Monday, April 27, 2015

A modern sufi diary

Ajmer Sharif in Rajasthan has long been a prominent seat of Sufism in the country and, like any other centre of spiritual practice, it helps rejuvenate one’s mind and soul. Susmita Mukherjee visits the holy place to get a hands-on experience of the same...

I could begin by explaining how I ended up in the middle of the hinterland of Rajasthan with a share of hospitality that is the trademark of these quarters… but that would be another story. For now, I’ll keep the joys of the mighty Aravallis that tower before me as I soak in the flavour of the land, with a generous helping of gatta curry and hot chapatis, in the courtyard of a quaint cottage and take you on a journey through faith.

First impression

The reason I chose to stay here was because of the peace I felt at heart,” said Roza as we sat sipping a cup of hot tea at the Anjuman Guest House. I couldn’t help laughing at the irony of residing at a guest house on the beggar-infested street that led to the entrance of the Dargah Sharif. What peace could one possibly find here? But Roza, a tourist from Dimona in Israel, offered to take me around the dargah as she had come to see it over the past month.

After walking through the remaining expanse of the wide street with flowers and souvenir shops flanking both sides and alms-seekers stopping me at every step, we finally reached the Nizam Gate — the main entrance to the shrine. “When you climb these steps, you leave every worldly possession and clamour behind. You must have nothing but a sound faith,” said Roza. “The only identity of a true follower is his faith in the divine.” Her words calmed me instantly, the sight and sounds of the bustling market didn’t seem to bother me anymore as I handed over my footwear and proceeded to climb the steps. At the top, I felt like stepping into a different world, familiar, welcoming and yet so simple in its regularity that we crave for its solace in a mad, hectic world.

I walked through the gates and towards the talaab where I stopped to wash my hands and feet. “Everything around here reminds me of home,” she said. “The marketplace in my hometown was not very different and I often used to go to a dargah in the outskirts with my mother. I grew up seeing every beautiful part of my life falling to bits. Seeing life go on so normally here was startling at first but now I realise that this is how it was meant to be. The world was created for human beings like you and me to explore and appreciate the God’s great work.”

We walked across the market, selling flowers and chadars (drape for the saint) to be offered at the dargah. There was no haggling over prices. I merely took out the amount I was willing to pay and handed it to the shopkeeper who asked me if I wanted a chadar as well. He prepared my tokri (basket) as I watched Roza look longingly at the dargah. She had nothing to offer today except prayers.

I could see the pilgrims in a different light now. It was easy to distinguish those who had come to ask their benevolent benefactor for a favour from those who had returned to thank him for his kindness. There were also quite a few travellers, mainly foreigners, who wanted to feel the magic of Sufism, the egoless surrender to the divine as propagated by Moinuddin Chisti.

The way in

My tokri was ready. It was, unfortunately, too large for me to carry in my hand and seeing the crowd waiting to heave in, I understood the devotees’ habit of placing it on the head while entering the shrine. I walked towards the entrance, silently praying for Roza’s safe return, for finding peace within myself and in the world I live in. I lost sight of her in the crowd. I realised that our meeting was over and that I had to go forth on my own, find my path.

I jostled for space and was met with a mob trying to break in and out of the shrine. Fortunately, like every other pilgrim there who refused to give up, I found my way inside and offered prayers. When I emerged, I was overcome by a draining fatigue. I cannot say whether it was for the lack of space inside the shrine or the weight of the many little burdens that I had just shed. I found myself a quiet spot near a jaali (trellis) through which a group of women were looking at Chisti’s tomb. I sat down and meditated with them. After some time, I felt great peace and the crowd around me did not bother me anymore.

Khwaja’s legacy

Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, as the saint is fondly referred to by his disciples, holds an important place in the Sufi circuit of the subcontinent. He is hailed as the founder of the Chisti order of Sufis, said to be the descendants of Prophet Mohammed.

Moinuddin Chisti, as he was named by his parents, was born in Iran. After his father’s death, when he was just a teenager, he chanced upon a mystic walking by his garden. It was with his blessings that he embarked on his own journey of soul-searching. His quest took him to faraway lands and he met several scholars of his age. He finally came to India after a brief stopover at Lahore. He set up his base in Ajmer, continued his teachings and offered peace, guidance and solace to anyone who came to his door.

His shrine is at its colourful best during the festival of Urs, which marks the day when the Khwaja left his mortal body to be united with the divine after living the last six days of his life in isolation. Death is not considered inopportune in Sufism. It is, in fact, celebrated as the union of the soul with the source. Every year, those going for Haj are expected to visit the shrine at the time of Urs, which is scheduled according to the lunar calendar.

Return to reality

Having received the Khwaja’s blessings, I headed for the exit. Brushing my way through the crowd while looking for one of the khadims — men who have been serving at the dargah for generations and are always dressed in white with a black cap to cover their heads — I would have been lost for certain when a friendly pat on my shoulder made me turn around. Dressed in the traditional green attire with a string of white beads around his neck and a potli (pouch) under his arm, a fakir held out his arm as if beckoning me to follow his lead. He guided me through the crowd and brought me to one of the exits.

“Would you like to contribute to the deg (vessel) here? The light of the Sahan-e-Chiragh will always guide your way,” the fakir said, pointing to the courtyard lamp that I had missed during so many visits. I was aware that on festivals, the food and money donated by the pilgrims into the badi and chhoti degs (said to have been donated by Mughal emperors Akbar and his son Jahangir) were used to prepare a great meal for the public. I didn’t realise that it was one of the little joys that the people looked forward to. The smiling fakir looked on as I walked up to the edge of the badi deg and looked with new-found admiration at the amount of foodgrain, money and dried fruits that had been collected for a free kitchen.

After making an offering, I headed back to the fakir who then guided me to the lamp he had pointed at earlier. As I bowed my head in gratitude for the simple yet enlightening tour of the dargah, the fakir placed his hand on my head, blessed me and left.

My good deeds of the day done, I was content to head back to the materialistic city life.

Getting there

By air The nearest airport is at Jaipur, 135 km. The closest international airport is the Indira Gandhi International Airport at New Delhi, 350 km.

By rail There are several direct trains plying via Ajmer. Ajmer Junction is well-connected to the major cities of the country.

By road Ajmer is connected to New Delhi by the National Highway 8 via Jaipur and makes for a comfortable five-and-a-half-hour drive. The Rajasthan Roadways offers several luxurious and standard coaches for travel within and outside the State.

Copyright: Exotica, the wellness and lifestyle magazine from The Pioneer Group, available in all rooms of select five-star hotel chains across the country

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