The dargah of Moinuddin Chishti ( Gharib Nawaz -Benefactor of the Poor), known as Ajmer Sharif Dargah or Ajmer Sharif, is an international waqf, an Islamic mortmain managed by the Dargah Khwaja Saheb Act, 1955 of the government of India. Ajmer Sharif Dargah is 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) away from the main central Ajmer Railway station and situated at the foot of the Taragarh hill, and consists of several white marble buildings arranged around two courtyards, including a massive gate donated by the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Akbari Mosque, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. It contains the domed tomb of the saint. Akbar and his queen used to come here by foot on pilgrimage from Agra every year in observance of a vow when he prayed for a son. The large pillars called “Kose (‘Mile’) Minar”, erected at intervals of two miles (3 km) along the entire way between Agra and Ajmer mark the places where the royal pilgrims halted every day. It has been estimated that around 150,000 pilgrims visit the site every day.
The main gate to the shrine is the Nizam Gate, followed by the Shahjahani Gate, erected by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. In turn it is followed by the Buland Darwaza, built by Sultan Mahmood Khilji, upon which is hoisted the urs flag, marking the beginning of the death anniversary rituals. The urs for Moinuddin Chishti is celebrated every year on the 6th and 7th of Rajab.
, the founder of the Chishti Sufi order, one of the most important Sufi organizations in India and Pakistan. Sufi teachers were important missionaries of Islam, through their piety, charisma, blessings, and service. Muinuddin lived in Ajmer from 1190 until his death in 1232, and the reverence in which he was held after his death can be seen in the patronage his tomb attracted. The “crown” on the tomb’s summit is made of solid gold, and the open space in the foreground is a mosque built by the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan. The pilgrims in the foreground are taking an opportunity for private prayer.
This shows one of the tomb’s entrances, which are opened at set hours by the khadims or hereditary caretakers. The image (and language) is of a royal court (darbar) which the faithful can enter to ask for favors. The central assumption is that the saint is still conscious and attentive, and can confer blessings upon people, by acting as a channel for God’s grace.
The entrance is decorated with gold and enamel work, as well as Belgian crystal chandeliers (lights and lamps have traditionally appeared at Sufi tombs, perhaps to convey the image of the saint as illuminating people). Clocks are another regular feature of mosques and Sufi tombs–in part to help the faithful keep track of prayer times.
This interior shot shows the tomb itself. It is covered with rose petals, which are thrown by pilgrims as an offering with their prayers. The railings around the tomb are both made of silver. Pilgrims stand outside the outer railing, and the khadims (hereditary shrine keepers) move in the space in between. The heaps of rose petals give off an incredibly strong scent that fills the room, adding to the atmosphere.
The atmosphere outside the tomb is reverent (as is appropriate for such a setting), but it is also full of activity. One of the common activities is devotional singing by qawwals, whose songs often recount the deeds of the saint, and the power of the shrine. This photo shows qawwals set up directly outside the tomb, looking into one of the entrances (and thus figuratively at the “gateway” to the shrine. The qawwals are there through much of the day, and their singing enhances the devotional atmosphere.
As mentioned above, the shrine has enjoyed considerable patronage during its history from different Muslim rulers. This decorative gate was ascribed by a local source to Ala’uddin Khilji, who ruled the Delhi Sultanate between 1296-1315. Several other later rulers have built gateways outside of this one, including one built by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1911, which forms the present boundary between the street and the shrine grounds.
This is a ceremonial tomb for Baba Farid, a famous Sufi who was Khwaja Sahib’s “spiritual grandson.” Farid migrated to the Punjab, and lived in Pakpattan in modern-day Pakistan; he was the teacher of Hazrat Nizamuddin.
Pilgrims typically make offerings at the shrine, as a way to show their sincerity to the saint. The two things most commonly offered are rose petals (which one throws over the tomb) and decorative “blankets” embroidered with various verses, which are laid over the shrine. Both of these can be bought from stalls such as this one that are located within the shrine premises. There is a large range of possible offerings that can fit almost any budget; the large basket of rose petals in the foreground cost 100 rupees (about $2.00 U.S., although this amount has much greater buying power in the local economy–for example, it could easily buy a meal in a budget restaurant for 3-4 people).
This is a longer shot of some of the flower stalls (the empty baskets are visible on top of the roof), as well as the general activity visible at most times of the day: family groups sitting and resting, and a young boy delivering some food. Note that all men are wearing hats; head covering is required within the tomb itself, but is often worn at all times as a sign of piety.
The shrine has always been a place at which people’s material needs could be fulfilled, as well as their spiritual ones. As at most religious institutions, the Ajmer shrine gives out food every day to anyone (the usual amount is 200 kilograms of barley meal cooked into a porridge). Historical records show that the shrine has been an important resource for the local population in times of dire need (such as drought and famine), and in this way people continue to reap the benefits of the saint’s grace. The gateway in the center between these shops is the place where the daily distribution takes place.
Patronage to the shrine extended not only to Muslim kings, but to other rulers of India. This covered pool, at which the faithful may perform their ritual ablutions before entering the shrine or before the required worship, was donated by Britain’s Queen Mary, during a royal visit in 1911. To show her impartiality among India’s religious communities, during the same visit she also gave a donation to build a bathing ghat at Pushkar, a Hindu pilgrimage site which is about 10 miles away.
The men in the foreground are carrying water bags made out of goatskins; they sprinkle water on the ground as one way to keep the dust down.
This is the “small” cauldron, presented by Emperor Jahangir. It can cook sixty maunds (2,400 kg.) of “sweet” rice (mixed with spices, nuts, and dried fruits) at one time. Wood is piled under the cauldron and ignited, and the masonry absorbs the heat, continuing the cooking when the fires have burned down. People use large wooden paddles to stir the rice, and wear wooden shoes to protect their feet from the heat.
The food is paid for by donations (thrown into the cauldron itself), and from sponsorship by individuals in fulfillment of their vows (people come with prayers for something, and take a vow to sponsor this in return). The rice is distributed to everyone without partiality.
The “big” cauldron, presented by the emperor Akbar, can cook 120 maunds (4,800 kg) of rice at one time. The procedure here is the same as for the small cauldron.
The man in the foreground is Syed Mohammad Zahoor Baba, who is the treasurer of the Anjuman Syedzadgan, the trust which administers the shrine. He was kind enough to host us during our visits to the shrine, and he also served as our guide.
This photo shows offices of the keepers of the shrine, in this case Peer Saheb Syed Nafeesmila Chishty and others.
Note the trinket shop in the center, doubtless a way to raise a little extra income.