For centuries, the dargah (zawiya/tomb) of Moinuddin Chishti, otherwise known as Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, has attracted rulers and lay-men alike. Both Muslims and non-Muslims, of all classes, have been known to visit the resting place of the great 13th century scholar, saint and founder of the Chishtiyya sufi order. Muhammad bin Tughluq, the Sultan of Delhi, visited the tomb in 1332, and Mughal emperor Akbar (d.1605) himself visited fourteen times during his reign. (1) Today, thousands continue to visit the Dargah every year, some travelling great distances to do so. If you are interested in making the journey, Muhammad Ayaz Ramjaun outlines everything you need to know.
1. How to get there
Ajmer, located in Rajasthan, can be a little tricky to reach. There are three transport options: car, train and plane.
Car: Regardless of where you’re driving from, you’re going to have a bit of a journey to get to the Dargah Sharif. Car journeys can take over 12 hours, if not more, when driving from major cities.
Train: Trains to Ajmer generally come from New Delhi via the Shatabdi Express or the Sleeper train. The latter allows for a more restful journey, as you will have a bed to sleep on (though you will have to sleep with your luggage next to you, which can be nerve-racking). The Shatabdi Express takes roughly 6 hours from New Delhi, followed by approximately 30 minutes from the train station to the Dargah Sharif by rickshaw. The Shatabdi is a modern train with comfortable seating, USB charging ports and so forth.
Train tickets must be bought using an Indian bank card, meaning, there is no way for tourists, visitors or foreigners to purchase tickets unless they go through a travel agent or someone they know that lives in India. This is where costs for the trip may start to pile up. It gets trickier still, as tickets must be bought in advance (something like a month or two) and they cannot be bought at the station.
If travelling from New Delhi, the station can be intimidating, especially if you’re a tourist. It is very crowded and you have to deal with baggage security checks. Whilst there is an information board for train departures and platforms, it can get very confusing, with trains sometimes arriving and departing from platforms different to that stated on your ticket. The best way to deal with it all is through baggage porters. For a small fee, they will carry your luggage to the train, dealing with any platform confusion for you. Pay and follow their lead!
A side note for New Delhi train station: avoid any taxis other than those provided by your travel agent or government taxis. Every station should have a government taxi hub, and they are safe to use. Non-government taxis are best avoided as there is the risk of theft. It is also best to travel during the day.
Plane: The final method of reaching Ajmer, is to fly to Jaipur. This is by far the easiest and most hassle-free method. Though the expense of the plane ticket needs to be taken into account, the comfort and security it provides is a major plus.
From Jaipur, it is a three hour taxi ride to the Dargah.
Reaching the Dargah: The Dargah is in the middle of a village where cars cannot enter, as it is far too narrow and crowded with people. A taxi will take you as close as possible, after which you will need to take a rickshaw to get deeper into the town. You will then have to navigate through alleyways on foot; this is not as difficult as it sounds; you either follow the crowd or the signs. If you get lost, just say the name of the Dargah to anyone you pass and they will point you in the right direction. It is a very short walk to reach the main gates.
2. Places to visit before the Dargah
Before visiting the Dargah and even before reaching the village, there are three places well worth visiting: The Chillah Khwaja, Chillah Qutub and Ana Sagar.
To get to them, a rickshaw will be sufficient, and the driver will be familiar with the aforementioned names. It takes a few minutes to travel between the three locations.
The rickshaw will drop you at the bottom of some steep steps. A few minutes up the steps, winding left and right, passing many stalls, you will reach the top and find yourself in front of a wall with a door. This is the cave opening. At times it is very busy and crowded so you may have to wait a couple of minutes for your turn to go in. The cave is very small and is where Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz himself came for his spiritual retreats.
Chillah Qutub Sahab
From the road, you will have signs leading you. You will have to walk up some steps again, at the top of which the area is much more open. This cave is where Qutubuddin Baktiyar Qaqi (disciple of Moinuddin Chishti) came for his spiritual retreats. Some caretakers will allow you to take pictures, others are very strict and will not tolerate this at all, so be mindful if you want to use your camera.
There is a beautiful park and lake at the bottom of the town, which is worth visiting. Whilst you may see the lake from the road, I would recommend walking though the park as it is a stunning location. At the end of the park, there are a few marble pavilions, like concrete walls where you can see the shadow of the person on the other side of the wall (yes, you read that right). The lake is stunning and you must visit it before it gets dark to enjoy it fully- plus during the evening the park is full of bats flying around!
There is a story attached to the lake: Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz and his disciple came upon the lake when it was under the control of some Hindus. They asked them for permission to use the water to perform ablution. Mockingly, they were told they could only take what would fit in their bottle- clearly not nearly enough water for ablution. As the disciple put the bottle in the water to fill it, he scooped up the entire body of water, leaving the lake dry.
3. The Dargah
Walking to the Dargah: On the way, walking through the alleyways, you will come across numerous stalls selling mostly chadars and flower baskets. Beautifully designed and of various colours, they are bought to be placed upon the tomb. They will usually be placed in a basket along with flowers, which you will carry on your head as a means of respect- I recommend doing this to partake in the experience fully.
Guides: On your way in, many guides will approach you offering their services, easily spotting a foreigner. Going with a guide can be helpful, but just bear in mind that you will have to pay them at the end. It is not necessary to have a guide, and you may have a language barrier to contend with, however, it is worth noting that they are generally kind and good natured, and if you wish to take home a chadar that has already been on the dargahfor barakah, your best bet is to use a guide who can get it for you.
Inside the Dargah: It is not easy to describe what to expect once you enter the compound. My first time, I was overwhelmed by the surroundings, the sounds, the beautifully scented air, the colours- it all hit me in one go. There is so much going on, it is hard to know where to look!
There are a couple of entrances to go through to reach the actual dargah, which are not at all difficult to spot, especially if you are with a guide. Think of the dargah as being inside a square room that is located inside another square room- a room within a room. The first room you enter is where everyone queues up to go in. From this point, it gets crowded.
There will be a lot of pushing to get inside and a lot of people directing, as well as raised voices. You will need be patient and just try to remain calm. Once inside, you won’t have much of a choice but to follow the flow of people, however, it shouldn’t be a problem to find an empty spot in which to stand and say some prayers.
There are certain days of the year where various tabarukats (sacred relics) are laid out in the room of the dargah, such as the kiswa of Ka’ba. Unfortunately, it is very hard to know when those days are exactly, but like many other events at the dargah, they are often on the days of Eid.
Mosque courtyard: Once you have visited the dargah, the next place to visit is the mosque courtyard. This is directly adjacent to the tomb and is an open space.
In terms of architecture, there is a lot to appreciate. There are steps that will take you to the inside of the mosque. It is said that the marble floors stay cool even under the hot sun, though I did not have the chance to experience this as I visited in the evening when the weather was much cooler.
The Qibla (direction of prayer) is in the opposite direction to the dargah, so whilst in the courtyard or mosque, if you look behind you, you will be able to see almost the entire Ajmer Dargah compound. This is where most pictures are taken from.
From the Masjid, if you look at the Dargah, on the left side there are three places to visit: the Gate of Paradise, Tank Victoria and the giant cauldron.
The Gate of Paradise: There is a story that whilst in Madinah al-Munawwara, Moinuddin Chishti did not want to leave. By the order of the Prophet ﷺ he was sent to Ajmer. One day, he was longing for the Prophet ﷺ so much, that he himself appeared in front of him at a gate. He said that where the Prophet ﷺ stood is Paradise, hence the gate is known as the Gate of Paradise.
Looking from the mosque to the dargah, the gate is directly in front of the mosque courtyard. You cannot miss it as many people will congregate around it. It is a white gate with flowers and golden text which says: ‘Jannati Darwaza.’ This gate is open four times a year and is very busy whenever it is opened.
Tank Victoria: Again, if you stand in the mosque courtyard looking at the dargah, to its left there is a corridor through which you will reach another open place. Immediately on your right (upon entry) there will be a basin with taps, where people go to perform wudhu (ablutions). It was built as a gift for worshippers by Queen Victoria when she visited in 1911.
The giant cauldron: While standing at the basin, to your right will be the corridor leading back to the mosque & dargah, and on your left towards the end, you will find circular steps- like a rounded pyramid with nothing on top. If you go up these steps, you will see a giant cauldron.
This is known as the deg- famous, as it was once used to cook food for thousands. It is only when you look at it from above that you appreciate its colossal size and the incredible achievement it would have been to cook in it! When it is empty, people drop money and food in it. It is eventually collected and goes towards the costs of cooking and feeding people. From the steps of the giant cauldron, you can see the dargah, the Tank Victoria and the market stalls.
After seeing everything, I would recommend finding a quiet spot to sit in and pause for a moment. Watching everything happen around you is an experience in itself.
Qawwali nights: On Thursday nights (and some other nights also), Qawwali events take place. While it may not be for everyone, it is part of the experience of visiting Ajmer and for me, a once in a lifetime experience!
Advice to remember
One final note, if you have visited maqams/zawiyas in other countries, you will find a stark difference here, in that many of the visitors are not Muslim. There are some practices that may surprise you or make you uncomfortable, but you shouldn’t let any of that dampen your experience. Know why you are there and what you are doing, and leave others to do as they wish. Remember that Muslims are not the only visitors.
People may try to rope you in; be polite in your refusal and always be patient. Patience is the key to enjoying the most out of this visit.
My advice is to get to Ajmer early in the day. Visit the two spiritual retreat caves and Ana Sagar, and then head for the Dargah. On your way to the Dargah (or afterwards), be sure to walk through the town of Ajmer, it is one of those places you never forget. Know as the Dargah Bazar, I felt the best experience was during the evening when the town shone with beautiful lights and its streets were bustling with life.
Ajmer is one of those rare places that remains with you forever, so be sure experience it fully.
(1) Abū l-Faḍl, Akbar-nāma, ed. ʿAbd al-Raḥīm, 3 vols., Calcutta 1873–87.