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Heritage

Embodiment of syncretic traditions

MOHAMMED IQBAL

Founded after the arrival in India of one of the most outstanding Sufi saints, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the Ajmer dargah continues to be at the centre of a way of life born of the human heart.

Photo: Gopal Sunger

An important centre of pilgrimage: Devotees at the Ajmer Dargah.

The aesthetic and stunning white dome that crowns the main tomb of the historic dargah of the Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer stands out as an illustrious embodiment of Islamic mysticism of the Chishtiya order founded in India after the arrival of one of the most outstanding figures in the annals of Sufism from West Asia.

The dargah at Ajmer Sharif today attracts lakhs of people — Muslims, Hindus, Christians and others — from the Indian sub-continent and from other parts of the world, depicting a rare blend of religions. People assemble at the shrine during the week-long Urs every year to beseech for fulfilment of their prayers.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, popularly known as Khwaja Gharib Nawaz (protector of the poor), was born in 1141 A.D. at Sanjar in the Sistan province of Iran. He was a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. His parents died when he was only 15 years old and he used to look after the orchard and windmill that he inherited from his father.

During his childhood, young Moinuddin was different from others and kept himself busy in prayers and meditation. He was sober, silent and serene.

Legend has it that once when he was watering his plants, a revered monk, Sheikh Ibrahim Qandozi, came to his orchard. Young Moinuddin approached him with all humility and offered him some fruits. In return, the monk gave him a piece of bread and asked him to eat it.

Turning point

The Khwaja got enlightened and found himself in a strange world after eating the bread. This was a turning point in his life. He disposed of his property and other belongings and distributed the money thus received among the poor and the needy. He renounced the world and left for Bukhara in search of knowledge and higher education.

In those days, Samarkand and Bukhara were great seats of Islamic learning. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti visited the seminaries of the two cities and acquired religious learning at the feet of eminent scholars of his age. He visited nearly all the great centres of Muslim culture and acquainted himself with almost every important trend in the Muslim religious life.

He became the disciple of the famous Dervish, Khwaja Usman Harooni, and remained under his guidance for nearly 20 years. They travelled in West Asia extensively together and also went to Mecca and Medina.

Khwaja Gharib Nawaz turned towards India reputedly after a dream in Medina in which he received the directions to go to Hindustan. After a brief stay in Lahore, he reached Ajmer along with his 40 followers and camped near Ana Sagar lake.

The place from where the Khwaja’s extensive missionary work was taken up is now known as Chillah of Khwaja Saheb. The residents of the city admired the wisdom, purity and grace of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz and people from various walks of life cherished to be his disciples. The vast number of his followers, both Hindus and Muslims, emulated him and symbolised his dictum of “Sulh-i-Kul” (peace with all).

Mystic mission

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti’s firm faith in “Wahdat-al-Wujud” (unity of being) provided the necessary ideological support to his mystic mission to bring about the emotional integration of the people among whom he lived. His teaching lay stress on renunciation of material goods and tolerance and respect for religious differences.

He interpreted religion in terms of human service and exhorted his disciples to develop a “river-like generosity, sun-like affection and earth-like hospitality”. The highest form of devotion, according to him, was to redress the misery of those in distress and fulfil the needs of the helpless and feed the hungry.

Sufism in Islam is akin to Vedanta in Hinduism. It believes in non-dual Absolute and looks upon the world as the reflection of God, who is conceived as Light. Sufism is claimed to be a way of life born of the human heart against the cold formalism and ritualism.

Ajmer Sharif emerged as one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in India during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605). Akbar undertook a journey on foot to accomplish his humble wish to reach the place and presented a big cauldron for cooking food after his conquest of Chittorgarh. A small cauldron was later presented by Emperor Jehangir in 1646.

Some of the books authored by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti are Anis-al-Arwah and Daleel-al-Arefeen, dealing with the Islamic code of living. His most famous disciples were Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki and Hamiduddin Nagori.

The week-long Urs, observed every year in the dargah, commemorates the event in 1236 when Khwaja Gharib Nawaz entered his cell to pray in seclusion for six days, at the end of which he died. When his devotees opened the door, the Khwaja was found dead, and on his forehead were written these words: “He was a beloved of God and he died in the love of God.”

He was buried, according to the traditions of the prophets, in the same tenement which he occupied in his life and in which he breathed his last. During the Urs, attended by people from far and wide, devotional music and recitings from the Khwaja’s own works and other Sufi saints are presented in the traditional Qawwali style and in chorus.

The Urs — observed between the first and sixth days of the Hijri month of Rajab — is also the much sought-after occasion when “Jannati Darwaza” (door to heaven) is opened for the devotees. People from all religions offer chadar and floral tributes at the grave of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.

Several monuments

Besides the mausoleum, there are several other monuments of historical interest located within the premises of the Sufi shrine. They include the tenement of Bibi Hafiz Mahal, Begami Dalan constructed in memory of Begum Jehanara, Mehfil Khana, Ahata-e-Noor, Aulia mosque and the Chillah of Baba Farid.

The dargah has recovered from the obnoxious shadow of an unfortunate incident involving a bomb explosion on October 11 last year that killed three persons in its compound. It is now on the way to restoration of its past glory. Several projects have been launched for beautification of the 13th-century shrine and attempts made to improve its management.

The new dargah committee, which took over six months ago after dissolution of the previous panel, has chalked out a plan to ensure free movement of pilgrims, stop commercial activities on the dargah premises and renovate various buildings, besides stepping up security to prevent terror attacks.

As part of its efforts to step up security for pilgrims, the dargah committee has sanctioned a special budget of Rs. 26 lakh for the upkeep of sensitive high beam cameras, closed circuit televisions, X-ray machines and metal detectors installed on the premises recently. Security guards have also been deployed at sensitive locations inside the shrine.

Says Prince of Arcot Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali, president of the nine-member dargah committee: “The dargah is a fine embodiment of syncretic traditions of our country. Its beautification will protect a rich legacy for generations to come and apprise them of the noble values of Sufism, promoting tolerance, charity and universal brotherhood.”

Nawab Mohammed Abdul Ali — the first person from South India to be appointed the dargah committee chief — has instructed the administration of the shrine to make “value addition” to the dargah endowment and properties and put them to a productive use for philanthropic activities, such as education, grants to the destitute and welfare of orphans.

The dargah committee, established under the provisions of the Dargah Khwaja Saheb Act, 1955, administers and controls the affairs of the shrine as well as its endowments. It also organises the annual Urs and regulates the presence of Khadims (workers) on the premises, besides determining their privileges and giving them licences.

Generous outlay

An annual budget of Rs. 3.09 crore was approved at a dargah committee meeting recently, with the endorsement of proposals for eviction of unauthorised possessions on the dargah premises, extension of amenities for pilgrims, establishment of a university named after Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, expansion of the Khwaja Model School building and enhancement of grants to widows and orphans.

Besides, restoration of the heritage of two Chillahs of the Sufi saint, renovation of Eidgah and three mosques and expansion of the guest house are among the projects cleared by the committee.

Significantly, the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) has incorporated the renovation of the exterior of the dargah in its project for Ajmer. The renovation of various structures on the premises of the shrine, on the other hand, has been taken up by the dargah committee in its capacity as the custodian of the historic monument.

Dargah Nazim Ahmed Raza — functioning as Chief Executive Officer of the dargah committee — undertook visits to several places in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh during the last 11 months to find out the present status of the dargah’s agricultural lands worth about Rs.1.5 crore and succeeded in getting possession of 20 properties previously encroached upon.

The plaster of Sandal Khana and Akbari mosques in the dargah complex was replaced with marble to give them an elegant look. As part of efforts to improve amenities for pilgrims, round-the-clock supply of water for ablution was arranged and a project for stay arrangements at Vishram Sthali, especially during the Urs, was launched.

Pilgrims visiting the shrine in large numbers every year can look forward to finding themselves in spruced up surroundings with an ambience promoting spiritual contentment and fulfilling the mystical yearning to find the true purpose of life. Evidently, the message of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz does not admit of time. It is as true today, as it was when delivered centuries ago. (EOM)

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