We stared in dismay as we saw the scene in front of us. A river of humanity flowed towards the dargah front door. We had hoped to have a leisurely walk through Ajmer Sharif, the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the 13th century Sufi saint. We could barely see the dargah for the people flooding in. Desperately looking for a parking spot, three of us adults left the car while my brother-in-law, Kishore stayed behind the wheel. As we stood there, outside a mechanic’s shop, a young man materialised beside us wearing what looked like a pillbox hat. In spite of the heat of the day he looked cool in his white kurta-pajamas. He reached over to a passing handkerchief seller and snagged a few white kerchiefs which he thrust towards us. In beautifully pure Hindi he asked us to take them and tie them about our heads. I looked at him with my city person’s wide-eyed distrust of strangers. Step back he told us and amazingly, we did. We were now at the entrance to the mechanic’s shop. “I’ll take you inside the dargah” he said. I looked at Naresh, wildly shaking my head to tell him to ask the man to go away. “Park your car there” he said pointing to an empty space in the auto shop’s rear.
By this time, we seemed to have collectively taken leave of our senses because Naresh went off to tell Kishore where to park. I couldn’t believe he had found us a spot to park in. As my sister and I busied ourselves with the kerchiefs and our children, our husbands joined and did the same. “Come with me” the man said and led us a short distance away down a side street. He summoned two auto rickshaws and asked us to pile in. He gave the auto drivers some concise instructions and they jumped to do his bidding. Was he someone these locals recognised as important or were they all three in on some scam to cheat some obviously bewildered out-of-towners? “I’ll meet you there” he said as he waved us off and turned away on foot. Where was ‘there’?
Thus began a journey that was less than a mile in physical distance but it transported us to a strange plane where four of us disbelievers achieved a faith of a sort, at least in miracles. With our kids tucked in between us, the two families set off, we weren’t sure where to. We fell about in nervous giggles as the auto rickshaws drove through narrow tracks that barely had enough room for the three wheeler. We drove between the homes of Ajmer, with open drains running lustily by the side. The houses rose like cliffs around us as the autos careered crazily, threatening to spill us into those drains any minute. In a few minutes, the autos came to an abrupt, jittering halt. We stepped out groggily to see we were at the dargah’s back gates and there he stood, our unnamed and unasked for saviour. We had put our lives and our faith in him the moment we got into those auto rickshaws without a clue to where we were going.
Smiling hospitably he ushered us along a dirt path and into the dargah. He told the auto drivers to wait for us where they were. We hadn’t even paid them. My faith inched up a notch. He didn’t say much, this man who had brought us into Ajmer Sharif when we ‘d thought we’d have to turn around and return to Delhi. As we came around the inner walls of the dargah, the noise hit us first. There were thousands of people thronging the outer courtyard and the din was unimaginable. But we were in and we hadn’t had to subject ourselves or our young children to the sweaty, smelly crush. He walked a step ahead of us, the man in white, as I had mentally named him. We followed like a herd of sheep, keeping our eyes straight ahead as the crowd parted for him. We walked in his wake and lo! before we could fully comprehend it we were in the enclosure around the saint’s tomb. How had we gotten here? I still don’t know. We just walked behind him and the sea parted for us. We had briefly stopped just once, so we could buy a ‘chadar‘, a sort of green blanket that the devotees draped over the tomb before they made their ‘mannat’, a plea or a prayer particular to each devotee. As we stood there, the crowd surging around us, looking at the saint’s tomb being covered with our chadar, we saw him on the inside of the velvet rope that separated the tomb from the devotees. Inside, with the committee that ran the dargah. He brought the Chishthi dispensing blessings towards us and we were duly blessed.
Immediately after this, our man in white led us back out into the seething outer courtyard. Away to one side, a Qawwal and his troupe were performing in the usual mystic ecstasy of the sufi style. The music rose above the noise like a bird soaring into the sky. All around us people knelt or sat, praying aloud or under their breath. While the noise level was deafening there was an underlying sense of peace, many centuries old. Our kind friend led us around the main dargah, showing us everything of note. The most notable thing was that there were people of every faith there, muslims in their lace skullcaps, Sikhs in their turbans and many Hindus like us, wearing kerchiefs and shawls to cover their heads in respect. This dargah has always been a beacon for Indians of every religion. People in prayer here showcase the best in Indian culture, reflecting the depth of our syncretism. One walks into Ajmer as a human being, not a hindu, a muslim, a christian or a sikh. For a person of decidedly agnostic tendencies, it was a moment of pure spirituality. It is the purity of the experience that stays etched clearly in my mind.
With our tour done, our guide led us back the way we had come, and there they were our old friends, the auto drivers. With an admonition to them to not overcharge us, the man in white sketched us a farewell with his hand and turned to stride away. Kishore called out to him to stop. “We would really like to give you something for all your help” Kishore said. The man in white stopped him with a gesture and smiled. “I am a Chishti and I’ve only done my duty as a Chishti” he said. “Go back to your towns and spread the word that in Ajmer you don’t need to spend money to receive the Khwaja’s blessings, it’s always free”. With that, he waved at us once more and disappeared inside the walls of the dargah. Leaving four speechless adults who could once more believe in the genuine good in people.
We made the journey back to our car in a strangely quiet mood, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We paid the drivers and thanked them still lost in thought. We got in the car and drove towards Pushkar still in awe of how events had unfolded. A Chisthi of Khwaja Moinuddin’s own order had almost magically appeared by our side and taken us under his wing when things had looked so uncertain. We had heard magical music that had somehow transcended the sound of a thousand pleas being spoken. Who knew who would hear those pleas or if they’d ever be answered. But for one moment in time, I had been part of something monumental and yet I had been separate and at complete peace with myself and the world. What more can one ask for? I did not go to Ajmer for a religous experience but I came away with a deep spiritual experience. And all of this was made possible by meeting a man who lifted us out of the dusty street into a transformative experience.