The Nag Pahar (“Snake Mountain”), a steeply shelving spur of the Aravallis west of Jaipur, forms a fittingly classic backdrop for AJMER, home of the great Sufi saint Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti, who founded the Chishtiya Sufi order. To this day, his tomb, the Dargah Khwaja Sahib, remains one of the most important Islamic shrines in the world – during his 2001 visit to India even Pakistan’s president, General Pervez Musharraf, scheduled a visit. The streams of pilgrims and dervishes (it is believed that seven visits here are the equivalent of one to Mecca), especially pick up during Muharram (Muslim New Year) and Id and for the saint’s anniversary day, or Urs Mela (approximately 9 July 2008, 29 June 2009, 18 June 2010 – dates are fixed according to the lunar calendar and recede against the Western calendar by about eleven days a year). For Hindu pilgrims and foreign travellers, Ajmer is important chiefly as a jumping off place for Pushkar, a twenty minute bus ride away across the Nag Pahar, and most stay only for as long as it takes to catch a bus out, but as a daytrip from Pushkar it is a highly worthwhile expedition, and as a stronghold of Islam, Ajmer is quite unique in Hindu-dominated Rajasthan.

Ajmer’s hotels are not great value, and you are really better off staying in Pushkar and commuting in. Accommodation in Ajmer itself is typically chock-full during Urs Mela, but you should have no trouble finding a room at other times. Lower priced hotels tend to operate a 24 hour checkout system (that is, you can check out at the same time you checked in). As an alternative to a hotel, Ajmer also has a paying guesthouse scheme, in which tourists can stay with a local family for a set fee.

Although Ajmer’s dusty main streets are choked with traffic, the narrow lanes of the bazaars and residential quarters around the Dargah Khwaja Sahib retain an almost medieval character, with lines of rose-petal stalls and shops selling prayermats, beads and lengths of gold-edged green silk offerings. Gauzily arched Mughal gateways still stand at the main entrances to the old city, whose skyscape of mosque minarets and domes is overlooked from on high by the crumbling Taragarh – for centuries India’s most deliberately important fortress.