Taragarh’s Miranji in Ajmer, India

Ajmer (Rajasthan, India) is a significant node in the history of Chishti Sufi activity, as the dargah (literally, the door to the resting place) of the Chishti saint Khwaja Moinuddin is at the commercial, social, and spiritual center of the city.(1) To a few kilometers south of this centre, atop a hill called Taragarh, sits a shrine to a saint, Miran Syed Hussain Mashahadi, locally known by the beloved epithet “Miranji.” The shrine bears an intriguing relationship not only to the avowedly significant centre, i.e. the Chishti dargah, but also to several small shrines that dot the local landscape within a few kilometers’ wide radius around Taragarh.(2)

The cemetery flanked by the tower
Image 1: The cemetery flanked by the tower

The access road to hill top is new and was built not for easier access to the shrine or to service the community that lives on the hill; instead it was constructed for installing a communications tower that would allow for digital connections to run seamlessly through the district. Acutely aware that this ‘progress’ has not been in the interest of the local population, a man who runs a seasonal tea shop near the Miranji dargah quipped, “Garib Nawaz’s (An epithet for Moinuddin Chishti, implying ‘the one who brings grace to the poor’) gaze will fall upon us too one day.” Hope, dejection, and sarcasm are thickly mixed in his tone. If this scenario is any indication of the relative obscurity of Miranji’s dargah in relation to the Chishti dargah, it simultaneously also reveals how patterns of movement work with respect to the multiple smaller shrines. The trek up the hill is akin to a pilgrimage, and hiking along the hilly pathways is the way that devotees and localities survey this pilgrimage network every year during the urs of Miranji. Locally published texts like the Shua-e Khingsawār as well as pamphlets in local languages list the dates (corresponding to the lunar calendar) for the series of festivals that happen annually around his urs.(3)

Members of the community who went to a pilgrimage to Karbala around a decade ago brought back a stone from there which has been used as part of the foundation of this replica.
Image 2: Members of the community who went to a pilgrimage to Karbala around a decade ago brought back a stone from there which has been used as part of the foundation of this replica.

The idea of a spiritual sanctuary on a hilltop is fairly common in the Aravalli mountain range, and not restricted to any one tradition. Temples to local deities, small shrines marking a spot where a holy man engaged in ascetic penance, etc. adorn the summits of many of these time-worn hills in the region. To climb up a hill for darsan (sight of the divine, implying reciprocity, where the divine sees you too) is typical of a pilgrimage in the region, what with the nearby town of Pushkar littered with temples atop many hills that surround a lake.(4) An equivalent notion is at play in case of Taragarh, where a new structure is under construction next to a cemetery. (see image 1) Being built by the same trust that runs Miran Syed Hussain Mashahadi’s dargah, this structure is going to be a shrine to Imam Hussain, in facsimile to his resting place in Karbala, Iraq. (see image 2) It is populated by several posters with images of the Karbala monument and Quran verses, a few workers, and a caretaker who insists that any answers to questions about this site would be answered at Miran Syed’s jagah (literally, place). (see image 3) In addition, several photographs of the Karbala shrine are pasted on walls, reminding the visitor of just how alike they appear, or are going to appear once finished. The caretaker, who is from a neighboring town, shares that poverty-stricken people like him who cannot go for umrah (a pilgrimage to Mecca or any other site of historical or religious significance to muslims, in this case, Karbala) may find the same good grace by coming here. It would be a ziyarat (a visit to a person of significance in the Islamicate tradition) that would be as beneficial as “standing before Allah,” he says. This is an oft-heard sentiment about this structure, echoed by various mouths, from many management official to the local tea-seller.

“There has been none like you, O martyr prince, Hussain!”
Image 3: “There has been none like you, O martyr prince, Hussain!”

Conversations with the board members that oversee the Miranji’s shrine reveal that they place him historically not just as a spiritual fountainhead but also, and mainly, for his military prowess. The significance of this piece of information is demonstrated in two ways. (5) First – his similarities with Imam Hussain, who too was heroic and fought for the pious truth.(6A list of similarities, the most striking of which is the comparison of their horses, is shared. A small shrine to Miranji’s horse also exists in the neighborhood, and is part of the network of small shrines on a local pilgrimage route briefly mentioned earlier. Not only that, even the horse is believed to be in the lineage of horses that fought in Karbala.(7) Second – he is remembered as having preceded the Chishti saint in the city and, in some ways, having paved the way for Sufi religiosity to enter and prosper the arid climes of Ajmer. While one might see this shrine as a Shia-hued location (see image 4), the connections with the Chishtis are equally eloquently remembered and narrated in a way that makes the top of this hill a frontier location/ a guarding post, as well as a locus from where Sufi activity emanated and spread across the region.

Taragarh 4
Image 4: In addition to the Karbala replica, new minarets on Miranji’s shrine also copy the Karbala minarets.

The square pavilion at the centre of the Taragarh shrine has multiple entry points as well as multiple locations where people may converge. There are two mosques within the complex, so one may offer daily prayers according to one’s sectarian orientation. It may be difficult to identify people by sect unless one sees them ducking into one of the mosques’ doors, but it is clearer that most of the visitors are lower/ lower-middle class. The names of the localities near Taragarh, like ‘Sansi Basti’ and ‘Gujar Mohalla’ make explicit references to caste names (i.e., Sansi and Gujar), while places like ‘Isai Mohalla’ and ‘Islam Ganj’ point to a Christian (i.e., Isai) and Islamic (i.e., Islam) bent, respectively. In the sanctum sanctorum itself, the visit of an exceptional visitor is registered in the form of a gold plated plaque. It inscribes the visit of a wealthy NRI Sikh man who donated a few lakh rupees for the shrine’s upkeep. Given the socio-economic positions of the day’s visitors, this seems like an exception, but at the same time, it is also this shrine’s loudest claim to syncreticism, at least if one were to listen to the management’s view. They note that many “important devotees” come for the annual urs, while the daily visitors consist of people from the local vicinity.

“The fruit of Gondi brings children. The real fruit can only be had from within the shrine's premises.”
Image 5: “The fruit of Gondi brings children. The real fruit can only be had from within the shrine’s premises.”

Just like the Sikh NRI, many come to Miranji, when they desire an offspring. In the courtyard of the shrine, an old tree that bears a local berry-like fruit called gondi. (see image 5) Eating the fruit makes one’s wishes come true, and merits a return visit and a benefaction to the inner shrine. Brief interactions with a few visitors sitting inside the shrine or simply reclining by its door attest to this repetitive pilgrimage pattern. Yet another saint of the region who has been witness to the kind gaze of Miranji is his namesake, Mirabai.(8) A Rajput king, desirous of an offspring, was told by one of his muslim maidservants that he should visit Miranji’s dargah. He received a daughter through that visit, and called her Mirabai. Mirabai’s songs resonate throughout the region, and none of them reference this story, which makes me wonder why this location unequivocally remembers the story. A female devotee responded to this confusion in the following way, “Miranji came before Mirabai, according to history, didn’t he? And he was muslim, but she was a Rajput, right? Then, how come they share their names?”

This visit included Prof. Cristophe Jaffrelot, Jusmeet Singh, and Manpreet Kaur. This write-up was done by Manpreet Kaur.


Notes

1. The Sufi order of the Chishtis harkens back to the city of Chisht, Afghanistan; it is one of the earliest orders to be established and spread in the Indian subcontinent around the 12th century. P.M. Currie’s oft-reprinted book The shrine and cult of Muʻīn al-Dīn Chishtī of Ajmer (Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) details the importance of this shrine to the religious landscape of the region.

2. I distinguish between a specific term “dargah” and use the more general word “shrine” for locations that need more research. Often, in local terms, they are interchangeably called dargah, rauzā/ mazār (tomb), or jagah (simply, place).

3. Shua-e Khingsawār (Ajmer: Haji Syed Shahid Hussain Publishers, 2013) was published for the first time in 2006 and has since been reprinted based on demand. It is a summary account that claims to rely up various classical sources from Ain-e Akbari to Mira’s Brhat Padavali, but does not reference any of these texts in a systematic way. Nevertheless, copies of this text are distributed widely during the Urs and each reprint updates its list to include new donors/ devotees of the shrine.

4. For a theoretical discussion of the significance of ‘darshan’, see Diana Eck’s book by the same name: Darsan (Chambersburg: Anima Books, 1996). That this is described as a predominantly Hindu context in Eck’s book is not insignificant, but neither is the fact that several of our interlocutors during this fieldwork used the word ‘darshan’ and ‘ziyarat’ in the same sentence describing the same actions.

5. The first modern account of this remembered history is in a 1934 text, Bagh-e Sādat, compiled by a local scholar, Syed Tajamal Shah Naqvi Achvi. It also specifically mentions the Shia lineage of Miran Syed.

6. Imam Hussain is an address of love and devotion for Husayn Ibn Ali, the younger grandson of Prophet Muhammad. Elaborate practices of remembrance mark his martyrdom at the battle of Karbala in  

7. Shua-e Khingsawār (Ajmer: Haji Syed Shahid Hussain Publishers, 2013) mentions this detail but fails to acknowledge a source. The efficacy of the legend is attested, however, by the repetition of this detail in a plaque at the shrine for Khing, the horse, as well as at a shrine that marks a spot where Khing and his rider Miranji rested. The shrines mutually confirm each other’s significance, thus forming a self-sustaining network.

8. Mirabai was a 16th century (?) female Bhakti poet who is remembered for her extraordinary devotion to Krishna that made her rebel against norms of female propriety. Since, songs around her memory have flourished that celebrate both her exemplary Krishna devotion and her brave defiance of social norms and strictures. 
Songs of the Saints of India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008) provides a brief but succinct view of the tradition of Mirabai. Historians are unsure of the veracity of any claims made around the historical figure of this poet, and competing narratives about her life exist in various historical documents, yet the tradition of devotional poetry around this female figure is unparalleled in North India.