Ajmer – A visit to the shrine of Khwaja Gharib Nawaz


Travelling – at first it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller’ – Ibn Battuta

I feel incomplete and yet there is this immense sense of inner peace that I am carrying within since I returned from the dargah of Hazrat khwaja Moinuddin Chishti , lovingly addressed as Gareeb Nawaz (Benefactor of the Poor) . The wish to tie the mannat ka dhaga (the thread of wish) took eighteen long years to get fulfilled and the whole visit was like a spiritual trance. Before I knew I was there inside the dargah filled with the combined fragrance of crimson roses and white mogra (jasmin) blossoms.

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The kind Khadim (Duwago) of Huzoor Khwaja who was guiding us made sure that we weren’t jostled around by large gathering of  devotees from all over the world. These Khadims have maintained and preserved the secular and glorious culture of the holy place alive for more than 800 years now. We bought the flower basket and the Gilaf or chadar to offer at the Mazar and he made sure we could do our prayer in peace and hand over the offerings at the mazar. The sea of devotees was swelling as it was not just Sunday but also a full moon night.  Once the ritual of offering was done it was time to do a parikrama of the shrine  and tie the thread of wish (mannat ka dhaga). The orange and yellow thread was separated in three strands of which two were put around our necks and the remaining third one I tied to the laced marble lattice that covered the courtyard of  the shrine.

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This is the entrance to the mazar The exquisite craftsmanship of the shrine and the colorful gold inlay work is breathtakingly beautiful. The porch known as Begami Daalan was built in 1643 AD by Princess Jahan Ara Begam, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan. The stunningly beautiful marble pillars and the ornamental detailing apeaks highly of the Mughal architecture. The door of the entrance to the mazar are mounted with heavy silver plate .and look gorgeous in the shimmering lights of the huge chandeliers.  The gumbad mubarak ( the white marble dome) buit in 1464 AD is another specimen of craft one can gaze at for hours together.

Inside the dome there is silver canopy inlaid with mother of pearl which was presented by emperor Jahangeer. The ceiling is covered with exquisite velvet chatgiri . The place totally enthralls you once you are inside. I felt as if I was removed from my earthly body and became one with the cosmic divinity.

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 Cameras are prohibited inside the shrine and I could take a few pictures with my mobile phone as a token of memory.

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There is a strange pull in this place which holds you captive. Something engulfs you completely as all your masks are shed in total surrender to the the sufi saint. One can feel the love , compassion and the inner peace that flows from the mazar and lingers all around the compound. The feeling can’t be described in words, it can just be felt.

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Once I tied the thread it was time to quietly sit and absorb the serenity and spiritual fragrance of the place. We were hard pressed for time and something within me did not want to go from there. I decided to shut myself off from the cares of the world and connect with the benevolent  khwaja hazoor.

with moist eyes and hands folded in prayer I listened to the Qawallis sung in the courtyard facing the shrine. Sama (spiritual music) or Qawalli singing is one of the practices of chishtiya order of  sufism.  The beauty of the harmonious blend of voices, musical instruments and the rhythm of the spiritual songs rendered for the love of the creator leave you spellbound. They take you to another level. Music is the food of soul that connects a person to self and the creator. There is a certain kashish a pull in those melodious voices of the qawaals or the singers as they sing in praise of allah and their love for him.

I was reminded of the famous and one of my favorite qawallis chap tilak sab cheeni re mose naina milayeke .. In every song the relationship between the supreme creator and the devotee is that of a beloved. A spiritual love that is unconditional and giving.

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Kid 2 with Syed Kalimuddin Niyazi urf chotu miyan khadim huzoor gareeb nawaz . We were blessed to have him as our duwago. Our heartfelt thanks to him for making our visit a smooth one.

Now that we are taking of Kid 2 let me  tell you a story. I was pregnant with my second baby and almost everyday I would dream of visiting dargah Ajmer Sharif . It wasn’t clear who was with me but I saw myself carrying the gilaf to the shrine and actually felt the presence with all its sounds, scents and sights. The whole experience was so overwhelming that I kept yearning to go to Ajmer shrif but somehow every time I planned the visit just did not happen.

It was destined to be at this time and with my son. It was a calling for him and me. Kid 1 had been to dargah many times but he could not accompany us. Maybe it was a mother son bond which was to be strengthened here at the door of gareeb nawaz. It is said you visit only when he calls. I had wept at the mazar of nizammudin aulia, a spiritual cleansing and the khadim there had told me the visit will take place around one year from then. ( we visited it in May2012) Sometimes one has to believe in the miracles of life and the universal energies.

After  the prayers we saw the two degs (cauldrons) which are used to cook niaz (kheer or pudding made of  rice, ghee, nuts, saffron & sugar) IMAG1139

The niaz is cooked twice from the offerings made by the devotees and this small deg gifted by emperor Akbar can cook 2,400 kg of food at one time. The big deg can cook 4,800 kg of food. The food is cooked by the zaireen (devotees) and distributed after morning and evening prayers. The blessed food is called tabarruk if I am right.

We did not wait till night so missed many things. A visit is due again in winter and this time just to the city of Ajmer. A longer stay in the city of faith. I want to experience the magic of evening prayers and the roshni (lighting ceremony at dusk).

Our time at the dargah was limited and soon it our duwago led us out of main gate. With a heart filled with prayers I promised to return to the shrine.

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This is the picture of Nizam Gate which was erected by the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1911 AD.

We strolled around the narrow streets of dargah bazaar taking in the colors and aromas drifting in the air from the tiny shops. I bought the famous Sohan Halwa from one of the shops recommended by our khadim. It was amazingly delicious. Sohan Halwa is specialty of Ajmer.

Unfortunately the mobile battery died and our camera was locked up in the car far away from where we were so we could not take more pictures.

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Once you visit the dargah of gareeb nawaz with a prayer in your heart it is always answered. I am not a religious person but I believe in the power of meditation and reverence to the universal energies, in love and compassion, forgiveness,  gratitude and releasing all that is negative, all those basic human qualities that seem to be slowly fading away.

I will go back there when there is a calling but I am humbled by this spiritual quest that took away so much that I was carrying within me, for the for kadambosi and hazari at the heart of the shrine.  One day I want to attend the annual urs of Hazrat Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer. I am carrying the intoxicating whiff of rose petals and mogra mixed with itr and incense sticks  in my heart.

I have returned to the hustle bustle of daily grind but a part of me in deeply saturated in prayers at the feet of khwaja gareeb nawaz and I know I am safe and blessed.

Monday Memories 8 – Chaubatia Gardens – A View From The Top


“The animals have the right of way” 

A signboard greeted us as we drove towards the famous Chaubatia Orchards 10 Km. from the town of Ranikhet. The gentle drizzle,  the breeze carrying the scent of sweet pine on its back, the call of Blue Whistling Thrush was not something new to us but each trip on this long and winding road brought a new sense of adventure.

While Kid 1 studied at Birla Memorial School in Majhkhali , we visited Ranikhet at least two to three times a year  and  always explored places nearby. Most of the time our stay was complimentary at the Army mess located away from the hustle bustle of the main town.

Chaubatia Orchards have around 200 variety of fruits and flowers trees , some of them exotic and rare. The place also had the Government Apple Garden and The Fruit Research Center. Surrounded by silver oak, rhododendron, cypress, cedar,  and pine forests this is one of the most beautiful spot in that entire area. One can trek or cycle through the quiet road leading to the orchards in the midst  a serene silence sometimes broken by a bird call.  We have been to Chaubatia in almost all seasons except deep winter and each time the experience is more exhilarating than the earlier.

On a clear day a panoramic  300 km wide view of the snow-clad peaks of Nanda Devi, Nilkanth, Nandaghunti, and Trishul can be seen at the horizon. One can sit there watching the gorgeous mountains from dusk to dawn and not tire of the sight. Chaubatia once had more than 36 variety of apples but due to lack of funds and mismanagement most of them are extinct now. The other fruit trees include peaches, plums, and apricots. In September – October the place becomes a paradise for bird watchers. One can find the Himalayan bulbul, Oriental whiteye Brown fronted woodpecker, Long tailed minivet and some other of the same species, Himalayan woodpecker, Black headed jay, Blue whistling thrush, White throated kingfisher, variety of tits, Owlets, finches, Red headed vultures, wagtails, Barbets and many other species.

Spread over the area of 265 acres the orchards look majestic during these seasons. We would often carry our picnic basket and relax there, taking in the scintillating  beauty of the place. During our visits we met a local guide who took us on a tour of the orchards explaining about  diversity of flora and fauna there. I saw a tree whose leaves smelled of five different spices. It is amazing how they have grafted various plants. There were many herbs and medicinal plants that I saw for the first time.

On one occasion we took a two and a half hour trek to Bhalu Dam which was constructed by a British Viceroy some 200 years ago to source water for the town..  The route to the dam is precarious and one has to be extra careful during rains but once you reach the spot  the majestic sight of the mighty Himalayas in all their virgin glory is mind-blowing.  It was a trek worth doing though the path was slippery and not maintained at all. Maybe that’s the reason few tourists venture in that area and the pristine beauty is retained even now. It had rained all morning and just as we returned to Chaubatia the sun made and appearance and with that a spectacular rainbow stretched itself lazily across the valley . An unforgettable sight with a backdrop of mountains draped in mysterious shimmer of haze. Spellbound we sat on the bounders watching the stairway to heaven as it slowly dissolved in the mist that enveloped the valley below.  The raindrops precariously hung on pine leaves , each one a prism of nature’s magnificence .

There are so many memories attached to Ranikhet and Chaubatia Gardens. The laughter of children , the sharing of silence between friends, the conversations over hot tea and bhajias, the digging into ripe luscious fruits and soaking in the gorgeous view around. Priceless.

There were times when we would take small trails into the pine forest and immerse ourselves in the serenity that city life lacks. There i  a certain energy that seeps through you when you interact with nature at a close level and it is healing in more than one ways. Maybe this is what one calls escape into nothingness. Where you are one with creation and nothing else matters. The entire 2,116 mts of chubatia ridge which along with the Ranikhet ridge makes the quaint town of Ranikhet has a scenic charm that can draw you like a magnet.

Sometimes the bells of  ancient 8th century AD Jhooladevi temple  of Goddess Durga would echo in the quietness of  cool evening filling the nearby forest with a musical melody.  Local people believe that Ma Durga fulfills the wishes if one prays at this temple with a pios heart. Once the wishes are fulfilled devotees tie bells there. One can view hundreds of beautiful bells hanging there. They believe the temple acts as a protective shield from wild animals. I am not a religious person but the  aesthetic beauty of this ancient temple is worth seeing. There is a little tea stall a little ahead of the temple and we would often sit there at the side of the road watching the day merge into the night and the changing colors of the sky.

I watched many a sunsets with my son here and I guess every one of them was as spectacular as the other. Those trips to Ranikhet were always filled with mixed emotions. A joy of meeting and a pain of parting with a hope that made all the difference to living each day.

I have not been there since Adi came back to Delhi but my heart is still wandering in those forests and beautiful hills with a carpet of mossy green over them.

Someday I wish to take that route again and venture ahead to Mukteshwar and some other places high up. I always regretted not taking my camera during those journeys but I guess some of the best images are those that are in our hearts. No camera can capture their beauty.

 

Monday Memories 7 – Kumaon Hills and Local Cuisine


I have traveled extensively in the hills of Kumaon in Uttarakhand and the beauty of the landscape of this sub-Himalayan region is breathtaking.  From Nainital, Almora, Haldwani, Binsar, Kausani, mukteshwar , Ranikhet and to Jagewshwar it is a remarkable road journey. I have yet to go explore Pithoragarh and many other virgin places nestled in the ethereal Himalayas.

Most of my visits were in and around Nainital and Almora districts.   Apart from exploring he places yet to be exploited by tourists we always looked for authentic Kumaouni cuisine. Unlike other states one can not find a single place which serves the local cuisine. At least we could not find it in all our visits. As one goes up to Almora one can eat the delicious local sweets (mithai) . Almora is famous for its Bal -Mithai , a fudge made from milk and dotted with tiny sugar balls. Without the sugar balls it is simply known as chocolate maybe because of its chocolate color. Bal Mithai is available throughout the region but noting compares to the one you get in Almora. Among other sweets my favorites are  halwa (semolina pudding), she pooas, singhal. All these are traditional preparations which are available in the sweet-shops in Almora. Another very interesting and delicious sweet is milk based  singodi  which is served wrapped in fresh green leaves of the local oak tree. Unbeatable for its taste I love it the most.

During one of our visits to the cantonment town of Ranikhet which had become our routine destination for five years while my elder son studies in Birla Boys School I decided to find some source of local cuisine.  A  small quaint café along the road to the golf course had become one of our favorite joint to watch the gorgeous  western Himalayas on one side and the vast green landscape on the other side. We would usually go there for either breakfast or evening tea and laze around in the small clearing where the owner had placed picnic tables and chairs. Not many people stopped by there so it was perfect place to spend some time together. Usually there were friends with us  and that made the little outing even more fun. We would split and go for walks while others would just gaze endlessly at the serene surroundings.

One day the owner joined us for tea and his stories  ranged from tigers to tourists and his plans about the food joint he dreamed of having someday. I just casually asked him if there was a place which served local cuisine. Amazed how I knew the names of local dishes he got interested and I told him about my association with the place. Was it nostalgia or just an overwhelming pride to serve the food of his region the man offered to specially cook the next day’s lunch for us. I was so excited that we planned a menu together and as it was a special request he asked us to pay some amount in advance in case we do not arrive at the café for lunch. I had to coax the rest of the group to agree and we paid up.

The lunch he prepared was unforgettable. It was after ages I had tasted something so delicious and it had just the perfect blend of spices and local products. The food is simple, mainly vegetarian and highly nutritious. The region has forests of Oak , Deodar ,Sal and Sweet Pine  coupled with terrace farming and trees of fruits like apples, peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, apricots which grow in abundance there.  Rice is an essential part of every meal.

Our food was cooked over a charcoal or wood fire in iron utensils. Bhatt (a variety of Soyabean but black in color was used in some of the preparations. Another rust brown lentil  called gahat which is known as kulath in Himachal and Maharashtra was also used as sar or clear soup and made into a delicious traditional dal. We were served badis made from large cucumbers which are typical of that region or from petha ( green pumpkin) . These savory little delights are prepared , dried and stored in summer and used as staple diet when fresh greens and vegetables which are not available in the winter. They provide a good source of nutrition along with Bhatt and gahat when the cold sets in. The most amazing preparation was aaloo ka gutka,  a potato preparation infused with a Tibetan herb called jumboo, red chillies, cummin seeds and hing. The locals also use another interesting spice called Bhanga (hash seeds) to temper yogurt and some other dishes like Iye , a kind of green leafy vegetable similar to Chinese Mustard . It provides a unique flavor and aroma to the dish. We had some amazing apricot chutney and Bhaang chutney with our food. in the dessert we had Jhangora kheer , a pudding made from millet. The taste of this sweet dish still lingers in the memory.

It was such a heartwarming experience to be served authentic local cuisine in a home like environment and to be appreciated for appreciating the  food and culture of those simple loving people. No food from any swanky restaurant can replace the taste and aromas of that meal we had. We invited the owner to share the meal with us but he refused saying he was the host and for him the guests are like gods so he can’t eat with us but he did tell us a lot of interesting stories about the food and other traditions of the particular region. It was worth every rupee.

The owner also gave us some of the spices and herbs as a token. I used them at home in many preparation for a long time.

There is nothing like experimenting with the local cuisine when travelling. I wonder if the café is still there or if one can still get the local food anywhere apart from the kitchens of local residents. I am glad I was able to introduce my friend and children to such a lavish   lunch. Something they may never experience again.

Now  that we are talking of food in Ranikhet one can not forget the mouth-watering chocolate Eclairs and cakes of Pathak Bakery on Thandi Sadak. Adi and I had some memorable times digging into the finest , freshest bakery products made in a wood oven. On one occasion we even braved the morning rain and cold to sneak out to the bakery and have a hot cup of flavored tea with freshly made biscuits. Simple pleasures of life and the moments made unforgettable by the bonding you share with the one you love.

Monday Memories 6 – Remembering A Pen Pal


I am sure many of you must have had pen pals sometime in your life. Now with technology powering the relationships / friendships, the art of letter writing is gone and so has the joy of having pen pals. There is a certain kind of joy in writing letters. The assortment of inks, crayons and colored pencils, papers of different colors and designs, the envelopes, the postage stamps and the run to the post box to drop off a letter sealed with love to a friend one has never met in flesh but who still is a precious part of one’s life. Then the exciting anxious wait for the postman. The heartbreak of his cycling past the house and the joy of holding an envelope, an inland letter or an aerogram, sometimes a parcel or a picture postcard too from a distant place.  I miss all of it terribly. These days no one has time and patience to sit down and write a “real letter” with a pen or pencil and send it through the postal service or “snail mail” as it referred to these days. But this post isn’t about lost art of letter writing, it is about a very special pen pal I had as a teenager. I was in first year of college and used to visit the SFI office at Rafi Marg, Delhi. One day flipping through the pages of a magazine I saw a list for pen pals on the last page. I randomly selected four people by countries I wished to know about. Two girls and two boys. I carefully jotted down their address and mailed them a letter with a simple ” I would be delighted to be your pen pal” message. Three did not reply and I had almost given up on the fourth one when one day I saw a blue envelope peeping out of the letter box. A closer look revealed the foreign postage and I rushed down the stairs  with a thumping heart totally delirious with joy to finally get a reply from my Algerian friend. The first thing I noticed were the beautiful postage and a die for handwriting. With trembling fingers I slit opened the letter and found the sweetest ever letter written in broken English. It fascinated him to friend an Indian girl. I was seventeen at that time 🙂 . The letter had a brief introduction about him and all that he linked. He was two or three years elder to me. Thrilled by the new-found friendship I took out the various letter pads , unable to decide which one to use and after discarding a range of  letter pads, pens and aerograms I settled for a handmade paper with a pressed flower in the top right corner  and wrote him a letter with a pencil. What followed was series of long letters and cards, mostly handmade or picture postcards which told some story of the city we lived in. We exchanged photographs and I guess fell in love too. :p He was one hell of a good-looking guy and I pinned each photograph that arrived on the board in my room at an angle where I could see them all the time.  He wasn’t my first crush but maybe first love.. or rather distant love. 😉 He wrote to me about him family , his sisters and sent family pictures and revealed shyly that he kept my photographs with him all the time and found me very attractive.  Because of his lack of  knowledge of written English he mixed French and Arabic sometimes and it made reading the letters even more beautiful. We began to teach each other the “language of  love” as he referred to it. I taught him English and a few phrases of Hindi and he in return taught me to write in Arabic. Just the basics that were needed between two friends. It is strange how hearts connect over large distances. We grew closer by the day and one day I received a parcel with a handmade flowerpot hanger made of white rope in intricate knot design, a box of Almond Halwa whose oil had seeped out of the box and gathered in the plastic bag that carefully wrapped it (Not a thing got stained) , a gorgeous scarf and a small rug with a scene from One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights depicted on it and a note that said, ” from the price to his princess. One day I will take you away on the horse like him.” I don’t remember but am sure I must have blushed beetroot. I don’t really remember the story now but he wrote it to me in the most beautiful way a story-teller can. He asked me about the Chikankari work from Lucknow and asked for some  taqiyah (prayer caps) and I searched for the ones with most intricate work and sent them along with a white kurta payjama in traditional Lucknowi chikan work plus some other things I made especially for him. With  a few days of sending the parcel I got another letter full of love and pictures of him in the “Indian” attire. It fitted him perfectly and the absolute joy could be seen from the letter which drifted from French to Arabic to Hindi to English all at the same time. For more than two years we exchanged gifts, cards, letters, pressed flowers, fragrances and sounds .. yes, we exchanged cassettes of  music, little bottles of itr and some other handicrafts  from our country. I sent silver filigree jewelry for his sister and he in return sent some gorgeous things from Algiers and Morocco where his beautiful sister lived.  We traveled through the lanes and by-lanes of his country and mine, became aware of customs and rituals, music and traditions, history and people, cuisine and literature and all things possible by writing to each other. He even sent me ‘First Day Covers’ of postage stamps and te story behind them. He wanted to marry me and the only issue was religion. If only I could convert  and become either a Jewish or a Muslim  we could marry. It was something I wasn’t ready for. I have been an atheist all my life and never truly believed in “following” any sect or religion so the time had come to say the toughest thing in the world ” Sorry, I can’t .” It broke his heart and mine too. I never met him but the energy that flowed through all his letters made him very special. He seemed the kindest and most loving person I had ever known. The thing I loved about him was the respect he had towards women. It was clearly evident in the way he wrote about them. Women of his house and of his country. We lost touch slowly and all that remained were memories. I got married and the letter, pictures and everything else all tied in neat bundle were left behind at my parental home only to be lost in numerous house shifting. I still have the rug  and will post a picture  the moment kids click and send it to me. I have been desperately trying to find him through internet but have not been able to find him yet. I have not mentioned his name to protect his identity ( some things are private to certain people) but I hope this post will somehow get us connected again. I would love to know where he is and if he still remembers is Indian “princess” 🙂 Some bonds are precious and unforgettable. Some friendships have no name. This one was and will remain the most cherished one. Though I outgrew the feeling of “love” but I still carry in my heart a special kind of warmth for him. I never made pen friends again.