We were woken at 6am to a tremendous din of bells and music. I would call it a rude awakening except that it was due to the devotions of the faithful on the Ghandi Ghat, which was virtually under our hotel window. As it was only a short hop today between Pushkar and Ajmer, we allowed ourselves to snooze again and have a leisurely start to the day with breakfast on the terrace overlooking the peaceful lake.
The road from Pushkar to Ajmer took us over Snake ‘Mountain’ (less than 100m climb) from a small Hindu town to a largely Muslim city of half a million people. As we came over the pass we could see the city before us surrounding a large lake and we were soon into the heart of it. Finding our hotel was rather tricky as ‘googlemaps’ took us straight through the main bazaar area and its mass of narrow winding alleys, battling with people, motorbikes and tuktuks. When we finally found it we found that we could have come a longer way round on a proper road! Would have been more straightforward but not as much fun!
We were settled in by noon and soon set out to explore the city. Plunging back into Diggi bazaar was far easier without the bikes. A riot of colour and people, it’s narrow alleys had a different feel to other cities with similar snaking backstreets. Difficult to put a finger on just how, but the Muslim influence seemed to make the place feel distinctly different. The part we walked through first was a mass of food and sweet stalls, and we had a quick samosa with a delicious sizzling sauce.
We were heading towards the Dargah of Khwaja – the tomb of the Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud din Chishti, who came to Ajmer from Persia in 1192 and died there in1236. It is a major pilgrimage centre. Just as we approached the Friday ‘call to prayer’ sounded from the mosque within the complex and hoards of people were surging in. So we decided this was not the right moment to try and visit!
As we walked away from the shrine from the main entry gate the roadway was lined with hideously deformed beggars – seeking funds from those on the way to the mosque, not tourists (there were no other tourists). We have heard the stories of beggars being deliberately maimed and ‘pitches’ being highly organised and sold. We don’t know the truth of it but it was gruesome and macabre. The deformities could not be downplayed but there was a lot of rolling around in the dust and dirt, which did seem exaggerated. None of the faithful streaming towards the mosque seemed to be giving any money to them (but maybe they got money after prayers). We hurried through and when we returned later made sure we did not go that way.
Our next stop was another totally extraordinary place. The Nasiyan Jain temple was built in 1865. The outer part was of red stone but the inner double temple hall was an amazing gold ‘diorama’ (a model representing a scene with 3 dimensional figures), depicting the Jain concept of the ancient world with continents, oceans, golden cities and flying gondolas. It was abut the size of a two or three squash courts, and was quite unlike anything we had seen before! The wall posters explained the history of Jainism and how the mystics developed their views of the world. It was a strange, unscientific view of the world but was no more absurd than the Pope’s attacks on Leonardo da Vinci for suggesting that the earth rotated around the sun.
Strolling back through the bazaar took us into different areas, for example one was a series of what looked like jewellery repairs – small alcoves with men sitting cross legged using intricate tools. One of the delights of a city like this is wandering – not knowing what is around a corner and finding a ruined palace, Anglican church (St. John the Evangelist – just around the corner from our hotel) or a series of shops that just sold motor bike parts.
Later in the afternoon we went back to the Sufi shrine. Again it was quite extraordinary, although in a completely different way. The complex could be entered from different gates within the heart of the bazaar. Once we had removed our shoes and entered, the contrast between the noise and dust and narrow alleys of the bazaar with the marble floored area of courtyards, mosque and shrine was marked. It was full of pilgrims and we felt rather out of place and a bit voyeuristic, but no one seemed to mind and we were probably over sensitive. No photos though. There were numerous stalls selling devotional nicknacks and baskets of flowers that were being brought to offer within the shrine.
People were sitting in groups and individually, many round the walls of the shrine offering their prayers. We did not try to go into the heart of the shrine, as the lines of people with their offerings seemed strictly controlled and it seemed lacking in respect to do so. Although there was something about this place that we could understand, it felt a profoundly holy place.
Back in the mundane of our hotel we felt in need of a ‘brew’. We often use our little stove in the ensuite shower rooms. This one was rather posher so we hesitated but there was a door opening onto a ventilation shaft so we thought it would be ok – and then realised we had forgotten to fill our fuel bottle this morning (the stove- a whisperlite – burns pretty much anything flammable but we usually use petrol as it is available everywhere.)
The drive for a cuppa had us out again looking for a petrol station. Eventually we found one after a long walk down a road with hundreds of tuktuk and motorbike repair shops, and lots of oily men who plainly work wonders with engines. We found a garage and asked for our 50 rupees of petrol. They did not seem to think it too unusual that 2 white people strolled into their petrol station with a small fuel bottle and asked for it to be filled – or if they did they hid it well! Back to the hotel just as it was getting dark and had our well earned drink!
So today was a day in a fascinating Indian city, so different in many ways to anywhere we had been before but also, in many ways, so typical of the delights we have experienced over the last month or so. An England only occupied by the English may seem pretty drab after we return, but luckily that England disappeared a long time ago and, particularly in London, we will have plenty of international colour to keep reminding us of these precious days.