By Anna Suvrova
A further reference to regular pilgrimage to Ajmer in the second half of the fourteenth century occurs in the malf.at of Sayyid Muhammad Gesudaraz, recorded in 1399-1400. Gesudaraz is talking of an injunction to perform Ziyarat of the Panj Pır, who, as explained, ‘are the five Great Shaikhs who preceded Gesudaraz, viz. Nașr al-dn, Ni .am al-dn, Fard al-dn, Quţb al-dn and Mu‘n al-dn’ (Digby 1983: 97).
There also exists a little historical evidence about Firoz Shah Tughluq, Sher Shah Suri and Zafar Khan, progenitor of the Sultans of Gujarat, visiting the tomb.
However, during the times of the Delhi Sultanate, for a person who did not have the sultan’s suite (sawrı) at his disposal, reaching Ajmer was not that easy, as the town was situated away from major caravan routes and the way to it from Delhi was considered to be unsafe because of attacks of Rajput detachments and armed bands of robbers.9 Only during the reign of Akbar, who had made travel in the empire relatively hazard-free and not so risky, did Ajmer Sharif turn into a place of mass pilgrimage.
Since sovereignty over Ajmer opened the way to numerous Rajput principalities, with which the Great Mughals were constantly at war, many of the masterpieces of ritual architecture which adorn this town were built in fulfilment of the vows made to the saint by Mughal sovereigns and their military leaders in exchange for victory over yet another Rana (prince) of Mewar, or Marwar. As testified by Abul Fazl, Akbar became interested in the saint’s personality on hearing Quawwalı in Agra eulogizing the miraculous power of his baraka.
He performed his first pilgrimage on 14 January 1562, after which he saw to it that a road was laid from Fatehpur Sikri to Ajmer, along which at distances of one kos (approximately three kilometres) apart, small towers (ks-minar) were erected, which have survived to this day.
After the capture of the Rajput fortress of Chittor, Akbar on his return journey visited Ajmer for the second time on 6 March 1568. This time he made a present of a huge cauldron10 to the Dargah for cooking food for pilgrims and generously showered gifts and money on the Khwaja’s descendants.
The emperor’s devotion to the saint of Ajmer grew commensurate with his intercourse with Shaikh Salim Chishti (d. 1571), to whose supernatural intercession tradition ascribed the birth of long-awaited heir to the throne prince Salim (future Mughal emperor Jahangir).
He performed his third Ziyarat in February 1570 as an ordinary pilgrim, traversing the path from Agra to Ajmer on foot to offer prayers of thanks to the saint for the birth of the first-born. A year earlier he had a mosque erected from red sandstone in one of the three courtyards of the Dargah. The mosque now bears the name Akbari Masjid.
During Akbar’s reign the main shrine (qubba) was rebuilt and crowned with a gilded dome; in any case the inscription in gold in nasta‘lq style on three sides of the drum (i.e. cylindrical base) of the dome goes back to 1579 and says:
Khwja-i khwjagan Mu‘ınuddın Ashraf-i awliy’-i ruy-i zamın Aftb-i sipihr-i kaun-o-makn Pdshah-i sarır-i mulk-i yaqınDar jaml-o-kaml-i-an che sukhan In mubayyan buvad ba hișn-i hașın Ai darat qiblagah-i ahl-i yaqın Bar darat mihr-o-mh suda jabınRi bar Dargahat hamıñ snıd Sad hazrn malik chu khusraw-i chın Khdimn-i darat hama Rizvn Dar safrauzat chu khuld-i barın Dharra-i khk-i-u ‘abır sirisht Qaţra-ib-i-chma’-yi mu’ın Ilahıt buvad khurshıd-o-mhı Chirgh-i chishtiynr rshn’ı(Tirmizi 1968: 30)
Master of masters, Mu‘inuddin, Noblest of saints on the face of the earth, The sun on the celestial sphere of the universe the Padishah on the throne of the realm of faith. What to say about his beauty and perfection?
They are obvious from impregnable fortress. O, your door is like qibla for the faithful, Sun and moon rub their foreheads on your threshold. At your Dargah similarly prostrate Hundreds of thousands of kings like the sovereign of China.
Your door attendants are all Rizvans,(Since) in its sanctity your tomb is like paradise. The particle of its dust has the quality of perfumes, The drop of its moisture is like transparent water. O Allah, till the sun and the moon last, Let the lamp of the Chishtis shine brightly.
If this inscription is compared with the couplet engraved on Data Sahib’s tomb, it will be clear that for these and many other texts of similar purpose the key term is ‘door’ or ‘threshold’, expressed by the Persian words dar, stan or by their Indian equivalents, for example by the word ćaukhaţ.
A saint is one at whose threshold or door all the mortals - from kings to beggars - bow their heads and ‘rub their foreheads’. Sainthood is separated from mundane life by a spiritually insurmountable barrier - the much-trumpeted threshold. The special insular space, the Khilwat, in which a mystic, who has renounced the world, dwells in his lifetime, retains its isolation, even after his death, in the Dargah, signifying the same spatial restricted insularity (dar -‘door’; ‘ga¯h’ - lace, space).
In other words the sanctum, which is what the saint’s tomb is, manifests itself in detachment from the external environment and the gate, door or threshold are the entrance to the sanctum, the intermediate space, through which a person comes into contact with the saint or venerates him.
The origin of this symbol has ritual as well as historical basis. As has already been mentioned, one of the main rituals of a saint’s tomb is the kissing of his threshold (stanbosı). This ritual in fact came into being earlier than the cult of Muslim saints, in a pre-Islamic age, when bowing one’s head at the threshold was a part of palace ritual at the courts of the Byzantine emperors and the Iranian padshahs.
Later the kissing of the threshold (stanbosı) acquired a wide spectrum of meanings, connected with an expression of veneration and respect both to a temporal and a spiritual person. In the texts of inscriptions on tombs this ritual is even incorporated into the semantic connotations of the Arabic word bab (gate).
This term signified the rank of Muslim saints, serving as the ‘gates’, through which God, a quţb of the Sufis or a ‘concealed Imam’ of the Shi‘as, communicates with the faithful. The word Bab was even a part of the title of many Sufi shaikhs and awliya, the most well-known of whom happened to be the Bab, the founder of Babism, a religio-political movement in Iran during the nineteenth century.
The Muslim architecture that actualized many doctrinal postulates of Sufism realized the ritual symbolism of doors, gates and thresholds in numerous architectural images of portals, gates and towers located over gates, without which a saint’s tomb is just inconceivable.
The sacred space of a dargh begins at the gate (darwaza), leading into a riwaq, in front of which the faithful are required to leave their footwear. The front portal (peshtaq) of the tomb proper turns out to be more insurmountable: crossing it is prohibited to individual categories of visitors - sometimes to followers of other faiths and sometimes on the basis of gender - only to women or, on the contrary, only to men, sometimes to lepers or lunatics and so on, depending on the saint’s specialization.
Finally, the last and the most forbidden barrier is the door, which happens to be deep inside the aiwan arch of the peshtaq, and which serves as an object of ritual veneration. Pilgrims prostrate themselves beside it in prayerful reverence, they kiss its threshold and touch the lintel with a hand, here they also present their offerings to the saint.
It is interesting that particular images of Muslim Ghazali correspond to the symbolism of door and threshold in the practice of the veneration of saints, where the same terms - dar, stan and ćaukhaţ – find expression in the motif of the lover’s (‘ashiq) veneration of and selfless service to the beloved (ma‘shuq). It is difficult to say when this motif took shape, but it is to be found quite often in the diwan of the great Persian poet of the fourteenth century Hafiz Shirazi. Here is just one example:
Ba hjib-i dar-i khalwatsar-i khșș big Fuln zig shanashınn-ikhk-i dargh-imst Tell the door-keeper at the gate of the secluded chamber: So-and-so is one of those, who sit in the dust of our threshold. (Hafiz Shirazi 1994: 35)
In this bait (couplet) there is a semantic series, correlating with the behaviour of the pilgrim: like the saint or some other object of veneration, the beloved dwells inside a special world, behind the doors of the secluded forbidden chamber (khalwatsar-i khașș), and the lover comes under the category of those many who happen to be outside, in particular, those who sit in the sacred dust of its threshold (gshanashın n-ikhk-idargh). The word gshanashınan also stands for ‘hermits’ and ‘those who have renounced the world’, i.e. the same Sufis.
From these and many other similar examples it is obvious that here we come across a fusion of the image of the ma‘shuq’s house with saint’s dwelling - this is hara¯m, the forbidden inaccessible space, where entry is prohibited for the ‘a¯shiq.
Communion with and service of the beloved is possible only at the threshold, on the border of two worlds, at the entrance to the shrine, exactly where the lover yearns to bow his head or lie in dust. It is interesting that even at the later stages of its development Muslim romantic poetry retains in itself the same traditional, even ritual notion about the veneration and reverence of the shrine, which is to be found in considerably earlier inscriptions on tombs.
Here we give just a few examples fromclassical Urdu poetry of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. Mir Taqi Mir (1722-1810) wrote: Sajda usstn kna jiskhu’anașıb Whapn ‘tiqd mñ insane hı nahıñ One who failed to bow his head at this threshold, I am sure, is not a human being at all. (Kulliyat-i Mir 1968: 212)
Although the reference here is, as always, to the threshold of the beloved’s house, the word Sajda, used by Mir, stands exactly for prostration in the course of prayers, when the faithful brings his forehead in contact with the ground.
Majlkyki terghar mñ pñ’oñ nahıñ rakhñYhrz haimir sarhtrıćaukhaţh what power have I to set foot in your house? All I desire is that my head and your threshold (should come together). (Matthews and Shackle 1972: 101)
In this bait from Imambakhsh Nasikh (who died in 1838), the image is also based on ritual gesture: the head of the lover/the faithful and threshold of the beloved’s house/shrine blend with each other. Stepping inside the house is, of course, impossible, as it is forbidden. As Mirza Ghalib (1797-1869) stated:
Us fitna khkdar seab uţhte nahıñ Asad, Ismñ hamrsarph qiymat hıkyoñ nah Asad, we will not raise ourselves from the threshold ofthat disturber of the peace, Even if Doomsday were to pass right over our heads. (Diwan-i Ghalib 1957: 72)
A pilgrim, performing Ziyarat to the tomb of a saint, often crawls towards it, as if measuring with his own body the space separating him from the shrine, and then prostrating himself near its threshold, lies there for a long time. Ghalib’s verse contains a distant allusion to this ritual behaviour. However, let us come back to the history of the Dargah in Ajmer.
Akbar also had to adjudicate in the protracted dispute between descendants of Khwaja Mu‘inuddin regarding the right to be the pır and estate manager of the tomb, which in the sixteenth century was not only a highly respectable but also profitable post.
In contrast to Suhrawardis, Chishtis did not pass on baraka by right of succession from father to son, and besides that Mu‘inuddin did not leave any directions regarding his successor in the Ajmer Khanquah. A certain Khwaja Husain, who was the Pır of Ajmer Sharif in Akbar’s times, apparently did not enjoy the support of Shaikh Salim Chishti, who wielded great influence over the Emperor.
And, therefore, when the case was submitted to Akbar for his verdict he delivered quite a statesman-like judgement: he removed the former pır and appointed as the estate manager of the Dargah not a representative of one of the contending clans but his own official (manșabdar).
This story, narrated by Bada’uni in The Extracts from Chronicles (Muntakhab at-tawarıkh) is, on the whole, unprecedented, since the questions of succession and inheritance in Sufi fraternities before and after Akbar were decided without interference of state authorities.
Emperor Jahangir, who was born in Ajmer, lived here for a full three years in the palaces of Daulat-khana and Chashma-i-nur, which were built specially for him. In the year 1614, following his father’s example, he donated to the Dargah yet another cauldron, in which food could be cooked for five thousand pilgrims.
He also adorned the saint’s cenotaph with a fence of pure gold, which was replaced by one made of silver in the reign of thrifty Aurangzeb. The importance Jahangir attached to Ajmer is obvious, in particular, from the fact that it was in this town that he accepted the credentials of the first British ambassador Thomas Roe, who, in the year 1615, was sent to the Mughal court by King James I.
In the riwaq of the tomb Emperor Shah Jahan, who was also blessed with his first-born in answer to his prayers in Ajmer, in the year 1637 built a magnificent mosque with eleven arches of white marble.
He also furnished the complex of the Dargah with yet another gate: Shahjahani Darwaza, which is more often called Kalima Darwaza, since Muslim affirmation of faith is carved on it in thulth script. Even Shah Jahan’s sons Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb had performed pilgrimage to Ajmer. Mystically gifted Sufi-philosopher Dara was born in Ajmer and felt a special attachment to this place.
His rival Aurangzeb visited the Dargah for the first time with a purpose that might be considered expiatory, that is, following the execution of his elder brother on his orders. Since in his domains Aurangzeb had proclaimed a ban on sam‘, attendants of the tomb refused to accept from him the offerings customary for such an occasion.
Then at the time of the next visit to the Dargah the emperor gave orders not to prevent ritual performance of Quawwali in honour of the saint and, according to tradition, was so deeply moved by the singing that he heaped gold on the musicians from head to foot.11 Finally, Shah Jahan’s daughter Jahan Ara, deeply fascinated by Sufism, visited the Dargah more than once.
Anna Suvorova is the Head of the Department of Asian Literature at the Institute of Oriental Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences), Professor of Indo-Islamic culture at the Institute of Oriental and classical cultures (Russian State University for the Humanities), member of the International faculty in National College of Arts (Pakistan), fellow of Academic Advisory Board, Centre for Study of Gender and Culture (Pakistan), fellow of Royal Asiatic Society (UK).
Other Parts of the Book, Muslim Saints of South Asia: