What Zardari did not see


The Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti

President Zardari should have visited Ajmer in June on the 800th Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.

South Asia’s most revered Muslim, Moinuddin Chishti established the Chishti silsila in the subcontinent; its spiritual successors were Sufis like Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki of Mehrauli, Baba Farid of Pakpattan in Pakistan, and Hazrat Nizamuddin of Delhi.

Known as Gharib Nawaz, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti died in 1236. The death anniversary of a Sufi saint is not mourned, it is celebrated. Urs means “wedding” in Arabic and it symbolises the union of the lover with the beloved, who is God.

The dargah was emptied of pilgrims during Zardari’s visit. He wouldn’t have experienced what we commoners see, hear and feel in the shrine each evening for Dua-e-Roshni as khadims carry large yellow candles to the durbar, the tomb-chamber, hundreds of birds suddenly land on the branches of the mursali tree. Little else is heard in the courtyard except for their chirping. As the drummer strikes, the candles are lit amid the chanting of a Persian invocation to Gharib Nawaz, acknowledging him as the foremost friend of God on the face of the earth.

“Ajmer Sharif is the extension of what I am,” filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt told me. “Being the son of a Shiite mother and a Brahmin father, my biological construct is a union of Muslim and Hindu cultures. There are more Hindus visiting the dargah than Muslims. It is the Khwaja’s wide appeal that has kept his cult going.”

On 11 October 2007, during Ramzan, a bomb exploded below the same mursali tree. Three people died. The alleged suspects were first thought to be Islamic extremists and later, Hindu.

“The aim was to oppose the stream of thought on which Ajmer is built,” Bhatt said. “The idea of the Other is not a threat in the Khwaja’s dargah, which is like a garden where the rose is not frightened of the mogra. Both have a distinct fragrance and together they make the scent.”

As the sun sets behind the barren Aravalli Hills, the marble floor gets cool. Qawwals sit facing the durbar; some listeners look lost, others gaze at the dome. Among the devotees, the Kashmiris stand out in their loosely hanging pherans. A Hindu woman in a red sari has her hands folded in prayer. She is sobbing.

Although people of all religions visit Ajmer Sharif, its daily rituals revolve around the five mandatory prayers of Muslims. This is not surprising since Moinuddin Chishti was one of the pioneers of Islamic mysticism in the subcontinent. His arrival from Central Asia in 1192 coincided with the conquest of India by Muhammed of Ghor, who defeated Prithviraj Chauhan, the last Hindu king to rule Delhi.

“The majority of Indian Muslims were Hindus,” author Sadia Dehlvi told me, “and accepted Islam because of Gharib Nawaz and the Sufis who spread his message. The Khwaja allowed his followers to express the love of God through inclusive traditions such as music. This sanction gave birth to diverse devotional expressions that thrive to this day.”

The food cooked in the dargah’s giant copper cauldrons, distributed after the morning and evening prayers, is always vegetarian.

After the night prayers, while the qawwals are rendering verses in the courtyard, the worshippers are asked to leave the durbar, which is then cleaned by three khadims with brooms made of peacock feathers. As the last functionary comes out of the chamber, everyone gets up and the qawwals recite Karka, a musical verse in Persian, Sanskrit and Brij. The Khwaja’s chamber is locked until the pre-dawn prayer.

During Urs, the durbar is closed at a later hour. One week earlier, a green and red flag is hoisted on the Buland Darwaza gateway to signal the arrival of the festival. By then malangs, fakirs and qalandars from all over India are midway to Ajmer, walking. They assemble at the dargah of Khwaja Qutubuddin Kaki in Mehrauli, Delhi and from there walk to Ajmer Sharif, a journey that takes 17 days.

The nine-day Urs begins after the sunset prayers, for the Islamic day changes at the twilight hour.

Attending it is not easy. Ajmer is packed far beyond its capacity. The lanes overflow with a sea of humanity. People queue for hours to enter the durbar to touch the Khwaja’s tomb. From large hotels to roadside guesthouses, every place is occupied. Verandas too are taken over by beds.

For the Qul, the prayer on the final day of Urs, every roof and window is taken over by crowds jostling to get a view of the crammed dargah. It is as if all of Ajmer is resounding with prayer.

Though the town gets back its breathing space a day later, the crowd at the dargah never dissipates. Divided by religions and countries, the devotees of the Khwaja, spread across South Asia and beyond, challenge these rifts each time they come to his durbar.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: thedelhiwalla.com. The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos


  1. Excellent description ,specially for some one like myself,who was born in Ajmer and left for Pakistan in 1947 at age three and now living in USA ,it is my ernest desire to visit Ajmer during Urs of Khawaja Garib Nawaz Chisti . Some day, I hope to be there.

  2. amazing article! May things return to what they were before partition between India & Pakistan! So many people have been suffering across the boarder because of the indifference of N.Delhi & Islamabad !! To hell with the CSP sahibs – both sides!!

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