The distance from Jodhpur to Ajmer is perhaps about 100 kms. Since there is a direct train connecting the two I opt for one instead of going by bus. When I reach the train station I learn that there are no express trains. There is only a fast passenger that leaves at 7 am. Since the train is almost ready to depart I buy a ticket and board it. Little did I know at that point that it was going to be a long ride for what seems like a relatively short distance.
The train makes it way to Pali. This comes as a surprise. This is south of Jodhpur, a town I had passed some days ago on my way to Jaisalmer. From Pali the train turns northeast in search of Ajmer, as if it had lost itself amongst desert sands and finally recovered its bearings. So it happens that when I arrive at Ajmer it is almost 1 pm. Despite my early start, half a day is gone and with it half the opportunities to see what Ajmer has to offer.
I take a room, have lunch and walk west looking for the Anasagar Lake. On the way I pass a magnificent Jain temple; but I have seen enough Jain temples already. How can I forget the greats of Chittorgarh, Mt Abu and Ranakapur? Just before I reach the lake I walk through gardens laid out next to it. I find nothing remarkable here.
Set on the banks of the lake at its eastern end are marble pavilions built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century. These pavilions were converted to residences by the British but in more recent times they have been restored to their original conditions. On a weekday afternoon, I am surprised that there are so many people here at these pavilions and the gardens that surround it. Many are sleeping or just relaxing in the shady cool pavilions. Others are boating in the lake.
The pavilions are built on a much older embankment from the time of Prithviraj Chauhan. There are five structures in all. The simplest one is an archway with three cusped arches. This structure of pure white marble frames the blue sky, the lake that reflects the sky’s colour and the distant hills beyond the lake. It makes a pretty picture.
Among the other pavilions are open pillared halls and closed rooms. The pillars are typical Shahjahani pillars with floral bases and muquarna capitals. Broad plain chajjas are supported on voluted brackets. The pavilions have low parapets with decorative floral motifs on top. Lots of chini khana adorn the walls. They are essential to the design and appearance of these pavilions. Without them, these structure would look boring. Arch netting and beautiful half-domes are seen in places. After all these centuries, the structures are still as beautiful as ever. Marble has that remarkable character to preserve beauty in its pristine form.
I wander through town and make my way slowly to the famous dargah of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chishti. The approach to the dargah is by a long road lined with shops. It never seems to end. Everything seems to happen at all places at once. I hang around for a while outside the dargah, don’t go in and decide to return in the evening towards sunset.
Back here at sunset, I enter the dargah which is like a magnet for pilgrims from all over India. If I thought to find just one shrine, I am mistaken. There are dozens of shrines dedicated to many saints of the Sufi order. The main shrine of Moinuddin Chishti is a crowded place, with pilgrims pushing and shoving at will. Pilgrims don’t even have a chance to make their offerings of garlands. The best they can do is to throw them from a distance. I enter by one entrance and I am quickly pushed out from another. I don’t mind it at all. I am here only out of curiosity. Most others are here out of a deep purpose. They deserve the space more.
Among the wonders of the dargah are two large cauldrons in which I have been told that free food is cooked for all visitors. I see logs of wood stacked by the sides but at the moment the cauldrons hold no food, only offerings from pilgrims. Each cauldron is about ten feet in diameter and eight feet deep. There are steps built into the inner side of the cauldrons! Water pots used by pilgrims for ritual ablutions are richly decorated. Shops within the courtyard around the main shrine cater to every need of pilgrims. In some sense, the mood is as great as at the Kasi Vishwanatha Temple at Varanasi.
The hour of evening prayer comes. The muezzin calls out for prayer. His words are long-drawn. His pauses are strung between beautifully till the echoes of his words subside in our souls. I am touched by the beauty in his voice and the music in his delivery. This is the moment of the day for which I will remember this dargah and my trip to Ajmer.
Women are not allowed into the prayer hall at the mosque west of the main shrine. I watch the men pray. I see pilgrims come and go, perform their offerings at various shrines and pray deeply in various open spaces. I come out of the dargah and find another reason to remember this visit. My slippers are missing.