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The Fakir of Ajmer

In the 17th century, a penniless English traveller began a love affair with Ajmer. He stayed on for months, rode an elephant, wore desi garb - and became one with the country text and photos by Jonathan Gil Harris

travel Updated: Nov 19, 2011 19:08 IST

There I was: pickpocketed and penniless in a strange city - Ajmer - not knowing how I would afford my next meal. I had never felt more like a firangi.

Since my first visit to India over 10 years ago, I have grown increasingly fascinated by the word firangi. To translate it simply as "foreigner" doesn't do it justice. The Hindi videshi is a world away, quite literally, from firangi, a Mughal-era Persian makeover of "Frank" (or Frenchman). My former Hindi teacher, who favours a chaste Sanskritised language purged of all alien interlopers, grimaces whenever she hears the word. She considers firangi an impure term, a linguistic foreign body that has illegitimately become Indian. But that impurity is precisely what I love about firangi. And it is also why I consider myself a firangi, not a videshi. I am a foreigner, but I also am not: my time in India has transformed me, changing how I speak, how I think, what I wear, what I eat, the music I listen to. Slowly but surely, like the word firangi itself, main Hindustani ban raha hoon.

The word has a special relevance in the India of the 17th century. During this time, Europeans came to India in unprecedented numbers. Portuguese Goa, founded in 1510, was joined in the 1600s by French, Dutch, and Danish trading colonies; the English East India Company was set up in 1600, and by the end of the century the Company had built the colonial forts that were to become the presidency cities of Madras and Calcutta. But Europeans didn't always come to India in this period as would-be colonists or invaders. I discovered as much when I first read the Tuzuk-i-Jahangri, the Mughal emperor Jahangir's memoirs. To my astonishment, he refers on several occasions to lower-class firangis - European soldiers, servants, craftsmen - in his pay. These men had to all intents and purposes become Indian: they had learned Indian tongues, adopted Indian customs, even taken Indian names. Unlike Jahangir, though, they tended not to write memoirs. At best they sent occasional letters to friends and family back in Europe - if they could write at all. But their life stories, like the word firangi itself, challenge the rigid division between Indian and non-Indian. These are stories of European poverty, labour, and servitude in India. But they are equally stories of Europeans falling in love with a home far away from home.

I resolved to write the stories of these 17th-century firangis who became Indian. And even if I couldn't retrieve the stories in full from the historical archive, I might begin to flesh them out with the best research instrument at my disposal: my own bodily senses. I decided to visit five Indian cities in which these firangis lived - Ajmer, Agra, Goa, Golconda, and Madras - to see what they saw, to hear what they heard, to taste what they ate. In short, I wanted to understand not only how these "First Firangis" came to be in India but also how they and their bodies became Indian. This is the first of the five stories.

My body/thought experiment didn't start promisingly. I was journeying to Ajmer in Rajasthan, following the trail of Thomas Coryate. "Odd Tom," as he was known in England, was something of a self-conscious eccentric. Born in around 1579 and raised in the small Somerset village of Oddcombe - Coryate claimed that he embodied the "Odd" of his village's name - he was a compulsive walker whose life story belies the negative connotations of the term "pedestrian." In 1607, he walked through France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Holland in one pair of shoes. (His published travelogue, Coryate's Crudities, made him something of a celebrity in England.) As if that wasn't enough, in 1612, Coryate decided to walk east to Asia. After resting his feet in Constantinople and then Jerusalem, he joined a walking caravan that travelled across Persia, via the Silk Route, to Lahore. From there he ambled to Agra, before footing it in the June of 1615 to Ajmer, where Jahangir and his court had temporarily relocated in order to subdue a rebel Rajput rana. Coryate reached Ajmer in a sorry state: he had been pickpocketed and was more or less completely penniless.

My journey to Ajmer couldn't have been more different. Coryate, poor and hungry, was no doubt baked by the midsummer June sun as he trudged from Agra through the Rajasthan desert and mountains. I, by contrast, hurtled to my destination in an air-conditioned car on National Highway 2, a gleaming state-of-the art six-laner. Indeed, the road is the best highway I have seen in India. It boasts on-ramps and off-ramps, a pristine tar-sealed surface, and emergency phones for drivers whose vehicles have broken down. Shocked at finding themselves on such a well-maintained road, Highway 2's drivers actually stay obediently in their lanes and even use their indicators when they shift between them. So there was little about my route, or my experience of travelling on it, that could connect me to Coryate's arduous walk nearly 400 years ago.

Then, all of a sudden, I saw it in the distance: a flash of pink in the highway's median strip. As we drew nearer, the flash resolved into a Mughal-era tower. This was a kos minar, one of the tall milestones that the Mughal emperor Akbar installed on his highway linking the imperial capital of Agra to Ajmer. As their Persian name suggests, the milestones were erected at a distance of one kos (approximately two miles) from each other. Akbar had built the highway because he was a devotee of the Ajmer Sufi saint Khwaja Moin-Ud-Din Chishti, who had successfully prophesied a son for the then-childless emperor. After Chishti's death, Akbar was a frequent visitor to his dargah. And when Coryate walked from Agra to Ajmer, he too would have followed the trail of Akbar's pink kos minars. For a brief instant, then, I felt Coryate's and my paths converge. It wasn't to be the last time.

The Ajmer of 2011 is, in certain respects, not very different from the Ajmer of 1615. It is a small city; surrounded by the Aravalli Mountains; its environs are greener and cooler than the parched desert plains of Rajasthan. Jahangir claimed that Ajmer's "cold season is very equable, and the hot season is milder than in Agra." The main landmark is the Ana Sagar, a man-made lake built by one of the Chauhan rajahs in the 12th century. Jahangir took in the cool lake breeze from the Daulat Bagh, a garden he built on the Ana Sagar's shore; the baradari or pavilions added to the garden by Shah Jahan still offer splendid views. Ajmer itself, however, is not a particularly beautiful city, and in this too it has not changed much since Coryate's time. Now as then, the Dargah Sharif, Chishti's tomb, is at the centre of a maze of narrow gallis congested with pilgrims, shops, and horse-led tongas. Sir Thomas Roe, the East India Company ambassador who set up residence in Ajmer in late 1615 (and in whose mud house Coryate briefly lived), called Ajmer "the dullest, basest place that ever I saw." But to the impoverished, foot-weary Coryate, Ajmer was a welcome haven. He stayed for 14 months.

During Coryate's time in Ajmer, he was repeatedly dependent on the kindness of others. In a letter sent to England, he wrote that he would never forget Jahangir's act of generosity in feeding 5,000 poor people "kitcherie" from an "immense brass pot" at the Dargah Sharif. It is quite possible that Coryate himself was one of the poor that Jahangir fed; khichri was doubtless one of his staple fares during his time in Ajmer. Jahangir's immense brass pot, or degh, was replaced by another cauldron in the 19th century. But every year - during the Urs mela - a rich devotee still sponsors the preparation of khichri for 5,000 poor pilgrims. The approach to the dargah is also much as it would have been in Coryate's time: to reach the entrance, one has to run a gauntlet of fakirs, or religious beggars.