The Dargah Sharif of Ajmer is the most important Islamic shrine in India. It was built in honor of Moinuddin Chishti, one of the greatest Sufi theologians and missionaries of the 12th century. Moinuddin Chishti was pivotal both in the early development of Sufism but also in the spread of Islam across Northern India. He is also highly venerated by the Hindus of the region. The Dargah Sharif was built in stages on the site of the mystic’s home in Ajmer, from a small mausoleum to the grand marble edifice that stands today. Tens of thousands of pilgrims visit the shrine each year, especially on the anniversary of Moinuddin Chishti’s death.
Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti was one of the great Muslim evangelistic figures of the golden age of Sufism. He was born in Persia towards the middle of the 12th century, and according to tradition was a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammed. He was heir to a prosperous farm, which he maintained until a chance visit from a mystic changed the course of his life. While eating and talking with the mystic, Moinuddin Chishti decided to pursue a more spiritual life, gave away all of his worldly possessions and left for the great Islamic schools of Samarkand. There Moinuddin Chishti spent the next twenty-five years or so in study, both at the various schools of the region and under the private tutelage of some of Islam’s finest philosophers and theologians.
For much of this period he was a devout disciple of Usman Harooni, considered one of the greatest teachers of his time. At the end of his long tutelage, Moinuddin Chishti made the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. While there, a vision of the Prophet prompted him to return to India, where he was needed to spread Islam. For many years the peoples of India had been exposed to Islam through trade and cultural exchange, but it had not yet made much progress expanding into the Subcontinent. When Moinuddin Chishti arrived, he settled in Ajmer west of Jaipur. From here he attracted many who were interested in his messages, and through his efforts Islam won over many converts and followers.
His fame became very great, and even Muhammed Ghori, an Afghani warlord who sought to conquer Northern India, made a congenial visit to the Sufi mystic in the middle of one of his military campaigns. Because of his Sufi background, the form of Islam that Moinuddin Chishti introduced to India was of a more spiritual form than was in vogue at the time. It incorporated other Asian religious forms, and in India was especially influenced by Hinduism. This allowed Islam to flourish in what previously had been a somewhat hostile environment. Moinuddin continued teaching and evangelizing in the Ajmet region until his death in 1236 AD at the age of 97.
Moinuddin Chishti was as important to the spreading of Islam in the Far East as Francis Xavier was in spreading Christianity. In addition to Muslims he is also very highly regarded by Hindus, and is universally recognized throughout India as a holy man. Today his Tomb at the Dargah Sharif of Ajmet is one of India’s most venerated sites, especially by Muslims. Tens of thousands of pilgrims descend on Ajmet every year to visit the Shrine of Moinuddin Chishti during the annual holiday dedicated to the Sufi mystic.
The Dargah Sharif is the most prominent religious shrine in the city of Ajmer. The original complex was begun in the 13th century but much of the complex dates from later renovations and expansions. Constructed of white marble, it consists of two major buildings: the Grand Mosque built by Shah Jahan, and a secondary mosque built by Akhbar. Akhbar was an Indian ruler from Agra who made an annual pilgrimage to the shrine. He had a mosque constructed in honor of the Sufi mystic. Its most distinguishing features are a pair of massive cauldrons used for the collection of donations and the distribution of rice to devotees and pilgrims.
The Grand Mosque of Shah Jahan is the massive marble-domed centerpiece of the Dargah Sharif Shrine. The grand entrance is a spectacular archway blending Persian and Indian styles. Horseshoe nails can often be found nailed into the shrine doors by supplicants who deal in the horse trade. The main attraction, of course, is the Tomb of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, located in the second courtyard. The tomb now stands on what was once believed to be the site where Moinuddin Chishti once lived.
The Dargah Sharif shrine is located close to the marketplace on the north side of Ajmer, a little over 200 miles southwest of Delhi. Because of its importance to both Muslims and Hindus, the shrine is open to visitors of all faiths. The only cost of admission is by donation. Web: http://tourism.gov.in (official tourism website of India)
For most visitors to Ajmet, the city is all about Moinuddin Chishti. One other site of Islamic interest is the Adhai-Din-Khajonpra Mosque. According to tradition, and the mosque’s name, the building was completed in a mere two and a half days. It was built and left as a legacy of the aforementioned Muhammed Ghori in honor of his visit to the city.