Courted by emperors and commoners alike to have their wishes granted, Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti still draws pilgrims centuries after his death, with people of all faiths in Ajmer for his 799th Urs, or death ceremony, beginning Friday.
The saint's tomb is the site of one of India's largest fairs, drawing more than five lakh devotees belonging to different communities from all parts of the subcontinent for the Urs during the first six days of Rajab, the seventh month of the Islamic calendar.
Followers of the saint, also known as Khwaja Gharib Nawaz (benefactor of the poor), have reached Ajmer, set amidst the sylvan surroundings of Anna Sagar Lake adjacent to Pushkar temple. The saint lived from 1141-1230 AD.
The celebrations have already been kickstarted by the hoisting of a white flag. The ritual is swiftly followed by opening the 'jannati darwaza' or gates of heaven. According to popular belief, one can ensure a place in heaven by crossing the gate seven times.
The saint's resting place is sanctified by rose water and sandalwood paste and perfume is sprinkled on it. This is followed by shrouding the tomb with an exquisitely embroidered silken cloth. 'Fatiha' (funeral prayers) and 'salamti' (prayers) are read at the tomb.
Much awaited by connoisseurs of literature are the poetry sessions, where compositions dedicated to the Moinuddin Chishti are read out.
At night, 'mehfils' (religious assemblies) are held in the large mehfil-khana. Presided over by the sajjada-nashin of the dargah, they see qawwalis being sung in praise of the saint and the hall is packed to capacity. There are separate places reserved for women who attend the mehfil, which terminates late in the night with a mass prayer for the eternal peace of the khwaja in particular and mankind in general.
The shrine is a pillar of the philosophy of religious tolerance and cultural and social synthesis that has been the essence of India for centuries. The flowers laid on his grave come from the Hindu flower dealers of Pushkar while most of the chadars to be placed at the shrine too are made by non-Muslim artisans.
Credited with introducing the Chishti Sufi order in South Asia, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, according to legend, turned towards India after a dream in which Prophet Muhammad blessed him to do so. After a brief stay at Lahore, he reached Ajmer and settled down here. Soon he attracted a substantial following amongst the residents of the city, with his practice of "Sulh-e-Kul (peace to all)" concept to promote understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.
For many years his abode was a place of pilgrimage for millions of people of all castes and creeds and crowds, both Hindu and Muslim, thronged to find spiritual solace.
It was during the reign of Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) that Ajmer emerged as one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in India. The Mughal emperor undertook an unceremonial journey on foot to Ajmer to wish for a son to be his successor.
The Akbarnamah chronicle records that the emperor's interest was first sparked when he heard some minstrels singing songs about the virtues of the "wali" (god's saint) who lay "asleep" in Ajmer.
According to the saint, religion is not merely based on rituals and ecclesiastical formalities but "service of humanity".
Once asked about the highest devotion to God, the saint remarked that it was nothing but: "Dar mandgaan ra fariyad raseedan wa haajat-bichaargaan ra rawa kardan wa gursingaan ra sair gardaneedan" (To redress the misery of those in distress, to fulfil the needs of the helpless and to feed the hungry)."
[Picture: Dargah Shareef of Khwaza Moinuddin Chishti. Photo: Wiki.]