It took an absurdly long time for me to realise it, but by following the script of Carnival coverage I met all the way back in the 1980s; I was actually missing the entire point of the festival...
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A journey to Ajmer
“This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.” —Rumi
When I left you last week I was on a six-hour journey, speeding past villages and fields, train tracks and desert from New Delhi to Ajmer to the shrine of the Persian born sufi saint Khwāja Mu'īnuddīn Chishtī. I embarked on this journey on no real religious conviction but a chance conversation with my mother, and Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, theologian, and mystic whom I’d recently rediscovered.
I barely had an idea of this saint except that he was Persian, came to Ajmer in the 12th century after an epiphany, practised the Sufi Sulh-e-Kul (peace to all) concept to promote understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims, interpreted religion in terms of human service and exhorted his disciples “to develop river-like generosity, sun-like affection and earth-like hospitality.”
Our train carriage was filled with animated pretty women, ranging from their 30s to 60s, and a grey-haired man who became my husband’s instant friend as they both hung off the train smoking. I hung out with them briefly. There is exuberance in allowing your hair and clothes to be whipped about until the black soot from the tracks stings your eyes.
Soon enough we were part of a party of 12, led by a gregarious fashion designer and her husband, the smoker who entertained us with ghazals (songs, originating in sixth-century Arabic verse, popularised by Bollywood).
The women, all Indian, were living in and out of India, stretching from Punjab to Glasgow; Muslim and Hindu, married into different faiths, each, without exception with stories of survival against death, loss, emotional and physical damage. It was a naked honesty brought on by the transience of travel, of the heavy lull of the train’s wheels.
Our arrival in Ajmer was a heady blur where the individual body felt insignificant. This is what Carnival feels like at home, my husband remarked, as the momentum of the crowd carried us closer to the massive gates and silver doors of the dargah (shrine) donated by the Nizam of Hyderabad (once the richest man in the world).
Walking to the shrine’s entrance at the foot of the Tārāgaṛh hill, heaving with stalls of bushels of rose petals, sandalwood, vendors, the splendid brilliance of cloth, designs and trinkets worn by Rajasthani women, men in taqiyah caps and white kurta pyjamas, felt like participating in the living throb of history. Centuries are condensed on this street where Mughal emperors, from Humayun to Shah Jehan, walked with hope of fulfilment of their hearts’ deepest desires.
Hindu and Muslim leaders of India and Pakistan, from Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, to Benazir Bhutto, and recently Raja Parvez Ashraf, have come here. Bollywood stars come here, as do tens of millions of ordinary people every year. Emperor and beggars alike are looking for the same thing. Solace.
As is customary, everyone returns when their prayers are answered to give thanks. Akbar and his queen returned to Ajmer every year on foot from Agra (226 miles!) to observe a vow of thanks for a longed-for son. My Hindu/Muslim/existentialist/Catholic and church of England schooled/often cynical heart is pounding with a beatific expectancy, urgency that I find embarrassing as it’s not at all logical.
We take our shoes off and enter the white marble buildings arranged around two courtyards, to the sight of a mosque gifted by the Emperor Akbar on the right, and in the inner court, the splendid white marble mosque donated by Shah Jehan with 11 arches, bordered by an exquisite Persian inscription.
We collectively carry a large green-gold embroided sheet above our heads towards the gold-capped marble-domed tomb of Khwāja Mu'īnuddīn Chishtī surrounded by marble screen. We are given strings which represent our prayer, which we tie near the tomb, and which we are told we will untie one day when our prayers are answered in thanksgiving.
We are told that the Bollywood king of India, Amitabh Bachchan, came here 40 years apart to untie a string to give thanks for a wish that was fulfilled. It’s difficult to escape Bollywood in India. I would have never associated the desert with bushels of petals, crushed on marble floors, in baskets, everywhere. The room is heavy with the scent of bushels of roses, thick with people’s sweat, perfume, fear, hope.
I see a woman clutching on to the ends of a frayed sari, on her haunches weeping, I see tears on the faces of strong young men, of old men, of people with severed limbs. I try to ask for something and can’t. Instead I feel tears, see a blur of petals being flung at the tomb. I look around. Nobody has noticed. I can’t think of a single wish. I throw a petal and whisper, “Thank you,” feeling a bit foolish.
On my return from India I go to a doctor on a whim. He puts me on medication immediately. I should have died, he said, with the infection I had in India. Medicine couldn’t explain my wellbeing. Then I remembered. I said, “Thank you,” for life, for the life of the people I loved. It could be a coincidence that it was life that was preserved.
This journey to Ajmer, which has been undertaken by over 125,000 people every day, over ten centuries is a reminder that the common font of humanity, of human need for solace, of gratitude for life, runs deep.
Next week: Salaam Bombay
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