Ajmer is a bustling chaotic city, 13km from the traveller haven of Pushkar. It surrounds the tranquil lake of Ana Sagar, and is itself ringed by the rugged Aravalli Hills. Ajmer is Rajasthan’s most important site in terms of Islamic history and heritage. It contains one of India’s most important Muslim pilgrimage centres, the shrine of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti, who founded India’s prime Sufi order in India. As well as some superb examples of early Muslim architecture, Ajmer is also a significant centre for the Jain religion, possessing an amazing golden Jain temple. However, with Ajmer’s combination of high-voltage crowds and traffic, most travellers choose to stay in laid-back Pushkar, and visit on a day trip.
Dargah of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti
This is the tomb of Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti, who came to Ajmer from Persia in 1192 and died here in 1236. The tomb gained its significance during the time of the Mughals – many emperors added to the buildings here. Construction of the shrine was completed by Humayun, and the gate was added by the Nizam of Hyderabad. Mughal emperor Akbar used to make the pilgrimage to the dargah from Agra every year.
You have to cover your head in certain parts of the shrine, so remember to take a scarf or cap – there are plenty for sale at the colourful bazaar leading to the dargah, along with floral offerings and delicious toffees.
The main entrance is through Nizam Gate (1915). Inside, the green and white mosque, Akbari Masjid , was constructed in 1571 and is now an Arabic and Persian school for religious education. The next gate is called the Nakkarkhana because it has two large nakkharas (drums) fixed above it.
A third gate, Buland Darwaza (16th century), leads into the dargah courtyard. Flanking the entrance of the courtyard are the degs (large iron cauldrons), one donated by Akbar in 1567, the other by Jehangir in 1631, for offerings for the poor.
Inside this courtyard, the saint’s domed tomb is surrounded by a silver platform. Pilgrims believe that the saint’s spirit will intercede on their behalf in matters of illness, business or personal problems, so the notes and holy string attached to the railings around are thanks or requests.
Pilgrims and Sufis come from all over the world on the anniversary of the saint’s death, the Urs, in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, Jyaistha. Crowds can be suffocating.
Adhai din ka Jhonpra
Beyond the Dargah of Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti, on the town outskirts, are the extraordinary ruins of the Adhai-din-ka-Jhonpra mosque. According to legend, construction in 1153 took only two-and-a-half days. Others say it was named after a festival lasting two-and-a-half days. It was originally built as a Sanskrit college, but in 1198 Mohammed of Ghori seized Ajmer and converted the building into a mosque by adding a seven-arched wall covered with Islamic calligraphy in front of the pillared hall.
Although in need of restoration, it’s an exquisite piece of architecture, with soaring domes, pillars and a beautiful arched screen, largely built from pieces of Jain and Hindu temples.
Not far from the main post office, Mughal emperor Akbar built this imposing building in 1570, partly as a pleasure retreat, but mainly to keep an eye on pesky local chiefs. Only part of the original impressive fortifications remain. It saw life as an arms magazine during the British rule, and is still known locally as the ‘Magazine.’ It houses the underwhelming government museum , with a small collection of old weapons, miniature paintings, ancient rock inscriptions and stone sculptures that date back to the 8th century.
This marvelous Jain temple, built in 1865, is also known as the Golden Temple, due to its amazing display in the double-storey temple hall. The hall is filled with a huge golden diorama depicting the Jain concept of the ancient world, with 13 continents and oceans, the intricate golden city of Ayodhya, flying peacock and elephant gondolas, and gilded elephants with many tusks. The hall is also decorated with gold, silver and precious stones. It’s unlike any other temple in Rajasthan and is worth a visit.
This large lake, created in the 12th century by damming the River Luni, is set against the blue-grey hills that are reflected on its oily surface. On its bank are two green parks, the Subash Bagh and Dault Bagh , containing a series of marble pavilions erected in 1637 by Shah Jahan. There are good views towards Ajmer from the hill beside the Dault Bagh, particularly at sunset. It’s a popular place for an evening stroll, though you may get quite a lot of attention. Pedalos and motorboats can be hired here.
About 3km and a steep 1½-hour climb beyond the Adhai-din-ka-Jhonpra mosque, the ancient Taragarh commands a superb view over the city. Built by Ajaipal Chauhan, the town’s founder, it saw lots of military action during Mughal times and was later used as a British sanatorium. The fort is also accessible by car.