The Sufi sanctuary is an island of beauty, peace and eternity, and rules the world with its spiritual powers. A universe of divine love, and a spiritual guidance to all, the sanctuary is founded around the sacred tomb of one of the greatest Sufi personalities of all time, popularly known as Gharib Nawaz [R.A]. It is a place of pilgrimage for people of all faiths, who visit the holy shrine seeking a blessing that will bring them good fortune and spiritual illumination. It has also been the main Sufi sanctuary in the Indian subcontinent, ever since its establishment, inspiring with its ideological implications. It is also a sacred space for Sufis to make their communions, ceremonies, and rituals through performances, expressed through the Sufi trance or musicals, or by simply being silent in prayer and meditation. The Sanctuary is like the sun whose light shines in
all direction, in colors of a rainbow divine, reflecting a collective spirit and drawing people around the majestically-crowned dome into a Mecca of its own kind! The cultural flow of people becomes a rare manifestation of the human spirit, so strong and eternal, pulling you into its current. Flocking around thus, people of all colors and kind, a peaceful bubble of humanity, make the Sanctuary a living legend for all time! The Aravalli Ranges are full of scenic natural beauty, evoking a raw, mysterious spirit of the wild and wonderful. These hills of Rajasthan magnificently stream their way through the desert region to form valleys, springs and water holes. It is nature’s own retreat, lined with wonderful caves and forests, waterfalls and wild life, a paradise of its own kind, which at one time had mango groves as well as fruit
orchards cultivated, a haven for the Sufi wanderer. It is here that the great Sufi sanctuary is founded. The Sufi sanctuary is the centre of the Sufi Order known as the ‘Chishtiya Silsila.’ It is one of the most important schools of Sufism, and became popular in the spiritually fertile land of India, which welcomed the community with its cultural diversity. The Great Syrian mystic Khwaja Abu Ishaq Chishty [R.A], [d.941] founded the Chishtiya order. The name ‘Chishtiya’ stands for the place of his residence in the town of “Chisht” in Afganistan. Later, Khwaja Muinnuddin Chishty [R.A] took this order to India, where he established a centre in Ajmer, which in later times became one of the most popular and influential Sufi sanctuaries in the subcontinent. The sanctuary has since become a magnetic force to a collective who seek a divine inspiration and be illuminated with the culture and philosophy of the Sufi. The cultural impact inspired by the Sufi order is something to reckon with, as it is still vibrant with all its glory such that, to the person who may experience it, time comes to a standstill. As you enter through its gates and doorways, from one space to another, the architectural design carries you on a physical journey of experiencing its hidden joys and wonders, the silence and music, as also emotions of sorrows and pains, buried within its soul, as if the whole complex was a living humanity! The historical art of preserving the energy of a great spirit may be found not necessarily through the conventional treatise of the court scholar, but rather through the artistic creations of folklore, music, poetry, performance and as myths and legends.
India may be defined more as a culture than a political subcontinent, reciprocating each time creatively with its political rulers. But when given a chance, the exploitation of the Indian culture brought out the very best of its talents, and the intellectual contributions created a golden historical period such as India under the Moguls. This cultural ambience created a fertile land for the Sufi community to thrive, and encouraged the growth of different Sufi branches, especially the Chishtiyah. It was this cultural atmosphere in India that allowed Sufism to extend its grip over the whole country, whereby it was possible to live within your own culture having, at the same time, faith in the ideals of a universal spirituality. Phillip Vaughan, a historian of Indian Islamic art and architecture, claims: “The sultans of Delhi welcomed the mystical orders and members of the court were counted among their followers. Many cultural practices specific to the subcontinent, such as music and poetry at Sufi shrines, received official sanction and remain part of the contemporary practice. The caliph was far away or reduced to a figurehead after the Mogul invasions of the 11th century. Acceptance of the local elites of the ruler’s right to the rule was of greater importance, and a blessing of the Sufi sheikh had its own political weight in the reorganisation of its sovereignty.” Sufism became an alternate political force, that ruled by the might of its spiritual powers, created a culture of love, beauty and divinity – values meant to rule eternally. These values faced no problem in being shared with the Hindu majority, who understood and benefited from the Sufi apprehension of Ultimate Reality. Phillip Vaughan once again stresses:
Â With their origins in ancient Islamic mysticism, a number of Sufi orders had formed since the time of the Mongols, and had increasingly seen as part of their mission to try and shape â€Ś a worldly rule in accordance with their own beliefs. The rules of the order by no means prescribed hermit-like existence in a dervish monastery. They met together regularly, however, at their inn, [khanqa] or in an assembly house or a prayer hall [dhikr-khana] in order to participate in their communal ceremonies such as prayers, sermons devotional drills and night vigils. Thus it was thanks to the organising power of the Sufi orders that central Asia under the Uzbeks developed once more into a region that was able to define itself clearly in terms of culture to the outside world.Â The Sufis thus inspired the Indian people to celebrate creativity in diversity. A tolerant vocabulary of cultural unity sprang from none other than this greatest of all Sufi sanctuaries, which welcomed â€“ and still does â€“ all classes and kinds, from the most urban to the most rural, dervishes, mystics, saints and peasants, workers, the middle class and the ruling class of royalty, ministers and celebrities! The social definition of class, caste and other differences are silently questioned and redefined here. The Sufi culture stands out, defining a superior system of class and cultural hierarchy according to the spiritual attainments of an individual or a community, rather than its economic status. In order to understand the true values of a culture, we must see with a different frame of reference, that is, a realization of a culture with a different sense of historical time perspective. Therefore to seek not
historic fact, but instead study the underlying forces of culture.Â The Sufi sanctuary is a complex of this very cultural pattern, which continues in growth as representative of a whole people. The sanctuary complex evolved through a succession of socio-cultural dimensions, enforced by a living community of Sufi tradition and cultural values that is the people, including the traditional Keepers.
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The Sufi Sanctuary of Ajmer
The architectural complex that defines the physical as well as cultural space of the Sufi sanctuary has been created in a spiritual atmosphere of architectural elements, as may be defined by the fineness and sensitivity that encompass the activities inside it. The scale of architecture is large, symbolic of the Sufi hierarchy of this complex, represented by the Bulund Darwaza: The Great Door. The great cauldrons “Degs”, the community Kitchen, “Langar-Khana”, the later-built Mehfil-khana (the great Music Hall), the three Mosques within the sanctuary, and centrally located, majestically crowned in gold, is the dome – reminding people of Holy Mecca and Medina. The sanctuary is well defined, and is proportionately designed according to the various religious and spiritual services it provides, plus as a creative spatial-exploitation, to influence the senses through elements of geometry and design. The geometric patterns that adorn the walls and grounds of the sanctuary are a direct representation of the state of the human soul, and are also a symbol of the great cosmos, God’s orderly creation. Therefore, to anyone who comes within the sanctuary’s property, the very entrance to the space produces, consciously or otherwise, a fine effect upon the person’s spirit, mind, and its physical well being. Sufism may be defined as the holistic science that
creates, heals and celebrates! The architecture of this sanctuary reverberates with the celebratory spirit of humanity. Art and architecture produced by mankind so far has been created to represent the divine qualities embedded in creation. The pilgrims visiting the shrine, with cultural tradition inherited from one generation to another –are greatly inspired by the spiritual environment of the complex. The sacred music, art and poetry are food for the soul of the pilgrim, as they leave the premises with inner satisfaction, with an emotion of joy of the soul as an eternal blessing. One of the ideas found to be most inspiring to the art and architecture of spiritual spaces is the idea of creating heaven on earth. The whole Sanctuary is designed as a concept of paradise on earth, with seven doorways of entry to the complex. Also, the Sanctuary designed as part of the township, including the hills and valleys that surround it, with its architectural buildings and its landscaping that included “the Garden” [The happy valley] that contained valley of orchards, of fruiting as well as flowering trees, through which, during the rains, streams ran through cascades and waterfalls, passing through palaces…[now in ruins]. The Sanctuary complex is central to the design of the whole town, which also, in the further vicinity,
contains a huge garden that still exists, along the wonderful lake called “Ana-sager”. The sanctuary complex, furthermore, is designed as a spiritual fortress, defined by doorways and gates that lead you from one space to another, moving each time to a more intense space, till finally you come to the climax of the sanctuary – the Tomb at its centre, where the spirit is felt most alive. It is here that the ideas of Sufism are taken to a higher dimension, when an interjection takes place, the drop dissolves into the ocean, and emotions ascend to an ecstasy. The final visit as a climax of the visit is also a moment, so intense, as a doorway to eternity. An inspiration to your being, a spark that may put your soul aflame with the divine extasy! The Township of Aimer was contained in larger fortress wall with important entry gates, “Madar Gate” from the north, “Delhi Gate” from the eastern side, and “Usri Gate” from the west side, while to the south lie the hills and valleys of “Taragar” and “Taqa-sayed”. The whole city of Ajmer existed, until modern urbanization, a well-defined fortified township, with narrow streets and houses enclosed from all sides, to prevent the extreme weather conditions of cold or hot winds, and on its surrounding outskirts were green fields watered for agriculture by huge lakes. Also there were gardens and orchards and waterfalls in valleys from the hills encircling the town. The central structure of the sanctuary complex containing the shrine is within a large cubical structure, which has entries on two sides; one is through the courtyard built by the famous princess Jahaan Ara, while the other entry leads you towards the part of
the shrine that is positioned with the feet of the Great Khwaja contained in the shrine, and therefore it’s a place where people pay their respect to the shrine… On this side of the compound, the foot-gate (Paitee) to the shrine is a space that also holds daily performances of Sufi music. On entering the foot-gate, towards the interior is another space that includes the tomb of the daughter of the Sufi personality - Bibi Hafiz Jamal. All these exteriors are decorated with high-quality calligraphic works as well as geometric patterns and Islamic motifs that adorn the sacred space. The Tomb of Bibi Hafiz Jamaal, that has a space reserved for women almost all over the front portion of the “Queens courtyard”, was a rare mystical woman in the history of Islamic traditions in India. She was “born” with divine wisdom, and hence her title; “Hafeez” meaning attainment of Divine wisdom as revealed through the Quran, and “Jamaal” meaning Divine beauty.
The Tomb of this exceptionally great Mystical woman, symbolizes equal rights for women to practice Sufism, and represents a strong feminine presence in this part of the sanctuary. Also, right besides is the “Queens courtyard”, build by none other than Jahaan Ara, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahaan. She was a great mystic, poetess and an empress. She was also a great builder of architectural monuments, that too from her own recourses. The culture of permitting everyone’s entry to the
main shrine, irrespective of color class or gender, expresses the liberal values of this Sufi complex. Unfortunately some Sufi Shrines do not allow women inside the main space, which is not according to the Sufi personality buried in the shrine, as some might claim, but rather the organization, usually anti-Sufi establishments, who operate in the sly, and have forcefully, occupied the management of the shrines. Architecture in Islam includes symbolism through garden designs. The Sufi culture of the time, created some of the most wonderful gardens along the lakes of the city known as “Daulat Bagh”- the Treasure Gardens. Pavilions built from impeccable marble, known as “bara-dari”, overlook the ‘Anasagar’ Lake, which used to, until recent times, be an important part of the ecosystem of Rajasthan. Landscaping was also an important feature of Islamic culture the world over. The essential insight underlying all forms of Islamic Art and Architecture are the Koranic descriptions of paradise, which have always been the driving forces of inspiration for the anonymous artists and architects: “There are gardens at both the beginning and the end of mankind’s destiny – the Garden of Eden and paradise – and this is equally true for Muslim, Christian, Jew, and possibly other cultures alike. The Koran gives a detailed description of the eternal garden. Paradise appears to be a garden landscape enclosed by a wall, since both gates and gatekeepers are mentioned. Surah 55 tells of two similar gardens, beside which lie another two, different gardens. All four possess flowing springs, shady trees, exquisite fruits, and beautiful horses. There are also tents and buildings in the heavenly garden: dwellings, houses,
castles, and chambers, among which streams flow. All these buildings are scattered throughout the garden, and in no way resemble a city. Among the terms used in the Koran to denote paradise, Jannah (a direct translation would be ‘garden’) is the most common. There is frequent mention of the heavenly with various descriptive words such as the garden of delight (jannat naim), a garden of refuge (jannat al mawa), and a garden of immortality (jannat al-khuld). The Garden has also been etymologically linked with the cemetery, almost from the beginning. The landscaping within the sanctuary’s complex – which was well planned according to the spatial elements of architecture, with aesthetics and functionality combined – contains species of trees carefully selected for their aesthetic and spiritual importance. Conforming to the trends at the different historical times, the overall design of the spaces has been maintained in terms of its architectural unity. The inscribed doorways, the walls of the main sanctuary, interiors, etc. become strong architectural elements that define the subtle influence that work upon the minds of the people. The Sufi sanctuary of Ajmer houses three important mosques. The first and most important is the Shahjani mosque. Emperor Shah Jahan, upon ascending the throne, made the mosque as his inaugurating contribution towards an architectural monument, venerating the shrine of the great Chishtiy personality. The mosque is exquisitely built in white marble with an architectural space created with facades on three sides that lead you into an open space, giving a fantastic view of the crowned dome of the sanctuary. The location being
prominent also makes it a space that attracts people at times for spectacular performances of musical recitals of the spiritual lore [“zikre”]. The “code of conduct” within the premises of the mosque is well observed. The basic purpose is hosting of the community prayer five times a day, while the spiritual atmosphere within the premises of this Mosque is phenomenally calm. As soon as you enter from any one of the five facades, you enter into a space just as beautiful and pure as the marble holding it together. There is a huge interior of an open space that houses the eleven-arched mosque, the central niche as the “mehrab”. The beauty of this mosque is unique and, similar to the shrine; it is a complete spiritual world in itself. Not only is it a place for community prayers, but being situated directly in front of the Domed Shrine, it also becomes a place for Sufi poetic recitals. During festivities, huge assemblies gather to chant along, with a central performer who leads the sacred recitals. This open-space enclosure thus becomes an important space for performance, similar to the Great Hall of Music, expressing Sufi poetic recitals as groups of human voices chanting join in chorus as background to the leading voice. Compared to the Great Hall of Music [The Mehfil-Khana], this musical congregation is informal, with performances of music without musical instruments, and without elaborate gestures of expression, ecstasy or trance. The audience is charged with a meditative discipline, with concentration focused towards the inner self and the shrine. People sway gently together as they recite. Within the mosque, as a general rule, no one is loud, no elaborate movements, and people are expected to be clean and properly dressed. There are people reciting prayers, saying the individual
“Namaz”-an Islamic way of paying respect and gratitude to the Divine, meditating in silence, or simply sitting, or in quiet discourse. During the times other than community prayers, women are allowed to perform the namaz in any of the three mosques within the sanctuary. Ideally, women are allowed to pray in a community prayer [Jamaat] within the same mosque premises, provided a curtain divides them from the men’s assembly. The Mosque is the house of the Creator, and reflects the beauty of paradise contained within the interiors of the sacred tomb. This idea and interpretation is furthered by the fact that the central facade of the mosque’s courtyard leads you directly in front of the popular and sacred “Gate of Heaven” [Jannati Darawaza], which is open only on special occasions. Built earlier, the Akbari Masjid was constructed
by the great Moghul Emperor Akbar, well known for his secular ideas. It was originally a red stone mosque, and was decorated all over with Islamic calligraphy and geometric designs inspired by its architectural structure. The Sandali masjid is also very importantly located, is decorated with unique artistry, and is built with a unique building material, decorated with art on a plastered surface made from a mixture of pearls known as “sandala”. Beautiful arches reach up to form geometrical surfaces, forming inner ceilings which, along with the interiors, are decorated in gold colors– including the Mehrab. It would be appropriate to mention the sanctuary’s annual climax: the celebration of its “Urs” festival. During this cultural culmination of Sufi spiritual forces – resulting in the coming together of all the
elements that form the cultural diversity of Indian Sufi culture – the whole complex becomes a pool of vibrant energy, as if caught in some totally divine form of dazzling mysterious vision. There are musical performances everywhere around the sanctuary, and the people are in a greater form of ecstasy. “Urs” in Arabic means a wedding. Metaphorically the death of Sufi is regarded as a wedding occasion during which the departed soul of the beloved is on its way to meet its Lover. Therefore the occasion of “Urs” is a celebration like a wedding, whereby they play the ‘Shehnai’, a musical instrument used during a traditional wedding! It is during this period of celebration and meditation that the Sufi magic is felt, and no one may be left untouched by this emotional excitement. There are all kinds of spiritual entertainments. Each Sufi group or individual may bring its own cultural celebrations in the form of its manner and mood of ritual, music, poetry, movement and performance. The Sufi cultural festivities and celebrations are not limited to the complex alone, but are spread around in the streets and the resident communities, which turn vibrant and festive, while spiritual activities dominate the atmosphere.
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