and unique cultural practices, it did so through the words, songs and actions of the humble, accommodating and pious Sufi fakirs like Mu’in al-Din Chishti and others who found ways to incorporate much of India into their world view and produce a syncretic and tolerant language and spiritual practice.


I think back to Kant – The Critique of Pure Reason. His argument that whenever reason is applied to fields cannot be checked by experience are liable to drift towards contradictions and produce what he referred to as ‘mere fancies’; ‘nonsense’; ‘illusions’; ‘a sterile dogmatism” and ‘a superficial pretension to the knowledge of everything’. I think Karl Popper expressed it best in his work The Open Society & Its Enemies Vol II, when he summarized Kant’s views as follows:

Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, asserted under the influence of Hume that pure speculation or reason, whenever it ventures into a field in which it cannot possibly be checked by experience, is liable to get involved in contradictions or ‘antinomies’ and to produce what he unambiguously described as ‘mere fancies’; ‘nonsense’; ‘illusions’; ‘a sterile dogmatism” and ‘a superficial pretension to the knowledge of everything’. He tried to show that to every metaphysical assertion or thesis, concerning for example the beginning of the world in time, or the existence of God, there can be contrasted a counter-assertion or antithesis; and both, he held, may proceed from the same assumptions, and can be proved with an equal degree of ‘evidence’.

And indeed, this realization should fill us not with dread, but with a humility. The orthodox, the fundamentalist make fine use of reason, parsing through texts and sayings and arguing with apparent logic and clarity. Their cold, calculated dogmatism belies their inhumanity and they lack the humility to realize that they can just as easily construct alternative arguments. The Sufis, wherever they went, whomever them confronted, never forgot their own frailty, or the presence of doubt even as they articulated their verses. And they never forgot that man is frail and weak in the face of the many troubles and trails life sets in his and her path. And that in such times and place, the message of the divine must not scold or dictate, but solace, comfort, and offer courage.

Further Reading:

Troll, Christian W. (Ed.), Muslim Shrines In India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi 1989

Gilmartin, D. & Lawrence, B.B. Beyond Turk & Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia

The following reference can actually be read online:

Eaton, Richard M. The Rise Of Islam & The Bengal Frontier 1204 – 1760, University of California Press, Berkeley

December 9, 2009 | Filed under Ajmer, History, Rituals & Festivals, Shared Landscapes, Sufism, Syncretic Religion and tagged with , , , , , , .

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