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The Urs celebrations of the great Muslim Sufi saint Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer are famous all over the world – not only among Sufis or other Muslims. Sufism (also referred to as tasawwuf) is the inner, mystical dimension of Islam, which focuses on direct knowledge of God and the experience of mystical union or direct communication with ultimate reality. One can hardly overemphasise the importance of Sufi Islam as the key channel for Hindu-Muslim interaction in South Asia throughout the centuries, which resulted in an extremely fruitful cross-fertilisation of ideas, thoughts, sciences, and arts – and there is no place in South Asia where this is more evident than in Rajasthan’s Ajmer and even more so during the Urs festivities.
The Indian city of Ajmer is often reverently referred to as ‘Ajmer Sharif’ (‘Ajmer the Noble’) and ‘Madinat al-Hind’ (‘Medina of India’) since it is home to the dargah (shrine) of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti, which makes the city the most important centre of ziyarat (Muslim pilgrimage) in South Asia.
Ajmer is a city of half a million souls located in the heart of India’s Rajasthan state. Surrounded by the Aravalli Mountains, Ajmer, earlier known as Ajaymeru (in Sanskrit meaning ‘Invincible Mountain’), and its fertile valleys are protected from the nearby sands of the Thar Desert. The green oasis has been an important settlement site for thousands of years and its fortress Taragarh is claimed to be one of the oldest hill forts of India, if not the world.
The city itself was founded in the first millennium CE by the Chauhan Dynasty. During their rule repeated waves of Turkic invasions swept across India. Ajmer was finally conquered by Mohammad of Ghor, who laid the foundation for the Delhi Sultanate, in 1193. Throughout its history the city changed hands many times: Mughals, Marwaris, Mewaris, Marathas, and, lastly, the British East India Company. That is why one finds the city today as an atmospheric potpourri of Turkic, Mughal, Rajasthani, British colonial, and modern architecture.
One of Ajmer’s famed historical remnants is the Adhai Din ka Jhopra (literally translated as ‘Two-and-a-Half-Days Hut’). The original structure was a Jain temple that was converted by the Delhi Sultanate into one of the most stunning mosques in all of South Asia.
Consisting of a quadrangle with a front screen wall of seven pointed arches, the mosque is considered as a masterpiece of the fusion of Indian and Islamic architecture. None of its forty heavily embellished columns that support the roof are alike. The mosque is also noted for its beautiful calligraphy in the Nashk and Kufic scripts.
In Ajmer one feels the city’s deep-running historic roots at every of its corners. Traditional crafts and trades that have since vanished in most parts of India continue to remain popular in Ajmer. For example, the ear cleaners continue to ply their trade, wearing their peculiar headgear and carrying their small shoulder bag that holds their ear-cleaning utensils.
Walking along the labyrinthine bazaar streets of Ajmer, one cannot fail to be enchanted by the shops and stalls brimming with arts and handicrafts created by the skillful local artisans: woollen textiles, hosiery, ornaments, bangles, gold and silver jewelery, bangles, hand-embroidered items, leather belts, bags, and footwear, brass utensils, woodcrafts, ittar (perfume), etc.
The crowds of pilgrims arriving in Ajmer swell during the Urs festival that occurs every year at the beginning of the Islamic month Rajab, when about one million pilgrims from far and wide, Muslims as well as Hindus and others, visit the dargah – all seeking the Khwaja’s guidance and intercession.
The Urs festival commemorates Khwaja Muinuddin’s symbolic union with God. The expression Urs (an Arabic word meaning ‘wedding’) refers to the death anniversary of a Sufi saint in South Asia, usually held at the saint’s dargah. The Chishtiyya refer to their saints as lovers and God as the beloved. They refer to their death as wisaal (union with the beloved) and their death anniversary as Urs. For them, death is only a transition, a wedding with the divine that the Sufi had always been aspiring to – hence the celebration.
The pilgrims who come to seek the blessings of the Khwaja make rich offerings called nazrana (Arabic for an offering, gift or present) inside his dargah. Offerings of rose and jasmine flowers, sandalwood paste, ittar, and incense create an overpowering fragrance inside the shrine, while chadars (decorative garments) are placed as tribute on the tomb of the saint.
During the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605 CE), Ajmer developed into the most important center of Muslim pilgrimage in the Indian subcontinent. According to the Akbarnamah, the Mughal Emperor became a devotee after hearing some minstrels singing songs about the Wali (Friend of God) who lay asleep in Ajmer. Akbar frequently made the journey from his court at Agra to Ajmer on foot, in observance of a vow he had made when praying for a son – a tradition that is still very much alive among the contemporary devotees of Khwaja Muinuddin.
Sultan al-Hind, Hazrat Sheikh Khwaja Syed Mohammad Muinuddin Chishti was born in the 12th century CE in Sijistan, in what today is Iran. He studied at many of the great centers of Islamic learning and later became a disciple of the Sufi saint Uthman Haruni of the Chishtiyyah, which takes its origin from the town of Chisht Sharif located east of Afghanistan’s Herat.
After having a dream of Prophet Mohammad blessing him to spread the message in India, Khwaja Muinuddin visited Lahore and prayed at the dargah of Hazrat Data Ganj Bakhsh Usman Ali Hujwiri, which had become the practice of Sufi saints coming to the Indian subcontinent. Leaving Lahore, Khwaja Muinuddin reached Ajmer along with Mohammad of Ghor, and settled down there, thus firmly establishing the Chishti Sufi Silsilah (chain) in South Asia.
The times of Khwaja Muinuddin, who is popularly known as ‘Gharib Nawaz’ (‘Benefactor of the Poor’), are considered to be the Golden Age of Sufism in South Asia. Within decades, the Chistiyyah order spread its roots across the Indian subcontinent.
The Dargah Sharif in Ajmer is the place where the saint’s mortal remains lie buried. Situated at the foot of Taragarh, the complex consists of several white marble buildings arranged around courtyards, a massive gate donated by the Nizam of Hyderabad, a mosque donated by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the Akbari Mosque, and the domed tomb of the saint.
Khwaja Muinuddin is credited with saying: “He indeed is a true devotee blessed with the love of God, who is gifted with the following three attributes: River-like charity, i.e. his sense of charity has no limits and is equally beneficial to all the creatures of God who approach him; Sun-like affection, i.e. his affection may be extended indiscriminately to all like sunlight; and Earth-like hospitality, i.e. his loving embrace may be open to all like that of the Earth.”
According to Khwaja Muinuddin, the highest form of devotion was “to redress the misery of those in distress – to fulfill the needs of the helpless and to feed the hungry.”
Inside the dargah, langar (communal food) is prepared in two massive cauldrons, called Degs, and distributed to the devotees as tabarruk (blessed food). Often a mixture of rice, sugar, ghee, dried fruits, and spices is cooked for the public. Wealthy pilgrims sponsor the Degs and distribute the food to the poor, thus accumulating merit.
Food has a strong symbolism in Sufism. Sugar and other sweet foods represent the sweetness of piety. Salt and other salty foods symbolize purity. Pronouncing ‘bismillah’ during the baking of bread, the bread is imbued with baraka (spiritual power), which is transferred to those who later share the bread.
The accompanying mela (fair) of Khwaja Muinuddin’s Urs caters to a wide variety of needs and interests. All over the huge fair religious paraphernalia, books, rosaries, prayer caps, embroidered carpets, and so on, are on sale. Many entertainment opportunities are available to the general public as well. Children whirl happily in merry-go-rounds, magicians attract large crowds, stalls of sweetmeats entice the hungry, while others dance devoutly in the Dhamaal to the heavy beat of drums.
In front of the dargah and at other locations in the city where mehfils are held, professional singers called qawwals praise the saint in their characteristic high-pitched voices. People gather around the them and listen attentively. The term qawwal takes its origin from the Arabic word ‘qaul’ (an ‘utterance of the prophet’) and denotes somebody who often repeats a qaul; what the qawwals sing is known as qawwali.
Groups of qawwals often consist of a lead singer, one or two side singers, one or two harmoniums, and two percussionists, one playing the tabla and the other the dholak. There is also a chorus of several men who repeat key verses, and who aid and abet percussion by hand-clapping. Qawwalis mostly begin gently and build steadily to very high energy levels that induce hypnotic states among the musicians as well as the audience.
Characteristic of Sufism is the particular emphasis on dhikr (remembrance of God) and asceticism. Via self-discipline and concentration on God it is believed that one can quell the self and through loving ardor for God one achieves union with the divine in which the human self melts away. The purpose of dhikr is to practice consciousness of the Divine Presence and thus achieve a state of god-wariness.
The term dhikr covers a diverse range of forms of worship and various layers of meaning. Generally speaking, dhikr is the remembrance of God through special devotional acts, such as the repetition of divine names, the recitation of passages from the hadith literature and the Quran, but for some groups also includes singing, instrumental music, dance, ascetic practices, trance, and ecstasy.
Especially the fakirs of the Rifai Tariqah (like most Sufi orders named after its founder Sheikh Ahmad ar-Rifai) are famed for their ‘miraculous feats’, such as stabbing their bodies with swords and knives, and not bleeding when they are in a state of ecstasy. These exhibitions of faith should strengthen the people’s iman (faith) in the power of dhikr.
While slogans resound to the accompaniment of drums, the fakirs slash their abdomens with swords, impale their cheeks and biceps with skewers, incise their arms, and pierce their tongues and ears – without resulting in any harmful injury – while the slogans and drums rise in crescendo.