November 09, 2014

RAJASTHAN DIARIES - Day 2

AJMER & PUSHKAR

Victoria Tower, Ajmer
We left for Ajmer early in the morning and took a rickshaw to the Gopalbari Railyway Station which is about 1.5 km from the Hotel Sunder Palace. We boarded the Garib Rath Express that operates between Chandigarh and Ajmer at 7:15 am and had our breakfast on the way. In spite of the fact that it was a public holiday on account of Gandhi Jayanti, there were hardly any people in the train. I spent most of the time observing the scenes form the window; the ones I remember are that of women in traditional attire walking along the lush green fields and of men in turbans resting in the shade of the trees as they cattle grazed nearby. In course of time, these would become common sights, yet their charm was not lost. The train covered a distance of about 140 km passing through Kanakpur, Asalpur Jobner, Pholeru Junction, Narana, Kishangarh and Madar. Minutes before the journey ended at about 9:30 am, we also caught a glimpse of the picturesque Taragarh fort.

Located to the west of Jaipur amidst the Aravallis, Ajmer is the fifth largest city in the state in terms of population. It is believed that the city grew around the hill fort of Ajay-Meru that was established by Chauhan chieftain Ajayraj Singh in late seventh century. From these humble origins, the fortunes of the town grew exponentially in the coming centuries with the slow rise in the political power of the Chauhans who would rule most of north-western India by the twelfth century. As such long before cities like Jaipur, Jodhpur and Kota came into existence, Ajmer was one of the most important urban centres in Rajputana. When the Chauhans supplanted the Tomaras, Ajmer along with Delhi served as the capital of their Empire. It was around this time that the great Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti who is today, synonymous with Ajmer settled here after a vision from the Prophet himself directed him to do so. Following the victory of the Ghurid forces over the forces of Prithviraj III Chauhan in AD 1192, this city emerged as a base for the strongest amongst the Delhi Sultans to subdue recalcitrant Rajput princes. In the mid 14th century, Ajmer became a bone of contention between the kingdoms of Marwar and Mewar. The next important chapter in Ajmer's history comes during the reign of Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great who is believed to have been a regular visitor to the dargah of Gharib Nawaz. Besides him, his two immediate successors - Jehangir and Shah Jahan are believed to have occasionally held their royal durbar here. After the disintegration of the Mughal Empire, the city was held by the Marathas who in turn sold it to the British in AD 1818. Queen Mary of England visited the town and paid her respects to its patron saint during her visit in December 1911. Thus, Ajmer is one of the few cities in the this part of the country that can boast a blend of Rajput, Muslim and British heritage, something that I believe has not been celebrated the way it should be.

We had not booked any room in Ajmer since we were to spend the evening at Pushkar. As such, we left our luggage at the cloak room in the railway station. I and Da bought four locks from a shop nearby since they do not accept any baggage without a lock. As I mentioned earlier, it was Gandhi Jayanti and PM Narendra Modi had just launched his ambitious 'Swach Bharat Abhiyaan' or 'Clean India' programme. From railway officials to school kids, everyone present there was busy cleaning the railway station. As you come out of the station, spend some time looking at the terracotta wall pieces (Link) that embellish the structure on the front side; it is definitely worth a look. The we walked towards the Magazine (Link) - a residential palace built by Emperor Akbar that serves as the ASI museum today. The next stop was Ajmer's most popular attraction - the sepulchre of Gharib Nawaz (Link). En route we had tasty Lassi by the roadside and gorged on some fresh Singhada (Water Caltrop). We left our footwear and other belongings at a shop near the entrance and bought a green chaddar (carpet) and some flowers as offerings to the revered saint. A man at the shop guided us towards the tomb at the Center of the complex. We managed to negotiate through the crowds and entered the shrine through the small opening with great difficulty.

After paying our obeisance to the Khwaja, we went to the Adhai Din ka Jhopra (Link), a temple that was converted into a mosque by Sultan Qutubuddin Aibak. Having spent about half an hour at this twelfth century masjid, we hired a taxi for Rs. 600/- from the Jhopra to the Taragarh Fort (Link) that overlooks Ajmer and offers some spectacular view of the city. On the way, we had a five minute stop over at the Anna Sagar Lake (Link) which is believed to have been constructed by Anaji Chauhan and beautified by the Mughals. For lunch, we went to Hotel Elite which is situated next to the King Edward VII Memorial and close to the Railway station. I had Shahi Paneer and Rotis whereas the rest had Vegetable Thalli. The food was cheap and very tasty too. From there we took a rickshaw to the Soneji ki Nusiyan (Link) which is a 19th century temple dedicated to the first Thirthanker Rishabnath which showcases some episodes from Jain mythology. From there we returned back the station, picked our luggage and went to Pushkar in an Omni costing Rs. 450/-.

Nearly 15 km west of Ajmer, the town of Pushkar is referred to in the Puranas as 'Teerth Raj' or the holiest of all pilgrimage centers. Hindu mythology tells us that it was here that Lord Brahma began his herculean task of creating the universe and its myriad inhabitants. In fact, it is one of the handful of places in India where the 'Creator' is worshiped. Moreover, Pushkar is also the center of the annual camel fair which is touted to be world's largest animal fair. Over the last few decades, besides pilgrims, the town has been attracting a large number of foreign tourists too.

After reaching Pushkar at 4:30 pm, we checked in to hotel Kanhaiya Haveli. Run by the Heda family, the hotel is situated close to the holy lake at the heart of the town. Similar to Hotel Sunder Palace, the hotel is huge and spacious; the verandahs and the staircase are decorated with paintings and other show pieces native to the state. Although the rooms are small and not all have proper ventilation, one needs to understand that it is a budget hotel and expectations need to be set accordingly.
After resting for some time, we headed to the Pushkar Lake to spend the evening and watch the aarti on the Varaha Ghat. We had tea at a stall near the entrance of the Raghunath Swamy Temple and then walked to the lake. Surrounded by 52 Ghats, the 22 square km large lake is 'the most happening place' in the small town. We sat at the Kali Ghat with our feet in the tank as small fishes came and nibbled on them. The view of the sun going down amongst the temples on the Ghats with birds flying by was truly stunning. After witnessing the pooja at the Varaha temple, we took a parikrama (round) around the lake. In the evening, Mom and Bhabi did some shopping in the bazaar on the way to the Brahma temple.