Strange things were happening around me. On the last Saturday of November while driving back from office one early evening, a Nilgayi emerged out of nowhere and in the midst of a busy Delhi street rammed into our running car crashing the window on the side in which Madhusree was sitting. The window cracked and collapsed on her showering her with grits of glass pieces like confetti. Vinod did a fine job by keeping the wheels under control but our vehicle was badly damaged, a repair that cost us somewhere around 20k. As we were reeling from this shock, way back home in Kolkata, a two year old toddler slipped under Pam’s car as he was reversing it and the child got caught between the wheel and the axle. It was sheer miracle that she escaped unhurt. These two episodes shook me up and I found that these were very difficult things to have happened. I inspected the spot during the day from where the Nilgayi had shot through and though the railing collapsed at one place, but it was leaning into the forest area and the animal would have had to jump at least ten feet high in order to clear it. This was therefore, an exceptional high jump. Similarly when I asked Pam to retrace the steps of the toddler, he found it hard to explain how the child could have emerged through locked closely grilled gates. These strange incidents call now for Divine Intervention and the Spirit of Light and Darkness all at once; Khwaja Garib Nawaz was the One to visit.
The first time ever I visited Ajmer Sharif was with a party of Modern High School. I was then in Jadavpur University and Mrs Dutta and Chakri roped three ex-students into the team as “helping hands”, euphemism for slaves. Anuradha Sen nee Chowdhury, Susmita Dasgupta, nee Roy alias Lazy and I, unchanged as Susmita Dasgupta visited the shrine with a large party of cackling girls and teachers in holiday jubilation by trying hard to look stern. The travel agent had arranged a special visit in one of the lean hours of the dargah and we went there to a specially arranged “darshan”. Ajmer remained etched in my memory as a peaceful place. But on the subsequent visits, I encountered only crowds and more crowds, pushing, pressing, elbowing and sharving. Hence on this particular visit to the Holy Shrine, my heart really sank as the car entered the parking area. But fortunately, a dark, stout young man with oily mane wearing a black embroidered kurta and white salwar with a crinkled dupatta emerged literally from a hole in the wall and offered to take us around. I knew that Ajmer was a lost case without a “panda” no matter how much we would have wished to avoid them. The “panda” introduced himself as a Astana-e-Alia, a category which is equivalent to the “sebaaye” in Hindu Temples, meaning that these are temple insiders, a minority that are allowed to touch, bathe, clean and clothe the deity. As our stocky Astana-e-Alia led the way for us, the crowds silently parted and Madhusree and I cut across the mortal bodies of human beings as if they were only air.
We walked into the Dargah across the pond that Queen Mary donated for the pilgrims to wash before the prayers, looked at the half- tonne of gold at the spire that the Raja of Rampur donated, and the various areas that kings and Emperors have added to the shrine in aid of the pilgrims. Two huge cauldrons on either side of the entrance are used to prepare daliya, both salty and sweet, the only food that Khwaja Saheb used to eat. The alley leading to the dargah is wholly vegetarian with one shop selling fish and chicken tandoori. The alley has temples of Radha Krishna and Jhoolelah (of the Damadam mastaqalandar fame) and there is also a Church somewhere at the beginning of the narrow path that leads up to the shrine. The crowds represent India and hence have an overwhelming proportion of Hindus, Sadhus who descended from the Himalayas on the start of winter, Ayappans from Kerala. Skull capped men and abeya wrapped women are busily making offerings in the Radha Krishna Temple, as much as the Christians, Jews and Hindus are thronging into the shrine for the lighting of evening lamps. The qawaali is soulful and the audience is almost wholly Bihari women who have come in busloads to visit the shrine. Women are sitting in namaz, a corpse is brought to Khwaja’s shrine to bid goodbye to the earth one last time and girls are running up and down the steps to witness a meal of daliya being cooked in a cauldron that can churn about 24000 kilos of cereal. Everything gets mixed and cooked in this shrine just as the daliya in the cauldron- Khwaja Moinuddin is a huge melting pot of all religions, all souls, all faiths and beliefs and disbeliefs. Khwaja Saheb is at one the Light and the Darkness, at once the sight and the blindness, the silent and the articulate, the living and the dead, the dead and the living, so the qawaals sing passionately, assertively and insistently.
I am in a rush to come out of the crowded space but not before I have peeped into Akbari Masjid, a serene space amidst the hustle bustle of the pilgrims in the dargah. Our Astana –e-Alia reads my mind as he says that any monument associated with Akbar is invariably peaceful. I have noticed this too. Monuments by Shah Jahan are regal but they bear a certain level of anxiety, nervous energy that make them seem to be too much self conscious in desire to be eternal. Akbar’s monuments exude power, a power that is so invincible and unchallenged that it turns into peace.
We make donations for the girls’ madrashah at the Anjuman office. This is better than spending money on the chaddars and other offerings. The office bearers present us with booklets on stories about the shrine. We suggested that in view of the large number of Bangladeshis who visit the shrine and the fact that West Bengal still has one of the largest Muslim populations in the country; booklets should also be printed in Bengali. The Anjuman stiffened at this suggestion and said that Khwaja Garib Nawaz was of universal religion, religion of man, and not specifically Islam. Of course, of course, this is so. There are numerous faiths around saints in India, the bauls, the fakirs, of Jhoolelal, Kabir, Lallan, Saibaba that are neither Hindu nor Muslim. These are faiths unto themselves that are not necessary to classify in terms of major religion; something like the Bhojpuri, a complete language in it but appended as a dialect of Hindi.
There is only one shop on the way to the dargah that sell fish and tandoori chicken, the rest are strictly vegetarian. Right at the car parking area there are tea vendors selling boiled egg. Nothing inside the shrine is from dead animals, neither the fans, nor the nakkaras, nor the bhistis for sprinkling water. The shrine has its own festivals, none of the animal chopping and blood flowing ids. There is only sweet nokuldaana, fragrance and flowers and lamps.
We move away from Ajmer, climbing the hills to reach Pushkar, appearing barren and deserted with silhouettes of champa tree as the sun sets on the Aravallis leaving an unpeopled stretch sink into the twilight. It is a moonless night and a few electric bulbs from far below Ajmer blink and disappear into the curves and bends of the ghat road; another day is sucked into the eternity of Time. We emerge out of the completely lifeless stretch to take the long winding path to Pushkar Fort Hotel.
I remember my colleague Parameswaran telling me the myth of Pushkar, the south Indian version, in which Brahma and Vishnu wanted to get one up against the other. They approached Shiva for a judgment as to who was the greater of the two. Lord Shiva gave them a task; each would have to find either the head or the foot of Shiva as he reveled in his Vishwaroopa. In the appearance of Vishwaroopa, Shiva became so vast that neither could find the limits of his body. Vishnu, who had chosen to seek the Lord’s feet, confessed that he could not locate the feet at all because of the infinite dimensions of Shiva. But Brahma chose to lie to Shiva and on seeing a falling flower on the ground, the same as the one that Shiva wears on his head; he told the Lord that he had seen his head. Shiva immediately found out that Brahma was lying and instantly cursed him that he was never to have a temple and would have to remain contended with the only one in Pushkar, a land of the flower. In north Indian myths, Brahma took a Gujjar woman who he purified by passing through a cow and named her Gayatri, when his wife, Savitri took a long time to dress and got late for the grand yagnya that he was conducting in the presence of all the deities. Savitri, angered by Brahma’s infidelity cursed him and all the Gods badly. The gods cursed were Indra, Pavan, Vishnu, and several other rishis.
When we arrived in the vicinity of the Pushkar lake, the main one known as Senior Pushkar, for there are the middle and the junior Pushkars as well, I found that people dressed in traditional Rajasthani attire moving about asking for “cow donations”. Rather short and sweet looking animals that looked like bovine yaks were strutting with contended faces with splashes of dry sindur on them. These cows were supposed to represent the sacrificial cows that the Vedic people used to chop off during yagnas. The entire ritual is a survivor of the days of cow sacrifice by Hindus ! Then in a flash I got the story of Pushkar; Brahma versus Vishnu in which the former loses the battle, the curse of wife of a monogamy marriage, the Holy Cow who purifies the Gujjar girl Gayatri, the curse on Indra, Pavan, typical Vedic Gods and the curse on Vishnu that he will be born as Krishna, Rama, Varaha and so on, possibly hints that at Pushkar, there was a battle between the Vedic and the later Brahminical Hinduism. I reach for the dates of the various temples, numbering to over 400 around the lake and I realize that all of them have been built between the 10th and the 18th century, highly medieval instead of ancient India. The Vedic rituals of which cow sacrifice was an important part is replaced by a strict vegetarian zone and every deity in India including the now disappeared God Jhoolelal has a temple here.
The crowd of temples as each tries to nudge the others in order to get some space along the lake hints that some battle must have taken place in this very land as Hinduism throws out Vedas and brings in the epics and the Puranas. The population consists of Gujjars, the caste of Lord Krishna and of Gayatri and of Parashar Brahmins, a low caste Brahmin who hails their descent from the dark skinned Ved Vyas, the author of the Mahabharata. There is no business in Pushkar except as priests especially because this is supposed to be a place where one washes sins and prays for souls to have moksha. The spiritual business, however, is only a tip on the iceberg, because the real bulk business of Pushkar is in drugs. Anyway, what endeared me was the surfeit of girls’ schools all over the town and indeed the education of the girl child is a credit that the Brahmins must deserve. One of the modes of Sanskritization before Independence was to educate one’s girls that today unfortunately have come to rest in teeny clothes but with honour killing.
I try to use my time in the car well and divide the prasad from Ajmer into small packets for distribution. We discuss how similar anything to do with Vishnu and Lakshmi is so like the Pirs. The prasad of Satyanarayan is so much like the Arab breakfast that Marriott had laid out in Dubai, pirs always have the same food prepared and same stuff offered as Radha Krishna and lo and behold, Garib Nawaz was seated just at the place which according to the south Indian Pushkar myth, Lord Vishnu was supposed to have found the feet of Shiva. Khwaja Saheb was already there in Ajmer when the temples were starting to get constructed in Pushkar. I read in the Ajmer pamphlets that Garib Nawaz sat in Ajmer, the outskirts of what was to become Prithviraj Chauhan’s kingdom and challenged the then king, by saying that love and not the sword was the true weapon of universal suzerainty. It was a political move through the spiritual path predating the Muslim conquests by at least two hundred years.
Prithviraj Chauhan hailed on his mother’s side from Bengal, Ballal Sen, the founder of the Baidya caste, being the maternal grandfather to this great hero and in one of the Pushkar myths, cursed Vedic God had turned into Kali of Kolkata !! The religious contests between the Vedic and Gujjar alias Krishna cultists must have had something to do with the establishment of the kingdom of Prithviraj Chauhan. Pushkar has a surfeit of Bengal and Bihar presence and also a discernible Sindhi and a Maratha one. There is also, at Pushkar, a Sankaracharya temple. Ajmer, on the other hand has a marked presence of Southern Indian Sultans. It is then definitely a space in which Hindus and Muslims, each in their own way had tried to combine the north and the south of India and for the Hindus, it has been a shake out within Hinduism as Brahma, with his monogamist family and cow sacrifice clearly bowed out to a polygamist and vegetarian culture of the Krishna worshippers and also a rise of the Gujjar community in defiance to the greater ritual statuses of Brahmins.
As these thoughts crowd my mind and I decide to sound Anirban, a adventuring historian on these passing ideas, I am animated by a appealing smell emanating from somewhere around me. I detect the fragrance as being from the now shriveled pink rose that I got at the dargah – Khwaja Saheb’s rose smelling jolly sweet.