By Anna Suvrova
As the Mughal aristocracy, imitating the members of the emperor’s family, was literally overloading Ajmer Sharif with new buildings, at the close of his reign Jahangir banned the construction of new buildings on the premises of the Dargah without prior sanction, restricting the pious impulses of the courtiers to the space beyond its outer fence.
That is why the complex came to be surrounded by numerous mosques, covered courts (dlan), summerhouses (barahdarı) and memorial steles. Notable among these structures are two of the rarest mosques in the subcontinent, built by women.
One, of red sandstone, was erected on the order of Maya Ba’i, who was the wet-nurse and nanny12 of princess Zebunnisa, Aurangzeb’s daughter. The other one was gifted to the dargah by the daughter of the great Indian musician Miyan Tansen, Ba’i Tilokdi by name (who, judging by her name, professed Hinduism).
As a matter of fact, it is only from the inscription on the frieze of this mosque that historians came to know that Tansen had a singer daughter who had inherited her father’s profession (Tirmizi 1968: 52).
The tradition of pilgrimage to the saint’s tomb by emperors did not wane even in the later Mughals’ time: Bahadur Shah I, Farrukh Siyar and Muhammad Shah Rangeela also performed Ziyarat to Ajmer. However, in the year 1756, as a result of war between Rajput clans, the town passed into the hands of the Marathas, who, to give them their due, continued to provide public services and amenities to the Dargah.
In particular, in 1769, the Maratha vicegerent, Santoji by name, laid out near the gate of Madar Darwaza a big regular park, called Chishti Chaman, dedicated to the saint. In the year 1818 Ajmer was annexed by the English, under whom the dargah ceased to be an object of state patronage and the construction of new ritual structures in it came to an end.
What the Dargah looked like in the middle of the nineteenth century we know from the notes of the English traveller William Finch: Before you come to this tomb you pass three faire courts of which the first contayneth near an acre of ground, paved all with black and white marble, wherein are interred many of ‘Mohamet’s Cursed Kindred’; on the left is a faire tank, enclosed with stone.
The Second Court is paved like the former, but richer than, twice as big as the Exchange in London; in the midst whereof a curious candle-stick with many lights hangs. Into the third you pass by a brazen gate curiously wrought, it is the fairest of the three, especially, near the door of the sepulchre, where the pavement is curiously interlaid; the door is large and is inlaid with mother-of-pearl and the pavement about the tomb of interlaid marble; the sepulchre very curiously wrought in work, of mother-of-pearl and gold with an Epitaph in the Persian Tongue. (Tirmizi 1968: 17-18)
Even in our day, as in the Great Mughals’ times, making an offering to the darga¯h, adorning or carrying out repairs of any of its numerous buildings is an act of piety, and that is why on first impression Ajmer Sharif resembles a construction site, where saws whine, hammers chatter and the smell of oil-paint lingers.
In the first courtyard of the complex, which one reaches, as usual, by passing through a lofty quadrangular tower, Buland Darwaza, next to the Akbari Masjid mosque there are two huge copper cauldrons, replicas of those which were donated by Akbar and Jahangir.
The meals cooked there are meant for the pilgrims as well as for the saint’s descendants, who possess the exclusive right to despoil the cauldron regularly under the pretence of the ritual dg-i Chittr kusha (‘cauldron of victory over Chittor’). The story goes that in commemoration of this victory the Khwaja’s descendants literally take the cauldron by force, snatching away the rice with an unequivocal warlike display.
In the second courtyard of the Dargah there is the saint’s mausoleum, its newly gilded dome dazzles one’s eyes; an elegant silvery vault is erected over the front portal, and central doors are inlaid with engraved silver panels. They lead to a fretted cubical structure, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, inside which, in the Mazar covered with green brocade, the founder of Chishtiyya fraternity is laid to eternal rest.
Contiguous to the mausoleum is Shah Jahan’s mosque, erected on a parapet and surrounded with a balustrade of polished marble. Its richly ornamented interior is clearly visible through five arched doors. Opposite the mosque towers the gate Shahjahani Darwaza, flanked on both the sides with spacious halls for ritual gatherings (Mahfil Khana). The tombs and Mazars of the saint’s disciples and descendants, the Mughal nobles and military leaders cling closely to each other in the far corners of the courtyard, enclosed in stone fences or lattices.
Among them there is Bibi Hafiz Jamal’s mausoleum, situated in an exclusive ‘women’s annexe’, Begum Dalan, where quite a number of Mughal princesses are buried. Near the southern wall of the mosque the dismissed Pır Khwaja Husain is buried, whose tomb, albeit reduced in dimension, is an exact replica of Mu‘inuddin’s tomb. The third courtyard opens with the gate Chatri Darwaza, the name of which is derived from the word ćhatrı (umbrella, awning, sun-shade), and which is crowned with two umbrella-shaped pavilions. The cells (Hujra) for dervishes are situated in the riwaq of this courtyard. In the southern corner of the courtyard there is the jhlr, a deep well cut out of the rock, which can be reached by going down steep, worn-out steps. The tradition of the Chishtis encourages one to believe that the water comes here directly from the sacred spring Zamzam, which is in Ka‘ba.
The basic principles of the Chishtiya fraternity were formulated after the Khwaja’s death by his disciples, including the above-mentioned Hamiduddin Suwali Nagori (1192-1276). Born in Lahore, Hamiduddin was familiar with Indian reality from his childhood and was able to adapt to it the doctrines of Sufism wahdat al-wujud. In particular he advocated avoiding the infliction of injury to living beings (in the spirit of ahinsa of Hinduism and Jainism), insisted upon strict observance of vegetarianism by his followers and forbade the custom, widespread in Khanqahs, of charitable distribution of meat after the funeral of a dervish.
Hamiduddin was also the first among the Chishtis to propagate virtuous poverty, faqr. (Hagiographic literature affirms that his wife used to spin coarse linen for his clothing with her own hand.) Apropos of this he entered into polemics repeatedly with the founder of the Indian branch of the Suhrawardiyya fraternity, Baha’uddin Zakaria Multani, who did not consider being well-off as contradictory to a mystic’s mode of life. On the request of his Murshid, Hamiduddin wrote down nine principles of the arıqa Chishtiyya, each of which had to be followed by the generations of Khwaja Mu‘inuddin’s disciples:
1 One should not earn money.
2 One should not borrow money from anyone.
3 One should not seek help from anyone but God and one’s Murshid.
4 One should not keep money, food and other goods until the following day.
5 One should not curse anyone.
6 One should consider his virtuous deed due to his pır’s kindness, to the intercession of the Prophet, or to the Divine mercy.
7 One should consider his evil deed due to one’s evil ‘self’ responsible for the action.
8 One should regularly fast during the day and spend the night in prayer.
9 One should remain quiet and speak only when it is imperative to do so.(Rizvi 1986: 123-4)
Although Ajmer Sharif continued to be the main shrine and the cradle of the Chishtiyya order in the subcontinent, immediately after Khwaja Mu‘inuddin’s death the centre of activities of the fraternity shifted to Delhi. Thanks to the selfless efforts of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, with whom begins the Chishti tradition of non-collaboration with the authorities, refusal to be in service (shughl) and non-acceptance of gifts and donations from the high and mighty of this world, the fraternity not only gained a foothold in the capital, but also became the most influential and popular spiritual institution of the Delhi Sultanate.
One should not be deceived by the word ‘popular’: it does not signify that the Chishtis initiated into the fraternity each and everyone without exception, although they had considerably enlarged the contingent of neophytes at the expense of non-Muslims, from whom at first, till their initiation, they did not demand formal conversion to Islam. As persons capable of true comprehension of human souls, the Great Shaikhs of the Chishtiyya understood that mystic experience was a phenomenon of a different and higher order than ecstasy (wajd), the reaching of which was the practical purpose of Sufism in the opinion of the majority. The well-known automation of the practice of dervishes, typical for many ţarqas, led to the false conclusion that an ordinary person can in a short enough period of time master mystic experience with the help of a set of psycho-physical exercises, such as participation in sama ‘, breath control (habs-i dam), rhythmic movements, or the silent and loud dhikr (remembrance/praise of God).
At the same time the ultimate aim of the Sufi’s path, fan/baq (annihilation/subsistence), demanded of him complete regeneration and transformation of the personality, which was within the reach only of the specially gifted and chosen few. Momentary altered states of the psyche (hal), ecstatic enlightenment, falling into a trance right up to complete loss of consciousness, which the uninitiated could experience at the time of collective auditions, were not genuine mystic experiences, although they did create for a man the illusion of transient unity with the Absolute.
Consequently, an initiation that was both popular and within the reach of the masses could be an initiation only to the ethical aspects of the doctrine of the fraternity, to the notions about the mundane life worked out by it and the interiorisation that is common to all true believers and the reason for the external forms of piety. The Chishtis based their ethical preaching on above-mentioned postulates, of which the most relevant were: poverty (not identical with the universal Sufi principle of selflessness), non-violence (a ban on all kind of aggression and on doing harm to any living being), non-collaboration with the authorities and renunciation of proselytizing activity, which signified transition from the obligatory Islamisation of non-Muslims to a dialogue with them in the field of ideology. It is natural that in the conditions of medieval Indian society, where indigent non-Muslims were in the overwhelming majority, such a programme was destined for massive success.
Penetration of Chishti ethos into the commercial and vocational strata of the society; collaboration of Chishtis with representatives of various social and religious groups; their recourse to the languages, images and concepts of the local population - all these became that deficient ferment, under whose effect the spontaneous syncretism which is usual for popular religion could come right and be trans-formed into the peculiar composite culture of South Asia in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.
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: