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Trains and the miracles of Ajmer

Asia » India » Rajasthan » Ajmer - 1 to 3 February 2016

sunny 30 °C

Television programmes in the UK would like us to believe that all Indian trains are like Mumbai’s peak-hour ‘Super Dense Crush Load’ - thousands of human sardines crammed into a nine-carriage train, fifteen people to a square metre, hanging out of doors and riding on the roof!

Fortunately, outside of that vast over-populated metropolis, the reality is usually quite different. In fact, I’ve always found Indian Railways reasonably comfortable, efficient and tremendous value for money.

Trains have eight classes - not all of them on every train, but I’d hesitate to recommend anything other than 2A or 1A Classes, unless you’re a backpacker prepared to take the very rough with the never smooth. Look at The Man in Seat 61’s website for a complete run-down.

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The outside of the windows being cleaned with sheets of newspaper. Alas, the insides didn't receive similar attention!
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My Class 1A sleeper compartment - four berths all to myself.

On this trip, my train experiences were mostly very good. You’ll have read about my journey from Mount Abu to Bikaner in my ‘Rats, vultures and camels' blog. Okay, on that occasion, the daylight train ran late but, in its defence, Abu Road was its 35th stop and its destination, Bikaner, was a further eight stops and 545kms (325 miles) away. My 2A (second-class, air-conditioned) fare for that journey, including all fees and taxes and after Senior Citizen’s discount (a benefit since discontinued by Indian Railways for foreigners) was a paltry 830 Rupees (£8.50). It would surely take a miracle at that rate for Indian Railways, one of the world's largest railway networks, to make a profit from its passenger services (it actually made a loss of 300bn Rupees - more than £3 Billion - in 2014!). It has no cash to improve the rolling stock and huge diesel or electric locomotives, which haul umpteen solidly built and solidly sprung, worn and dusty carriages that always look and feel older than their years.

I’ve been asked about toilets on the trains - we Westerners can be a bit fussy about such things! Well, there’s usually a choice of footprint- and Western-style loos on long-distance trains. They’re cleaned at the start of the train’s journey - but they may have been repeatedly used for many hours by the time you board, of course. Toilet paper's usually conspicuous by its absence, so remember to bring your own (unless, that is, you prefer the Indian left hand and water system). Except on some updated trains with bio-toilets (a collecting tank, like on an aircraft), you can usually see tracks and sleepers passing beneath the pan’s waste outlet before it’s unceremoniously dumped onto the tracks! Too much information? Let’s move on…

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Pull the chain without good reason and you could face a fine of £10 - or a year in jail.

This time, my ride from Jaisalmer to Ajmer was through the night and scheduled to take 11¼ hours. The train left a couple of minutes late but miraculously took only 10¾ hours to cover the 535kms (320 miles) eastwards. Although that only equates to an average 30mph, this was an express train. It made a dozen two-minute stops along the way and in 1A Class (first class, air-conditioned sleeping compartment), it cost me 1,324 Rupees (£13.25). Again, I was allocated a compartment entirely to myself and I slept quite well.

My arrival at the chaotic city of Ajmer was also chaotic. The area outside the station was a seething mass of taxis and touts, all vying for my business. The homestay (B&B) I’d booked in advance had arranged a taxi to meet me and a quick telephone call provided the driver’s mobile phone and car registration numbers. We were soon united and on our way to the dentist. Oh yes, I forgot to mention that I was staying at Sharda’s Homestay - above one of the city's busiest and best-known dental surgeries. From the balcony of my room I had a good view of nearby Bajranggarh Circle, the town's everyday life and a glittery little temple with pre-dawn bells clanging loud enough to wake the dead.

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Ana Sagar

It was only a short walk to the city's tranquil lake of Ana Sagar. Most tourists tend to stay in the town of Pushkar, 13 kms away, and visit Ajmer on a day-trip (albeit wrongly in my opinion) so it’s likely that most never come to the lake. That's a pity because, despite the usual plastic bags and bottles found in most public places in India, it somehow makes for an interesting and tranquil diversion.

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Ana Sagar is an immense man-made lake constructed in the 12th century on the orders of one Anaji Chauhan, the king of the day (hence the name - Ana from Anaji, without the 'ji' which is a term of respect, plus Sagar, the word for lake). In the 17th century, Shah Jahan added pavilions and Jehangir, the eldest surviving son of Mughal Emperor Akbar, provided the adjoining Daulat Bagh gardens. The 21st-century inhabitants of Ajmer have provided the ugly detritus that litters and spoils the appearance of the historic gardens and lake!

Nonetheless, the area's widely used for leisure purposes - walking and jogging, boating, feeding the fish and admiring flocks of birds that are still abundant on and around its grubby waters. I spent several pleasurable hours here in the afternoon and the following morning, just watching the world go by, sitting, observing and photographing the changing scene.

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Dargah of Moin-Ud-Din Chisti

Legend has it that, when the Sufi Muslim saint Khwaja Moin-Ud-Din Chisti arrived in Ajmer, he and his followers weren’t permitted to use water from Ana Sagar. Chisti asked for just a little of it to be put into his mashkiza (a skin bag for carrying water). When the mashkiza was being filled, the entire lake miraculously disappeared into it. The people begged him to return the water, which he gracefully did, as if by magic - and immediately gained a multitude of followers!

He subsequently devoted his life to serving the poor, praying to Allah for their well-being and, it's said, performing many miracles. On his death in 1236, this revered man was provided by the Mughals with a dargah, a shrine built over his grave. It has since become Rajasthan's most important site in terms of Islamic history and heritage. Millions of pilgrims flock to the dargah every year and it’s believed that wishes made here from a pure heart will all be fulfilled. Holy strings attached to railings within the complex are thanks or requests for the saint’s spirit to intercede in matters of illness, business or personal problems.

I have every respect for people’s beliefs and I enjoyed visiting this holy place, but I have to admit that I found Chisti's dargah and its surrounding bazaars to be grossly over commercialised - an Islamic version perhaps of the ugly souvenir shops and candle-selling swindles that despoil the Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France.

To reach the dargah involves walking in a crowded, narrow street full of shops selling floral offerings, stuffed toy horses (I’m not sure of their significance), sweetmeats, head coverings, clothes and all manner of religious mementoes. Beggars dressed in dirty, tattered clothing accentuating missing limbs and deformities are here in greater numbers than I’ve ever seen elsewhere in India.

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Bags have to be left in a cloakroom away from the dargah. Finding it is a miracle in itself: facing the dargah's entrance, go left, then first right, straight on, bear right into an unsigned dark corridor, turn left down a steep, narrow flight of stone steps to a room piled high with suitcases and bags on shelves. Present some form of identity and pay the man 30 Rupees (less if your bag doesn’t contain a camera - which, incidentally, isn’t allowed inside the dargah). Take your receipt, put the bag in a locker, take out the key and put it in your pocket with the receipt which you’ll need to give back when you return! Oh, and put your shoes in the locker too - if you leave them with hundreds of others outside the dargah, it'll take another miracle to locate them when you return.

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Inside, the architecture and the multitude of people performing their devotions are all well worth seeing and experiencing. In the saint’s domed tomb with its silver surroundings you’re likely to be forcibly grabbed, as I was, by one of the priests. He'll cover your head in a cloth and chant unintelligible words over you before demanding a substantial donation, resulting in disapproving disappointment on his face when you offer only a small denomination note.

Photography isn’t permitted anywhere inside the dargah but, taking a lead from the faithful, I too used my mobile phone to take a few snaps. My phone wasn’t one of those fancy ‘smart’ things that even the poorest Indian agricultural worker or erratic car driver seems to use all the time, so you’ll have to excuse the indifferent quality of those photos!

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The ‘Golden Temple’ (Soniji Ki Nasiyan Mandir)

To reach the dargah I had to take an auto-rickshaw. However, Ajmer’s also an important centre for the Jain religion and its most impressive monument, the 19th-century ‘Golden Temple’ (more correctly the Soniji Ki Nasiyan Mandir), was a mere ten-minute stroll from my homestay.

The Jain temples at Ranakpur and Mount Abu are glorious wedding-cake structures of glistening white marble with multitudes of intricately carved columns, alien-faced idols and saffron-robed priests wearing face-masks to prevent inhaling and destroying even the tiniest of creatures. The double-storey temple hall of the Soniji Ki Nasiyan Mandir wasn't remotely like this, as you will now learn...

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Don't chew beatles?! I think this might refer to the disgusting habit of chewing paan (a betel leaf and areca nut stimulant), the red paste of which is later spat out onto the floor!

According to Jain philosophy, the universe has no beginning or end, the earth is a flat, round dish and it’s stationary. On this ‘earth’ are numerous bangle-like continents with oceans surrounding them. I mention this because it might help you to understand the even more complicated story told by this unique temple’s contents.

Here, in a predominantly red-sandstone building, I found an astonishing three-dimensional model made up of 13 of the Jain earth's continents and oceans; in the middle was a golden Mount Sumeru around which, Jain astronomy states, constellations move in eternity.

This amazing structure contained scenes based on the golden city of Ayodha, birthplace of Lord Rishabhdev. Six months before Rishabhdev’s conception, by some miracle of foresight, this celestial land was laid out under orders of Indra, ‘King of the Gods’ and ’God of the Heavens’. When the Lord was born, Indra and numerous celestial beings came in procession with heavenly elephants, chariots and horses, circling three times around the city. Indra put the baby on a many-trunked white elephant and journeyed to holy Mount Sumeru.

Still with me?

At Mount Sumeru, a great ceremony was held. Above, celestials rode in airships and played musical instruments to celebrate the birth. Water was fetched from the ‘fifth ocean’ (called Ksheer Samudra - if you really need to know!) to give the baby a holy bath.

The final part of the story being played out in this hall is a dance show organised by Indra in Lord Rishabhdev’s royal court. A celestial dancer died while performing and was discretely replaced by another. The Lord noticed the difference, however, and this led him to think about the transient nature of the world - which he immediately decided to renounce! His decision was applauded by all concerned and he was taken in a celestial palanquin to Prayag (modern-day Allahabad), where he left behind all worldly things and became an ascetic. End of story. Phew!

All this was portrayed in a vast array of golden sculptures that filled the entire temple hall measuring over 24 metres by 12 metres (around 80 feet x 40 feet). It was an incredible sight. Unfortunately, you have to view it through glass windows - for security reasons I guess. There’s not a piece of white marble in this hall, just lots and lots of gold!

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Behind the hall is a small temple complete with marble tower and statues of elephants, reached through a huge red-sandstone gateway. There was no sound, no priests, no worshippers, just a couple of ladies moving the dust from one place to another with their swishing brooms. By some quirk of fate (or was it another miracle perhaps?), I was the only visitor in the entire temple complex.

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There were still a few sights left in Ajmer but, as always, I have to leave something for next time! Anyway, my schedule required me to move on to the even more holy town of Pushkar, just 20 minutes away over Nag Pahar, the Snake Mountain.

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Accommodation:
Sharda's Homestay, Sharda Bhawan, Ashok Marg, Near Bajranggarh Circle, Ajmer Tel: +91 9352002373 email: info@shardashomestay.com http://shardashomestay.com/ Proprietor: Dr Nidhi Sharda. Booked through Booking.com but can be booked direct at similar rates.

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My spacious, first-floor, air-conditioned 'Deck Room' with a separate entrance, a balcony and a well-equipped bathroom, together with a more than ample breakfast in the nearby dining room each morning, was every bit as good as a first-class hotel, but more personal and less expensive.

Friendly, helpful attention from Dr Nidhi Sharda, the vivacious dentist herself, was a bonus. She gave me advice on what to see, where to find it and even arranged delivery of an inexpensive but tasty Domino’s pizza to my room on the first evening! (I'd fancied a non-spicy treat after more than two weeks of curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The pizza arrived with seven sachets of dried chilli flakes!)

This excellent B&B, its good location and its very caring owner, together with its cost of around 3200 Rupees plus 8.4% tax per night for the double room, including breakfast, means it was really great value.

Posted by Keep Smiling 09:36 Archived in India Tagged india rajasthan ajmer

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Comments

Your phone photos from the dargah look pretty good to me - I too have found myself taking photos where I shouldn't if the locals seem to be doing so unchallenged! And that Jain temple is really something else, although I think I prefer the while marble of Ranakpur or the small Jain temples in Jaisalmer to all this gold :)

by ToonSarah

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