BY donating a million dollars to the shrine of Gharib Nawaz Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer, President Asif Ali Zardari has queered the pitch for us poorer pilgrims. How can anyone compete with such largesse?
The pledge he fulfilled had been made by Benazir Bhutto during one of her visits when in exile. The funds were finally delivered by Pakistan’s high commissioner Salman Bashir on Aug 17, on behalf of President Zardari and the people of Pakistan. Even as the money was being handed over, some Indian cynics — over-familiar with the state of Pakistan’s economy — wondered whether it was not (as M.K. Gandhi said in a different context) “a post-dated cheque drawn on a failing bank”.
They need not have worried. A million dollars will not dent Pakistan’s foreign currency reserves of $15bn. It will do much, however, to bolster the economy of that tiny Ajmeri enclave which many Indians regard as Little Pakistan. Ajmer is not alone. On the road from Srinagar to Kargil and Leh, some householder had scrawled ‘Welcome to Pakistan’, but it was such a half-hearted assertion of independence that the Indian forces have not bothered to erase it.
To Indians, the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer is as important as the shrine of Data Ganj Buksh at Lahore is to Pakistanis. It is said that the Mughal emperor Akbar walked barefoot many times from Agra to Ajmer to pay his respects. He did so in more hygienic times. To repeat that devotion today is a test of one’s faith. The narrow, grimy defile that leads from the lofty gate built by the Nizam of Hyderabad to the Buland Darwaza of the shrine itself is congested with clamorous shopkeepers and importuning beggars.
Inside the shrine are embedded two imperial-size cauldrons, each donated by Akbar and his son Jehangir so that over 1,000 pilgrims could be fed simultaneously. Today, these iron hemispheres swallow and digest everything thrown into their perpetually open mouths — coins and notes, trinkets, gold, jewellery, bags of flour, rice or sugar. No one remembers anyone slipping in a million-dollar cheque.
The more popular a shrine, the more arrogant its attendants, and the mazar of Gharib Nawaz is no exception. His shrine is populated with them. They patrol the complex, strutting like spiritual sentinels. To stand with one’s head uncovered is to attract their censure; not to stand with one’s hands folded is to invite a loud reprimand. They determine what is the right ritual, where it is to be performed, and by whom.
Groups of devotees are made to huddle beneath a large tinsel-trimmed sheet before they can circumambulate the quadrangular shrine. The grave itself is expectedly modest. In the end, even divines need no more than six feet of earth. A silver-plated portal allows pilgrims a glimpse of the inner sanctum. The crush there is a pressing reminder that you are in Little Pakistan. Faith takes first place, Discipline a poor second, and Unity is untraceable in the disorderly mêlée.
Outside, you have a choice of meditating silently or listening to a trio of ageing qawwals, or of answering questions about Pakistan. One of the attendants will introduce himself as someone who still has relations across the border, and then probe you about what the situation in Pakistan is really like. Some years ago, they would have expected you to commiserate with them on their plight as Muslims stranded in India. Now, they pity you for being marooned in Pakistan.
Over the past 65 years, the attitude of the Indian Muslim towards Pakistan has shifted perceptibly down-scale, from being a dream immediately after 1947, to disappointment after 1965, then disillusionment after 1971, and now derision after the Mumbai attack of 26/11. To them Pakistan is now no better than simply a septic tank, infested by vermin-like terrorists.
The sanctity of Ajmer is matched by its neighbour Pushkar, seven miles away, where there is a temple dedicated uniquely to Brahma. Taken together, they symbolise the religious pluralism of India. At Gharib Nawaz, Hindus (and there are always a number in the crowd every day) merge indistinguishably amongst Muslims, but interestingly that communalism works only one-way. Devout Muslims at Pushkar are as rare as the crocodiles that once slithered through the murky waters of the sacred lake. Hindu devotees immerse themselves in it seeking absolution, the weight of their sins sinking slowly into the sediment and mixing with the ashes of Gandhi, Nehru and Mrs Indira Gandhi.
It was undoubtedly to remind his Pakistani hosts of India’s avowed policy of religious pluralism that Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna during his recent visit chose to go to the shrine of Data Ganj Baksh at Lahore. Compared to Zardari, Mr Krishna called empty-handed. Whatever offerings he brought, he had delivered already in Islamabad.
Interestingly, before he left New Delhi, Indian newspapers revealed that visas would be given on arrival to citizens above the age of 60. The protocol signed in Islamabad, however, increased that age to 65. At a stroke, only Midnight’s Children became eligible for this facility.
For my Hindu hosts at Ajmer and Muslims like me at Pushkar, prayers may begin with individual belief, but they combine somewhere higher into a common faith that only saints understand. Perhaps, therefore, the next round of India-Pakistan talks should be held somewhere within walking distance of both Ajmer and Pushkar. Difference in religion drove us apart; commonality of belief could well bring us closer.
The writer is an author.