One of my favourite part about traveling is arriving in new cities after dark. How I love all those dramatic renderings of a nocturnal city about its habitual resistance for chime and harmony. Late evening arrivals are cold but vehement; confusing but pristine; even vulnerable but full of life. There is no homecoming, no welcoming smile, not even a flash of familiarity. But the character a city holds when its people walk free from their daily grind, makes it comforting than confining. You always get to have your way around at whatever pace and tone.
And that is how I broke into Ajmer. I stroll straight through Madar gate with ease to the cramped Purani Mandi. Treating to some local sweets, I am already friends with this ancient city. Straying down the back roads, staring at built environ, seeing lives spilling up and down the lanes, I make efforts to work on my sense of place. That night the 13th century Sufi shrine (dargah) which defined Ajmer for me felt elsewhere. The city was unfolding.
One needn’t have any sense of direction or go through an adventurous ritual of asking around to reach this shrine of Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti. Even at an early hour of the day, I was taken to a huge red sandstone structure – the Nizam gate, by stream of devotees threading through the bazaar, with no one tumbling down on each other, as if on a convention. Inside, it is not a very different world either. But the vibe inside is so rich that one could almost fail to notice the intricate carved walls, even if you were leaning back against it, yea I almost did! The forecourt in itself is a bandage of agony, serenity and celebration. You see men beating their head against stone railings, women getting to feet from their prostrations and then tying the holy threads of faith on Jannati Darwaza, families moving in groups celebrating their answered prayers and people swaying to and fro all around. For few moments, I did reproach myself about the point of my apparent purposelessness.
Inside the mausoleum I had an interesting encounter with a cleric who helped me get near Kwaja Moinunddin Chisti’s crypt, who was disappointed to find I had no offerings to put on tomb but still tapped my head with a feather fan. I had to let him down again when I declined to bury my face in the sheets full of rose petals and kiss the tomb before directing me towards the exit gate. Brought up in a different islamic tradition contesting dargah worship I did have my own apprehensions. But then what is more islamic than the practice of cooking food for masses in those giant copper cauldrons inside Khwaja’s shrine with supplies donated by visitors’ of the Gharib Nawaz, benefactor of the poor! Because more than the hazy swirl of incense smoke, the roses in sweet smelling punnets and qawwali players in the marble courtyards what appealed to me in Ajmer Sharif was how the idea of everyday lived Islam can be appreciated in spaces like these.
While it is fashionable to talk of the composite culture and cosmopolitan spirituality in relation to Ajmer, it is a least functioning city. From a city bearing the burden of an urban fantasy of becoming smart city, I am off to walk some labyrinthine lanes in Pushkar.