The lakeside city of Ajmer is located in central Rajasthan, and is held in great reverence by devotees of all communities who call it 'Ajmer Sharif' (Holy Ajmer). It is here that the mortal remains of the highly respected Sufi saint Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chishti lie buried. The Khwaja came from Persia and established the Chishti order in India. He is popularly known as Gharib Nawaz (protector of the poor) because he dedicated his entire life to the service of mankind.
It is the site of the largest Muslim fair in India. More than five lakh devotees belonging to different communities gather from all parts of the subcontinent to pay homage to the Khwaja on his Urs (death anniversary) during the first six days of Rajab (seventh month of the Islamic calendar.) The pilgrims who come to seek the blessings of the Khwaja make rich offerings called ‘nazrana’ at the holy spot where the saint has been entombed. The offerings of rose and jasmine flowers, sandalwood paste, perfumes and incense contribute to the fragrance that floats in the air inside the shrine.
Also offered by devotees are the ‘chadar’, ‘ghilaph’ and ‘neema’, which are votive offerings for the tomb. Outside the sanctum sanctorum of the ‘dargah’, professional singers called ‘qawwals’ gather in groups and sing the praises of the saint in a characteristic high pitched voice.
Jannati-Darwaza (gateway of heaven) is flung open early in the morning. People cross this gate seven times with the belief that they will be assured a place in heaven. On the 1st of Rajab, the tomb is washed with rose water and sandalwood paste and anointed with perfumes. This ritual is called ‘ghusal’. The tomb is then covered with an embroidered silk cloth by the ‘Sajjada Nashin’. At night, religious assemblies called ‘mehfils’ are held in the mehfil-khana, a large hall meant for this purpose. These are presided over by the Sajjada Nashin of the dargah. Qawwalis are sung and the hall is packed to capacity. There are separate places reserved for women who attend the mehfil. The mehfil terminates late in the night with a mass prayer for the eternal peace of the ‘Khwaja’ in particular and mankind in general.