Ajmer Sharif's Photo Booths Capture an Islam that is Diverse and Local

The attitudes towards objects procured at the holy site of Ajmer Sharif attest to an Islam that is richly diverse and local. The existential value of this visual diversity cannot be overemphasised in an age where religion is partnering economics in perpetuating global homogenisation. 

One of the most unique tourist traditions of India is religious tourism, known as tirth to Hindus and ziyarat to Muslims—it is the idea of going on pilgrimage to offer prayer to the many deities that dot the Indian landscape. Many middle-class Indians use their holidays for this kind of tourism; beyond the religious, it is also considered as a time to mix pleasure with devotion. Even as pilgrimage sites attract large numbers of the faithful, they also become business hubs of sorts, generating jobs and facilities that cater to the needs of the visitors. 

This article focuses on one popular pilgrimage site in central India—the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer Sharif—and lays emphasis on the making of images as markers of memory, place and spiritual experience. The article also draws one’s attention to the performance of piety and the many forms of image making associated with the sites concerned. Finally, I also look at the image as a material object as visitors carry their bit of the place to their distant homes in many visual forms: as a poster, a framed picture, a video CD or a photograph, which may, incidentally, also mark their presence.

While there has been a lot of academic work on the Hindu pilgrimage, I refer specifically here to the work of two scholars Jyotindra Jain and Christopher Pinney, the geography of my research is located in Ajmer Sharif, a popular Muslim shrine in Rajasthan, India, about 400 kilometres south-west of the capital Delhi. Every day approximately 20,000 pilgrims make the journey to the dargah. 

Ajmer Sharif Dargah marks the mausoleum of Moinuddin Chishti, who was born in 1141 and died in 1236 AD. He is popularly known as “Khwaja Garib Nawaz” (Benefactor of the Poor). This shrine is quite unique, in that though the Muslims primarily revere it, people of other faiths venerate it in large numbers as well. The faithful believe that the shrine possesses “noor” or divine light, which showers its blessings on them. 

For Muslims, whose ultimate pilgrim site is located in Mecca and Medina, where only the privileged can afford to go, this is one of the holiest sites of pilgrimage in the Indian subcontinent. Therefore, this site acquires great importance for those who find it financially impossible to travel to Saudi Arabia. I should mention here that Islamic shrines of this kind are associated with a much more inclusive and mystic belief system than the more orthodox ones. They thrive on an interesting synthesis of multiple faiths and practices that are local and have over the years been nourished by the mingling of Islam with local cultures. This may account for the dense visual as well as aural sensory experience of this tradition. In the last few decades these centres of worship have been attacked by Islamic fundamentalists who see shrine visits as idolatry and consider any form of image making as contrary to the practice of ‘pure’ Islam.

The Shrine as Image

The shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti is located in the heart of the old city of Ajmer. Its main approach is a wide road, which is also a teeming bazaar offering vistors an array of places to stay at, food to eat and things to buy. Shops that sell memorabilia and curios are the most visible. The iconography of the shrine, an ornate domed structure, is the most ubiquitous and dominant imagery in the bazaar, replicated in countless forms. While Walter Benjamin had argued that mechanical reproduction takes away from the aura of the original, here the multiple images of the shrine seem, instead, to add to or even multiply the aura of the original. Each of the “faithful” desires to take back with them their bit of “auratic” value that they see emanating from the holy site. This take-home image could be in the form of an embroidered wall hanging, a clock with the picture of the site, a prayer mat or a printed curtain. 


Bazaar teeming with iconography. Image Courtesy: Author

The many views of the mausoleum reflect shifting temporal spans as they depict the shrine during the day and the night. A clear view of the actual site is difficult to photograph because of cluttered space and obstructions like fencing. Images have, therefore, always been mediated by photo collage and chromolithograph techniques during the pre-Photoshop era, or more recently by digital intervention. 

The interior of the shrine is marked by a performance of piety. People plead, wail or shut their eyes in devotion. For most, once the ritual is over, this is followed by the use of the mobile phone to take a picture of the shrine as a marker of having been there. Carrying cameras inside has been prohibited for some years now. However, the mobile phone image is just one among the many kinds of photographs that are made at Ajmer. 

Newly-weds get a picture taken. Image Courtesy: Author

After stepping out of the shrine, one is bombarded with photographers who have their shops nearby. This is the right moment for them to grab clients as visitors are now relieved of the burden of having performed the main pilgrimage. In contrast to the more casual mobile phone shot, these photographers offer to make “quality” pictures with the grand entrance gate as the backdrop. Most pilgrims are eager to pose for these “quality” pictures taken by digital SLRs, with results ready in thirty minutes for just Rs 20. 

It is interesting to note that most of these studios are owned by Hindus who look at this profession as a service to the shrine. They migrated from Pakistan and settled in the vicinity of the shrine after the partition of India in 1947, even as many Muslim inhabitants of the city left for the newly created Pakistan. Tekchandani, the owner of Eagle Studio mentions how he learnt the craft from his father who on arriving in the city of Ajmer as a refugee realised that photography of pilgrims would be a good way to earn a living. 
Conversations with the studio owners also gave an insight into how digital photography had made it necessary for the photographers of this area to reinvent themselves. Some have diversified into photographing events and occasions as a form of business and have utilised their shops to sell other marketable items such as electronic goods and audio and video CDs. One photographer employed at “Eagle Studio” told me with pride that he specialised in shooting weddings and looked down on photographing pilgrims for a paltry some of money. Yet, the attraction of “professional pilgrimage photography” is remarkably resilient. To be photographed for a memorable moment by a person who knows how to get the best picture is a big lure for many from small towns in particular. It’s common practice among newly-wed couples to go on a pilgrimage soon after their wedding to seek the blessings of a deity, so the recording of this event is an important ritual. 

Photography studio owners offer their customers the choice of being photographed in two kinds of situations: one, of posing at the entrance of the shrine and the other, to be photographed inside the studio. The studio based one is a particularly valued photograph for pilgrims as it features an uncluttered painted backdrop of the sanctum sanctorum. As mentioned earlier, the actual site, which is hemmed in by walls, grills and other obstructions does not allow for a clear picture. Thus, the painted image of the shrine which makes the photo-studio backdrop offers a practical, performative and yet sanctified alternative to the actual site. It enables the client to perform the act of faith before the camera to carry it back home as evidence of his or her journey. 

A couple gets a staged photograph taken. Image Courtesy: Author

Interestingly, these staged photographs feature believers with their backs to the shrine. Now if you think about it, this is quite antithetical to religious practice as “true believers” must be seen to worship facing the shrine. The performance for the camera seems to accept and even embrace this discrepancy as picture after picture shows people looking in the direction of the camera with the shrine as an iconic backdrop. It is a genre in which embellishments play an important role in further transforming what would otherwise have been a mere photograph into something that is sacred. 

The studio space, which has this painted backdrop, is in reality a small back room crowded with equipment such as lights and other accessories including religiously suitable clothing such as prayer caps and head scarves. But once you are in there in traditional attire and the photographer asks you to acquire a spiritual demeanour by calling out: “Bring out the feeling!” the space suddenly transforms even though momentarily into something closer to the real shrine and the picture is made. 

Benediction by Post 

Images of deities or shrines are seen as images endowed with immense power capable of protecting and blessing the person who displays and reveres them. Christopher Pinney and others have noted how the concept of "darshana" is intrinsic to the Indian belief system, which implies to see and to be seen by the deity. Even though "darshana" is a concept close to the Hindu faith, aspects of this seem to have been translated into Islamic pilgrimage context in the subcontinent. Given that Islam does not allow for a deity to take on a human form, perhaps "darshana" could be seen in the idea of viewing the shrine, which is the repository of the mortal remains of the saintly figure. We can see this in these images as believers carrying back such photographs or framed pictures and many other items that have the shrine displayed on them. As Pinney (2004) puts it, “Rather than seeing them in the rarefied spaces of painterly traditions, these are centrally situated in the vibrant everyday culture of modern India. For most metropolitan middle-class Indians, postcards may seem a thing of the past, but elsewhere in India a large majority of people still depend upon the postal services as a form of communication. Picture postcards have long been a part of our tourist imagination as they present the most idyllic of journeys. But those of pilgrimage destinations and shrines have a special quality. To receive a picture postcard that shows a photograph of the Ajmer shrine goes far beyond saying: “Hi! This is a beautiful place! Wish you were here!” It is the equivalent of a benediction by post, like having a piece of divinity sent to you or almost miraculously receiving the blessings of a distant saint.

A velvet embroidery of the Dargah. Image Courtesy: Author

There is a sensorial experience in watching images of all kinds circulate in the bazaar in Ajmer: there are posters, postcards, embroidered fabric items, prayer mats, hijabs or head scarves, prayer caps, large inflated hearts with Allah written on them, every inch of space vies brightly for one’s attention. 

Divinity as Video 

The multitude, density and variety of this imagery that is quite beyond the sum of its parts. It is akin to some sort of psychedelic walk-through. 

This is complemented and extended by another unique product on offer here: Video CDs that feature qawwalis or Sufi music renditions choreographed to a spiritual equivalent of the music video. The qawwali is a form of devotional singing in praise of the Deity and prophets of Islam. It is a fairly evolved genre associated with mysticism. These CDs and VCDs can be seen lined up outside music shops as well as photo studios as they are a popular take away. As with the other images, the shrine dominates the covers and helps sell the product. 

A cover of a CD being sold in the market outside the Dargah. Image Courtesy: Author

A major diversification of the photography business took place several years ago with the coming in of cheap video technology. Thus, photographers started shooting events like marriages and provided flashy edited packages of such events. Seeing an opportunity to capitalise on the skills thus gained, the same photo studios in Ajmer have gone a step further. With the aid of superior digital technology they have created music videos of the popular qawwalis. These are much in demand and give us yet another form of the celebration of the glory and grandeur of the shrine. Songs sung by renowned singers and their groups are shot as stage performances and these are interspersed with either shots of people in prayer at the shrine or digitally manipulated shots of the shrine interlaced with graphics and other special effects. The flashy sets and digitally enhanced imagery, all cut to the beat of the music, make for maximum impact. The combined visual aim of such an experience is a state of trance, suggestive of a union with the supreme being; this is in a way quite apt, given that the qawwali as a form has traditionally been associated with such trances where some of the more devout followers are lost to themselves, rising in a whirling dance and experiencing a state of ecstasy. 

Post 9/11 Visual Culture 

The sensorium represents a vibrant and multi-layered visual culture that is especially significant in a post-9/11 setting where the practice of Islam has been subjected to great scrutiny, both by Islamophobic external interrogation and reactionary orthodoxy from within the religion. Visuality has always been a contested domain in Islam, where orthodoxies and more inclusive iconography compete for attention. 

I should mention here that the question of whether Islam as a religion forbids image making is shrouded in ambiguity. Nowhere in the holy book, the Quran, is there a diktat against image making. However Islamic scholars who are opposed to images quote the Hadith or instances from Prophet Mohammad’s life to outlaw the use of images. This is based on the premise that since the act of creation is only the privilege of God, human mediation of images amounts to the sacrilege of imitating or trying to equal God (Saeed 2012). 

Pilgrims click pictures of the Dargah's entrance. Image Courtesy: Author

The forms of artefacts associated with the Ajmer “ziyarat,” the attitudes to objects procured at the holy city, the very definition of the pilgrimage and the syncretic assimilation of the concept of "darshana", all of these attest to an Islam that is richly diverse and local. The existential value of this visual diversity cannot be overemphasised in an age where religion is partnering economics in perpetuating global homogenisation.

I must end on a more personal note, which is my own investment in this journey. As I could not remain unaffected by the syncretic playfulness of the culture of photography in Ajmer I decided to get myself photographed at Eagle Studio performing piety. Later this image was circulated to friends and relatives via Facebook. I have to say that it won me some accolades from them. One of my deeply religious aunts commented that at last, the great saint of Ajmer had brought back to the fold a lost sheep of the family. 

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