Animesh Anand takes us on a mystical journey through the “city of faith” with its generous sprinkling of temples, forts, dargahs, places of historical significance and natural beauty – an incredible combination of faith and splendour hard to beat!
As the train pulled in at the station, it had become dark. Half an hour prior, I was gaping at charismatic hills lit all the way up with fluorescents against the dark shadow of night. A prominent landmark that caught my eye was the fortified mini Eiffel’ish’ Tower atop the highest peak, well-lit and easily visible from significant distances. Curious, excited and puzzled, I stepped on the soil of the city with traces of history, tales of valour and blessings of saints – Ajmer.
Situated in the heart of Rajasthan, around 135 kms from Jaipur and nestled in the foothills of lush green Aravallis, Ajmer gets its name from ‘invincible mountain’ Ajaymeru. One of India’s most amazing pilgrim destinations, its fairs and festivals appeal to everyone.
I felt an instant connection with the city. A wondrous quietude made home amidst the hubbub prevailing in the streets bustling with activity. Rajasthani cuisine was a treasure trove for the taste buds.
In retrospection, I feel that the visit to Daulatbagh on the shore of Anasagar Lake, the next morning, was the perfect start to the trip. This historical lake was constructed by Ana Ji Chauhan, the grandfather of Prithviraj Chauhan in the 12th century AD, to the bank of which Jehangir added the fine park of DaulatBagh. As legends have it, people still find coins of Mughal demarcation buried in the park. ‘Baradari’- the marble pavilions overlooking the lake erected by Shahjahan in 1637, is a favourite place to laze by the lake. Smitten by the captivating beauty of the moment, I climbed the platform in anticipation of a panoramic view, and wasn’t I rewarded! The immense lake against the magnificent backdrop of the mountains was a scene that will remain embedded in my mind lifelong. The brilliant giver of life was calling it a day once again. Melodious singing of birds along with the rhythmic hymns sung by the gentle waters of the lake soothed the mind to eternal peace. At the same time, the crimson hue of the setting sun, played at the peaks of the mountains giving them a golden tinge.
The visit to Soniji ki Nasiyan, was my first tryst with the spiritual significance of the city. This Red Digambar Jain Temple was built by GauravJi in the late 18th century. The double storeyed building adjacent to the main temple has a hall dedicated to the model of Ayodhya, the birthplace of RishabhDev – the first Tirthankar of Jains. The grandeur of Jainism was quite evident in the completely gold-plated wooden figures depicting ‘Ayodhya’- the city of Lord as per Jain mythology. Finest craftsmanship I’ve ever seen. From a distance it seemed there were boats floating in mid-air inside the hall, till I went closer and saw that the boats were suspended by extremely thin wires, almost invisible to the eye. The glitter of gold combined with the reflection from mirrors created a magic so enchanting that it made me feel like I was standing at the doors to the Kingdom of God itself.
I planned to beatify my visit to Ajmer that evening by bowing at the feet of the paragon of Sufi devotion, Khwaja Garib Nawaj.
Dargah Sharif – the tomb of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti is a popular pilgrim destination for both Hindus and Muslims, revered by all as the “Madinatul-Hind” or “the Medina of India”. Walking through the old Ajmeri Galis, we passed by numerous shops selling chaadars (sheets) and flowers for offering as well as exquisite craftwork – a parallel reality of faith and commerce. Innumerable narrow lanes run around the shrine ending up at one or the other gateway, symbolising God’s own adage – You’ll follow different paths but ultimately, all will lead to me. In that way we joined the swarm of pilgrims scampering to bask in the blessings of the holy shrine.
The grand entrance to the shrine, erected by the Nizam of Hyderabad, came into view from a distance. Inside, exquisite courtyards, typical of Moghul architecture, attracted my attention. Rich and intricate designs spoke of the 750 years old legacy. Qawwalis, the calls of vendors, murmurs of people all around, struck the ears, but as I edged nearer to the tomb everything seemed to melt away into a calmness of spirit and mind.
Early the next morning we boarded the bus to Ajmer Engineering College, situated at Ajmer Bypass on the outskirts of the town. Our real destination lay approximately a km further, the newly built splendid Digambar Jain Temple of Nareli . An architectural marvel, the view of the temple amidst hillocks was a pleasant respite from the monotony of downtown Ajmer. The temple is sheer poetry. Beyond the imposing gateway, a path beautified with gardens on either side and divided by a row of fountains, guides to the main temple at the far end. A grand staircase leads to the sanctum sanctorum that contains the colossal statue of Mahavir in meditation. Ornate walls and elaborately carved pillars are a feast to the eyes.
The trip was growing more and more enchanting with each passing day. “The next 2 days would be worth a life time”, these were my thoughts as I went to bed that night.
“It’s over 1000 stairs to the fort”, the man told us. We were standing at the bottom of Taragarh Hill, the next day, enroute the Taragarh Fort at its top. The road to the fort clung to the sides of the steeply sloping hill. The seat of Chauhan rulers, it was one of the oldest hill forts constructed – when Aravallis were above snowline. Built by Ajaypal Chauhan about 1000 years ago, the fort still seems to be standing guard over the city. Later Mir Sahab ki Dargah was constructed in the compound to honour the governor of the fort. In the latest move, Lord Bentink ordered it to be dismantled to use it as sanatorium for troops in the region.
Few jeeps zipped past in both directions, giving the answer to the question which was troubling us – “How will we reach there?” Few minutes later, after a number of futile attempts, we finally managed to get a ride to the top. The jeep swerved dangerously at turns as we ascended the stepwise road that elevated at every turn to release a spectacular view of Ajmer. Pleasant surprises awaited me.
Prithviraj Smarak came halfway with a magnificent life-size statue of Prithviraj riding his horse. An inviting stop, it offers a tribute to the awe-inspiring life of the great Chauhan. At only half the height to the top, such a splendid view of the city left me wanting for more. The jeep stopped amongst rusty old brick walls, remnants of the great fort that once stood here. I wanted to explore the site, the witness of more than 1000 years of glorious history, to the hilt. Alas! Not much was left of the old inheritance. There was almost nothing left of the walls, whatever remained was in shambles; still one could sense a pride, a valour emanating from them. Each rock that remained declared that “here ruled one of the greatest warriors of all time – PrithviRaj Chauhan”. Moving to the other side, I found myself at the foot of a giant tower, the same one that I had been noticing from various ends of Ajmer. As I found out, this prominent landmark is the television broadcasting centre for the area. I felt puny, craning my neck to see its top. I slowly moved towards the edge, and standing on the refurbished walls of the fort I looked at Ajmer. And that was one of the most breathtaking views ever.
The whole of Ajmer lay in front of me, bounded by hills on 3 sides– I was standing on one of them, the Jain Temple of Nareli stood on the hill at the opposite end, and on my left, beyond Anasagar, was Nag Parbat that separates Pushkar from Ajmer. Vast Anasagar seemed to lie there nonchalant; an eye-soothing flat bed of water beside the jungle of human establishments with small hillocks hither tither adding to the beauty. Numerous temples, atleast one on each hill top, as well as the great shrine emanating divine light showed me why this city is called the “city of faith, the city of belief”. The serpentine railway tracks could be made out with a train or two disappearing and reappearing behind the hills. The cool breeze at the foothills had turned into a gust at the peak. The afternoon sun, hidden behind the clouds, lit up the valley of Ajmer in a manner which was, for the lack of a better word, perfect.
That evening sitting in the courtyard of Bajranggarh I loooked down at Anasagar; it had looked peaceful from Taragarh but from this near I could see that the lake was bustling with activity. Night had fallen, and Ajmer – lit up with light and life – offered a peace that soothed my tired body from within. Hanuman’s temple on the top of the hillock beside Anasagar lake, Bajranggarh offered some nectar for the spirit. Ajmer taught me to accept people with love. The symbol “?” created by lamps on a distant hill seemed to be asking whether my trip was successful? Did I gain some food for thought? Did I feel blessed? An enigmatic smile appeared on my lips, I looked up – YES! God knew my answer.