When someone who is young and male in India usually speaks of Ajmer, they are really speaking of Pushkar, with a sort of glint in the eye, hinting of wild, hedonistic pleasures to be had in this erstwhile holy town which draws hashish-loving westerners on the quest for nirvana.
The truth was that I never really had any plans to go to Ajmer. Long before I ever stepped onto a plane, long before I packed my bags, I unearthed my 1946 National Geographic map of India to study that quixotic northern state called Rajasthan. In 1946, Ajmer appeared as a pink sprawl in print, the largest desert “metropolis” of its time, insulated from the burning sands of the Thar Desert by the Aravalli Hills.
It resembled an urban monster and wisely avoided. But that thing about spontaneous travel is that it leads to the unexpected, and that is how I found myself on the road to Ajmer.
Ancient & modern
My first impression of the place, set like an oasis with its two artificial lakes in the arid central plains of Rajasthan, is of an ancient city somehow dissolving, metamorphosing and being eaten by modern India. An ancient clock-tower inaugurated during Queen Victoria’s Jubilee stands neglected and lonely. A colonial-era administrative building carrying the nameplate “Prince of Wales”, seems downtrodden and in near disrepair. The roads are largely atrocious, telephone wires snake perilously closed to the earth, city planning has devolved into patterned chaos, and domesticated animals roam the streets wild. Then there were the posters advertising the Jain temple downtown. If the sight of a large billboard showing full frontal male nudity isn’t enough to make one spill morning coffee on themselves, I don’t know what is.
But despite the overt, grey modernity of its neighbourhoods, there is something old-fashioned about Ajmer. The lakes churn and blow cool, moist air, giving the quiet city a rustic feel. High, ornate colonial buildings occupy bluffs overlooking the Anasagar Lake. A whiff of Kashmir manifests in the experience.
When asking what there is to see in Ajmer, I am told to visit Mayo College.
“Never heard of the place,” I say.
They look at me with stupefaction, as though I have come from Mars.
Mayo College, as I soon learn, is not a college at all, but a school. Started in 1875 by Lord Mayo, then the Viceroy of India, as a sort of Indian Eton to give princes a world-class education, the school remains a place for the best and the brightest in India — or perhaps the richest and most privileged. Annual tuition costs Rs 4 lakh.
With its impressive collection of Indo-Saracenic architecture set among the sprawling grounds of manicured Bermuda grass, azalea, kadam, neem and Java plum, the college seems to have greater numbers of wild peacocks, hornbills and egrets than it does students. It’s one of those places stuck in time. You just hope it never changes.
We are invited to dine with the principal — an alumni and former Indian Army Lt-General, a commander of an armoured strike corps this or that. He is a hearty, welcoming man; large and gregarious, with a grinding handshake. Watercolour paintings of cavalry regiments and tank forces dot the verandah of his official residence. I’d like to discuss armoured tactics with him, but it is a stiff party and the repeated glasses of rum which I use as an elixir against a sore throat, start to take effect. Three hours later, all I can think of is bed.
In search of ‘nirvana’
Next morning, as we drive to Pushkar, 11 km away, I daydream of Mayo. It would make a fine setting for a realistic drama — of a poor student admitted on a scholarship and forced to prove his mettle; of an idealistic, unconventional teacher who captures the admiration of his students but the ire of the management. I broach the idea to my friends. Someone suggests I write a screenplay and get Irrfan Khan to play the teacher and cast Dharmendra as the principal. I have to admit that it’s a charming idea.
Pushkar, set on the other side of the green Aravalli Hill range, is prosaic by comparison. It is largely a one-camel town with a series of winding small roads, catering to the tourist trade. The shops are set in pattern. The first sells metal and ceramic handicrafts, the second sells ethnic clothing, the third sells ornamental knives, the fourth leather goods. And so the pattern repeats. The town is one of the five sacred pilgrimage sites for devout Hindus and according to the Padma Puraņa, Pushkar is the only place where Brahma may be worshipped.
Hordes of western tourists and hippies, golden hair frizzled into unkempt afros sit in dirty juice joints, sipping smashed fruit. Under-dressed young women walk the streets, on an effusive weedy high, followed by strange, swarthy men. The temple looms high on top of a long flight of stairs. I decline to enter and sit by a lassi stall with three companions, an infantry captain, his beautiful young wife, and a solitary langur which stares.
Pushkar may be a place of God, but is also a spectacle, a place where joints pass between fingers as quickly as offerings to the almighty. It is a place where legions of listless young men and women take it up, waiting for ‘nirvana’ even as grave, devout Hindus pray for salvation. It was an experience, often weird, outlandish and a little sad, and when I left this surreal, hazy town, I didn’t look back.
After Pushkar, it was seemed only right to visit that other great place of pilgrimage in Ajmer — the Ajmer Sharif. I was first introduced to the world of Sufi mysticism through the story of Noor Inayat Khan, that half-forgotten heroine of the Second World War, who, despite her pacifist ideals, fought Nazism.
The Dargah is a shrine to Moinuddin Chishti, a man born in 1141 CE and revered as a saint. Access to the Dargah is through a narrow winding street, where schemers and cajolers promise the world. A flight of marble stairs leads to a large courtyard with fountains, stalls, waiting areas, tents and the mausoleum. The devout congregate here by the thousands, in prayer, waiting silently for some imperceptible understanding. Here are Noor’s people.
Cameras are forbidden and although we could have surreptitiously taken photos of that hallowed, inner courtyard, no one does. It seems cheap.
Back outside on the street, we are assailed by beggars. It is a level of begging I have never seen before. They yell and scream at us in Hindi and Urdu. One young girl, grubby and unkempt, follows me for a kilometre, poking at the small of my back until I am sure it is no longer about the money. I am warned against paying her off.
“They will all descend on you if do,” warns the infantry captain’s wife, smiling.
And so it goes, the unruly mob follows, hurling abuses. Hindi was never my forte and I am oblivious of their taunts. I am later told they accused us of everything but genocide for not proffering alms.
Ah, well, I think. Ignorance is sometimes bliss.