Mint has been sending me on trips to various spots to write on “sacred food.” This week, it is Ajmer Dargah. What a sensual experience. I respond to scents and sounds. The enveloping scent of roses was amazing. You have to read it at the site for the full photo cum words experiences. Oh, I am taking photos for these pieces myself.

For Mint on Sunday here

Photos here

I am standing outside the main shrine of the Ajmer Dargah listening to a spirited group of qawwali singers perform. They voices are entreating; their eyes sincere, rising up to search for the divine. They sit cross-legged and pray, using their hands to express the strength of their feeling. They aspire towards rapture; to forget the self. They seek oneness with God– a quest worth undertaking; the only quest worth undertaking for some people. Non-believers though, have to begin with the rather somber question that crashes debates from the realm of the divine down to earth: what is God?

When you think about it, God is such an abstract concept, which is probably why humans gave labels and names when they began the discussion: Mohammed, Jesus, Mary, Kali, Hanuman, Durga, Buddha or Zarathustra. Only Hinduism has female Goddesses; the rest are men, most of who began as prophets and teachers before being converted into and worshipped as Gods. Are Sri Sri Ravishankar and Mata Amritanandamayi going to be the Gods of tomorrow? An uncomfortable thought.

Religion—all religions were an effort by early humans to wrap their head around this nebulous idea of the cosmic controller. He—or she– who has created this web of life that we all inhabit. When early humans confronted events that shocked, awe and confused them, they had to explain it somehow. A child gets hit in a road accident and dies. Why? Who can explain the timing of it? Why now? Why to this particular child? Religion, I am guessing, was the answer that early humans came up with when they got hit by the proverbial truck or the Paleolithic version thereof. Why did the lion kill my son—of all people? When he was such a great warrior? Why now, when he was making off with that eligible Homo sapien beauty in the neighbouring hunter-gatherer group? Questions that have no answer. Ergo, religion. Religion was—is—the human search for answers; a quest for truth; a way of explaining the happenings of the world, much like scientists do today– except now science is looking for alien life and cloning genomes; and religion has climbed down from its pioneering expedition into the soul and became an ‘opium for the people,’ to quote Karl Marx.

Most religions began with mysticism. One man goes into a cave or sits under a tree. He meditates; and gets visions that answer fundamental questions. He spreads these ideas to his followers. Over time, they get codified and formalized as a faith. One man’s interpretation of the answers that sprung from his subconscious resonates with countless people. They affiliate themselves with this idea and give it a name. Behold religion.

Music, dance and rituals are tools that most religions use to disseminate ideas to the masses. The acts of praying, singing and dancing help devotees connect with a higher power. Religious music, whether it is gospel or bhajan, springs from the same place and has the same goal: to connect with the divine. Sufi music does it better than most. The qawwali is one manifestation; the Mevlevi order is another. You may have heard of the Mevlevis. They are also called whirling dervishes; and they are unforgettable. A Japanese sensei told me that whirling was a way to center yourself and sync your soul with the universe. Try it. One hand reaches for the heavens; another reaches for the earth in a diagonal. And then you whirl—round and round—for several minutes or more. It is that easy; or that difficult. I once watched whirling dervishes in Konya, Turkey. It was among the most moving things I have ever seen. A line of men, clad in white robes, circling for a long time– time that extended out like their hands. They were in a trance and put us in one too. Although I didn’t know it then, there was a connection between the whirling dance I watched and the poetry of Rumi that I loved.

“The minute I heard my first love story,
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.
Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.”


Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī is perhaps Sufism’s most famous poet, thanks to numerous translations and Turkish writer, Elif Safak’s novel, The Forty Rules of Love. The novel tells the story of how Rumi became the student of Shams Tabrizi, a Persian Sufi dervish. When Rumi died, his son, Sultan Walad founded the splendid Mevlevi order. They have been dancing ever since.

“Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood.

Dance when you’re perfectly free.”


Like the bhakti cult, the philosophy behind Sufism is the idea of tawhid, a complex Persian word that symbolizes the primal root; the foundation from which we all spring from. Sufism believes that we have become cut off from this primal connection to God. All human action—the whirling, the singing, the poetry— is an expression for the devotee’s longing to return to this root; to restore the connection. This is why the annual Urs, officially the death anniversary of a Sufi saint, is celebrated joyfully as a wedding anniversary. The logic is that death reconnected the saint’s soul with its primal root, with God.

The word Urs, comes from the Arabic word ‘uroos’ and it means ‘wedding.’ When a saint dies, as Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti did in Ajmer, he has achieved wisaal or the ultimate union with the beloved. Realize that they don’t say “union with God.” Instead, they view God as their beloved. This intimate, all-encompassing lover-like connection is what differentiates Sufism from its parent religion, Islam. William Chittick, a leading translator of Islamic texts who studied at the University of Tehran has described Sufism as the “interiorization and intensification of Islamic faith and practice.”

For a Hindu, it is easy to understand and access Sufism through its music and its tolerant, enveloping tenets. Indeed, millions of Hindus visit this shrine every year, clad in colourful saris and bright red bindis. “It is a Ganga Jamuna sanskriti here,” said a Hindu devotee, the Ganga referring to Hinduism and the Jamuna to Islam.

This then, is the distinctive beauty of this dargah. It is not just open to people of all faiths; it welcomes them. If you have a wish or mannat that you want fulfilled; a prayer that must reach God; an offering of thanks that you want to give, you are welcome here. And people do. They come from the four corners of the world, carrying baskets heavy with flowers–a ring of roses interspersed with marigolds— an aesthetic that is distinct to Indian places of worship. Multicolored flowers put together in an artistic way. The heavy scent of red roses fills the air.

Devotees bring nuts and fruits. They carry blankets and shawls to place on top of the tombstone. They tie strings with objects on a stick that extends across the empty cauldrons where food is cooked. The hanging objects offer clues to human frailties and wishes. There is a metal house, a cradle, a hand, a comb–each symbolizing a desire for a job, marriage, children, or wealth. People throw in money and rice grains into the empty cauldron. At the side of the cauldrons are metal containers filled with sacred food that has been cooked early this morning. The kesariabhat, as it is called, is orange and follows the usual recipe of broken wheat, sugar, ghee, and dried fruit, all stirred together for hours before distributing to the faithful. It is vegetarian, although legend has it that Emperor Shah Jahan mixed the meat of a Nilgai-deer that he had shot while hunting with the vegetarian food.

The dargah’s link with the Mogul emperors is close and traverses generations. It was Emperor Akbar, who ordered the first giant cauldron built. It is called Badi Degh (or Big Cauldron) and can cook a whopping amount of food. Akbar pledged to come to Ajmer on foot if he won the battle of Chittorgarh. When he won, he kept his promise and distributed food from the big cauldron. Some say that the big cauldron cooks 125 ‘mounds’ of rice, a number that is hard to fathom. Let’s just say that food from the big cauldron can feed about 15,000 people.

Not to be outdone, Akbar’s son, Jahangir ordered the construction of the smaller cauldron, called Choti Degh.   He ordered that this food be distributed to 5000 people, taking the first offering himself, after which his queen, Noor Jahan and the other women of his harem followed suit. This kind of largesse was typical of the empire building Mughals. Today, moguls of a different sort, from hedge fund managers to business magnates pay money to the Dargah to have food cooked and distributed. Typically, this happens during the Urs every day or to mark a special occasion.

Every place of worship, be it a church, mosque or temple, has a rhythm. It is both universal and distinctive. The ethos of a religious place emphasizes simplicity and purity when you approach the shrine. You wear your best silks when you approach the shrine, or you go as a simple person clad in white with minimal clothes. There is water so that you can wash up after your long pilgrimage. There are offerings that you can buy. At Ajmer, it is red roses, attar, nuts, and most importantly, the chaadar or blanket that you can lay on top of the tombstone as a mark of respect. Through these utilitarian tools, you access the divine. Every year, various world leaders send a chaadar during the Urs as a mark of respect. This year, it was Barack Obama’s turn and he sent an embroidered red chaadar via the US Embassy.

Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, the saint who is enshrined in this dargah was born in the Sistan region of Iran. His life followed the fairly standard trajectory of most great spiritual leaders. Pious family? Check. Interested in spirituality from a young age? Check. As a boy, he prayed and meditated instead of picking fruit from the famous Iranian orchards. Makes you wonder about future saints who are born in this era. If any child in our age has a spiritual calling, are they heeding it? Or are they playing Play Station 3 and other video games? The world might be losing the next Buddha or Khwaja to Candy Crush saga. Sad, isn’t it?

Moinuddin’s next experience is something I would have liked to have. While working in his orchard– which itself, is an experience not to be sniffed at, given the legendary quality of the melons of Iran— Moinuddin had a visitor. Being a well brought up child, he greeted the dervaish (spiritual man) properly by kissing his hands and gave him fruit. The dervaish, whose name was Sheikh Ibrahim Qandozi, was impressed by the pious nature of the boy. He took out some khul from his pocket. This is described as the dregs of sesame seeds after the oil is extracted. Some historians say that this was bread. Anyway, the dervaish put this piece into his mouth, chewed it a bit and then put it in Moinuddin’s mouth. The boy lost all connection with the current world and went into a mystical trance. This event caused the scales to fall from Moinuddin’s eyes, to paraphrase Bertie Wooster. He went into the divine realm and realized the true nature of things. I would have like to eat this sesame patty too.

After this experience, there was no turning back. Moinuddin left for Bukhara, then a great center of learning, where he finished his education. After that, it was onward to Samarkand to study philosophy, theology, and grammar. In Baghdad, he met a great Sufi Dervaish who became his guide and teacher for 20 years. It was here that Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty received the instruction to go to Hindustan or India.

Ajmer at the time was a great amalgam of many faiths. It was the pleasure resort of emperor Shah Jahan–a far cry from the dusty and gray town that it has become today. Khwaja Moinuddin Chishty set up his spiritual order using Ajmer as base. He became known as Garib Nawaz for the compassion with which he treated poor people. He spread Sufism throughout North India, gained many disciples and most importantly, established the Chishti order that continues to this day. His real achievement was to make his faith accessible to all.

Religions evolve through a somewhat contradictory impulse: by defining and differentiating themselves. It is one of the things that bother me about faith; any faith. You’d think that prayer or connection to the divine would make you see the world as one. Most religions advocate this notion of treating everyone as your brother or sister. Except that the deeper people go into religion, the more they seem to define themselves through ever-narrowing parameters, be it Sri Vaishnavism or Seventh Day Adventist. Religion doesn’t expand the self even though every great text advocates it. It causes a narrowing of boundaries in a sense so that you begin affiliating yourself with a Pentacostal order or a specific guru. You call yourself Sufi or Mahayana or Orthodox. You view other orders, even if they belong to the same religion with some amount of suspicion. “All religions are the same,” you say piously, while hobnobbing with other acolytes of the same order.

The relationship between what some call “mainstream Islam” and Sufism reflects this trend and is fraught in this way. Sufi practitioners emphasize that Sufism originated in Islam; that early Sufi thought was directly drawn from the Koran, except that it was internalized. Internalization is a word that comes up often in Sufism to explain its tolerance to all faiths and the use of song and dance in worship. The 12th century Muslim theologian Al Ghazali has a wonderful passage in his treatise, “The Alchemy of Happiness,” in a chapter titled ‘The use of dance and music as aids to religious life.” The fact he has to defend music and dance speaks to his desire to make Islam and Sufism compatible with one another, which leads to the conclusion that they were diverging, even as early as the 12th century.

In the chapter, Al Ghazali says, “The effect of music and dancing…fan into a flame whatever love is already dormant in the heart, whether it be earthly and sensual, or divine and spiritual.” Made me want to go out and dance. There is more that Al Ghazali defends. “As regards the erotic poetry which is recited in Sufi gatherings, and to which people sometimes make objection, we must remember that, when in such poetry mention is made of separation from or union with the beloved, the Sufi, who is an adept in the love of God, applies such expressions to separation from or union with Him.”

I am sorry to say this again and again but when and why did religions become so prudish? A few centuries ago, erotic sculpture and poetry was acceptable on the path towards God. What happened? When did we decide that God required seriousness? What happened to joy?

There is a lot of joy in the singing at the dargah. People sway in ecstasy; some, with tears rolling down their eyes. The whole atmosphere combines sensual bliss—the scent of flowers—with spiritual elevation. It is as faith should be, mixing the everyday with the elevated; the mundane with the divine; the senses and the soul.

I didn’t taste the kesaria bhat though. It was Ramzan when I went. Nobody was eating anything during the day. It seemed inappropriate for me to do so, even though there were several enticing containers full of them.

I was disappointed not to taste the food. It was a sign, I told myself. The women in my family use this word when they contemplate visits to temples. The God or Goddess has to “call” you, they will say. Or call me back, in this case, I thought– to taste the food during Urs.

A surprising twist emerged as I exited the dargah. My guide was waiting outside. He wanted to know if he could hitch a ride to Jaipur with me. His reason epitomized the Indian web of relationships. “My daughter-in-law’s brother’s wedding happened a few days ago and my sammdhi (the inlaws) have invited me for food after a puja. You like dal, bhaati, churma, don’t you?” he offered as explanation.

Two hours later, we drove up to a small flat on the outskirts of Jaipur. Inside were about 20 people, all colorfully dressed in saris. In quick order, plates were produced. We were the last two eat. They gave us a stainless steel plate filled with spiced dal; the bhaati, which was a round ball of cooked wheat dough; and churma, a sweet mixture. There was a piquant pickle and some water. We ate quietly. Men came up with additional food to serve. This is what I have noticed in traditional Indian homes. People accord the food the girth and seriousness that it is due. In my ancestral village in Palghat, you’d sit on the floor and eat from banana leaves, pretty much in silence. The focus was on the food; and in the eating. The servers would watch and add dishes quietly. This was how we ate the dish in Jaipur. It was delicious, although my driver told me later that he had eaten better versions of the dish. “You need to cook it on a slow fire, using firewood and cow-dung patties,” he said. “The scent of smoke gets infused into the dish. That is when the flavours bloom and take on a smoky hue.”

At the home, our hosts entertained us with questions about me and answers about them. After a few minutes of whispering, they asked a simple question: “What caste are you?”

I paused mid-mouth. Why were they asking me this question? Was it because I was dressed, all in black? Being South Indian, I didn’t have any context about the Ajmer Dargah, except what I had read. In my attempt to blend in, I had decided to wear all black to the Dargah. It was only after I arrived that I realized how unnecessary this self-imposed dress code was. I could have worn my bright red Kanjivaram wedding sari and still not have stood out.

Once I got that misunderstanding out of the way, I considered options. Call me naïve, but I think India should move beyond the caste conversation. But this was not the time for pseudo-intellectual if well-thought-out principles. So I answered my hosts. They were delighted because they belonged to the same caste too, they said. “We are Pandas,” they said. “We are the caste that does all the rituals at the Jagannath Puri temple.”

I concentrated on the food. It was delicious.

After the meal, my host took me through all the rooms were many women were engaged in rocking babies to sleep, chatting with each other, or combing hair. I asked them if they would pose for photographs. It might get published, I warned. They weren’t fazed. They came to see me off at the gate and stood in line for a photo that reflected the glorious colors of the land.

As for the dal, bhaati, churma, I felt like asking them to pack me some but I didn’t. I would just have to go back. For the kesariabhat and good old fashioned dal, bhaati, churma, made in the village with cow-dung patties and smoke.


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