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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fresh look at rotting paint

The image I had in mind were very different from what I stood before. The magical, painted expanse of the Shekhawati region in Rajasthan was nothing of the sort I could have imagined anyway. Here's the story I filed for Terrascape magazine on Mandawa.

The painted legends of the Shekhawati region were the reason for my most recent visit to Rajasthan. Having set out of New Delhi late in the night, the contrast between the mind-numbing oncoming post-office traffic through Gurgaon and the quiet, moonlit expanse that lay ahead of me beyond Pataudi was enough of a shock to my mind. The farther we progressed from the cold, material world, the more relaxed I felt and soon, I found myself happily pondering over the beautiful finds that lay hidden in the town that was still so far away. It was much after midnight that I arrived at the door of the Sara Vilas, my gracious hosts. Much of the resort was plunged in darkness, given the hour but the moon, now standing high in the sky, shed a hue of white on the green lawns and the plants as I made my way to the room accorded for me.

First impressions

Early next morning, I helped myself to a sumptuous breakfast from the lovely kitchen at the hotel. The car was waiting for me outside. I set out on a day of discovery. The first stop was the chowk in front of Saner Ram Ladiya. I almost immediately recognised it from the sets of the recently watched film, PK. The car came to halt right there and the driver left me to chatter away excitedly about the film. With bated breath I entered the Ram Ladiya. Painted all the way from the outside to the inside, each wall is a picture worth a million exclamations. I stared at length at each wall, wondering at the intricate detailing on each inch of the wall and how much of time and effort must have gone into the creation of such a marvel.

I had just exited the Ladiya and wondered if it would be a good idea to just loiter about and go wherever the road took me. I found a comfortable spot by a cold drink vendor a little ahead of the haveli. That’s where I met Ganesh Joshi, a local guide. While it was never his idea of a profession, he didn’t mind the extra income he could make by taking people around his home town. It was a great way to gather news of the town on an everyday basis. Turned out, he was modest. Not only was he charging me a meagre amount compared to what the regular guides charge – and they charge quite a lot – he was very well-known in his town. I was now in luck. He led me to the first of the painted havelis in Mandawa, Mohan Lal Saraf. The haveli looked every bit of its ancient self. Built almost 150 years ago and painted with images of Rajput culture and Krishna Leela, the haveli is a masterpiece. I immediately recognised a large painting of the king riding on an elephant. The elephant was decorated with tiny white flower motifs all over. It is one of the best known paintings of the region. Joshi informed me that it was this painting that inspired many replicas through the town. Leaving the Mohan Lal Saraf, I meandered through the dusty lanes, peering at every wall in the hope that a new surprise awaited me around the bend – and they did.

Touch of gold

When we finally got to Jhunjhunuwala Haveli, it could be easily seen that in those olden days the region had been quite abuzz with every household of any worth trying to outdo each other with its ornate painted walls. Although some of the havelis are now locked from the eyes of the inquisitive tourist, the decorated walls do not always hide the glorious history within them. From the balconies, chajjas, of the few havelis I had access to, I could find myself looking at an endless lane of homes with painted walls. Some curtained by a line of freshly washed clothes, some broken carefully to make space for an air-conditioner. From the outside, the Jhunjhunwala Haveli seemed like any other house of the region. A small inset in the large metal door acts as the entrance to the high walled house.

I find myself facing an elderly man, probably a housekeeper, coughing in the pale winter sun. He was sitting on a charpoy trying to say something urgent to the lady sitting by the door, peeling peas from their pods. The man looks at Joshi and smiles. I am presented to the man as a traveller from the big city. After a few questions, I inquire of the whereabouts of the owners of the haveli and am quite embarrassed to find out that the old man, still coughing on his charpoy, is the third generation to inherit the property. “My great grandfather was a very wealthy man and his riches were not restricted to money but also to children. He had many children and once the family business fell apart, the siblings started taking out whatever they could as their inheritance,” he says. “My grandfather and his son, my father, held on to the house while everyone else moved to the big city and built bigger mansions for themselves. My great grandfather was awarded a great amount of gold in his heydays. He used it as gold foil which he added on the walls of his sitting room. Today, our house is a great attraction for visitors because of my great grandfather’s whim.” I walked into the room as the new daughter-in-law led the way. “What we would have done without this room, I wonder,” she said. “We manage to get a decent sum from tourists who come to see it. My husband has a shop in the local market but it is not enough for our family.” The gilded room crafted by their great grandfather’s whim is a medium of income today.

Dust and shadows

My next stop was at the traditional four-walled stepwell. Apart from the painted mansions, it is these few standing stepwells that are a reminder of the town’s glorious past. “There are changing platforms on three of the corners for the men to change into fresh clothes or sit and talk. The women have an closed room in the last corner for changing. A small pool was marked for the children to bathe while the stepwell in itself was meant for pulling up water for the households,” informed Joshi. Though the stepwell is no longer in use today, it stands as a reminder of order that once prevailed here.

As I made my way to Castle Mandawa, where the royal family still resides in one section while the rest has been converted into a heritage hotel, I took in the feel of the place. Once lined with painted mansions and chattering families, Mandawa takes on a desolate look today. Far removed from the manicured experience at the hotel, Sara Vilas, the town was littered with filth along the alleys which were a turn off. The people live with pride of a bygone era, turning a blind eye to the need for the upkeep of the heritage around them. It is common to see neighbours, once relatives, squabbling over the number of tourists at their door. Joshi points out that not many Indians visit these areas; most of the visitors comprise students of art from international universities.

After a few moments of silence by the pool at the Castle Mandawa, I feel the urge to see the untold stories of the region. I am suddenly overcome with remorse at the loss of such a huge part of the cultural history as many of the walls lay unkempt. The paint was flaking off, leaving behind a trail of hideous forms and faces while the residents carried on, having taken their heritage for granted. There is pride in the history of the region, unfortunately, the people cannot afford the care of the private mansions anymore. I make my way back to the first haveli I had started my day with, drained completely of wide-eyed excitement. I rested under a tree and wondered how much of Mandawa would be left, if I returned.