Little India in Jerusalem

Muinuddin Chisti laid the roots of the Chisti silsila in India based on the principles of contentment and compassion, abandonment and abnegation, generosity and truthfulness. While Muinuddin stayed for the most part in Ajmer, his disciple, Kaki, moved to Delhi where he began to command a huge spiritual gathering, including the Slave King Illtutmish. Kaki’s closest disciple was young Farid....


When Muinuddin and Kaki passed away in quick succession, Farid was presented with the latter’s robe, turban, stick and wooden sandals. The mantle of the Chisti order had fallen on his shoulders. Finding that the intrigue-ridden atmosphere of Delhi did not suit his contemplative personality, he shifted to the quieter cantonment town of Hansi in Punjab. As his reputation grew, he left Hansi too for the remote town of Ajodhan which would soon become an important spiritual centre.... So Baba Farid lived on into his nineties, surrounded by his children and grandchildren and his favourite mureeds. Thousands of Sufis, supplicants, students and dervishes passed through his khanqah in Ajodhan. The mureed who would succeed him and under whom the silsila would reach its pinnacle of glory and influence was Nizamuddin Auliya, whose dargah in Delhi remains one of the holiest places in India, revered by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Nizamuddin wrote of his spiritual master: ‘The door to his hospice was never closed. Silver, food and blessings due to the kindness of the Almighty Creator—all were distributed from there to all corners. Yet no one came to the sheikh for material assistance since he himself possessed nothing. What marvellous power! What a splendid life! To none of the sons of Adam had such grace been available.’ To find Herod’s Gate I have to go to the other side of the old city, to its northern wall. Beyond this wall lies the crowded commercial centre of Arab East Jerusalem, pierced by Salahdin Street with its shops, Internet cafés and small hotels. The crowded pavements, where fresh kebabs are roasted next to mounds of shoes and underwear, give the whole place the bustling look of an authentic Arab market, very unlike the quiet, orderly streets of Jewish West Jerusalem. On this side lie the buildings of the American colony and the houses of the Jerusalem notables that came up in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries….

I look for flower-sellers as I enter Herod’s Gate; it has also been known as Bab-al-Zahira or the Gate of Flowers down the centuries. Instead, there are fruit-sellers lining its substantial archway. It is the beginning of March—the last pomegranates, the early oranges, watermelons and melons are piled up inside the gate. As I enter the archway I am greeted by a man of medium height, with alert grey eyes and a polite, easy and genuine smile. ‘I am Nazeer,’ he says, ‘Nazeer Ansari.’ Quickly he leads me through the gate and up a few steps into the street inside the old city. Before I have had time to look around, I find myself staring awestruck at a green iron gate with its two stone pillars. The words ‘Indian Hospice’ are carved on one of them and on the other, in Arabic, Zawiya al-Hindiya. An indescribable excitement grips me: an Indian presence in the middle of old Jerusalem. Nazeer smiles gently and unobtrusively at my surprise and opens the gate. ‘You are in India now,’ he says as we start walking up the broad path from the gate. Tall saru trees with their tight pine cones line both sides of the path. ‘My father is waiting for you.’ I look up. At the end of that path of broad steps stands a tall, erect man, dressed elegantly in an overcoat with a woollen scarf round his neck, a soft, peaked woollen cap protecting his head.

Finally, several months after I had first heard mention of the place, I am about to meet Sheikh Mohammed Munir Ansari, the director of the Indian Hospice. Herod’s Gate is close to Baba Farid’s Hospice, near the northern wall of the city Together we enter a short, narrow corridor with its chequerboard of black-and-white mosaic tiles. A large map of the old city of Jerusalem fills one wall.

The office is a small room with a large writing desk behind which stands an Indian flag. Large iconic photos of Gandhi and Nehru adorn the walls surrounded by several smaller ones. ‘This is my father,’ Sheikh Munir points at one of them, ‘with Maulana Muhammad Ali of the Khilafat. And here he is alone, with a different turban, the Indian one.’ I take a quick look at the photos of the tall, bespectacled Indian figure, the elder sheikh, Nazir Ansari of Saharanpur. But this, I realize, is not the time to ask about his story; there will be time enough. So we step out into the sunlit courtyard of the Hospice, where the women are waiting, making idle talk around a grove of lemon and orange trees. It’s a pleasant young sun of early March and I enjoy the little orange that Najam hands me. I can bite right into it and eat it, peel and all. A small mosque opens out into the courtyard and through its half-open door I can see the bare room with its arched walls and a mihrab. A full carpet covers the floor. On the far end of the courtyard are a number of rooms, several in a state of dereliction. Sheikh Munir points out two graves—perhaps of pilgrims or earlier sheikhs—that mark the furthest end. A visitor’s room contains more photographs and a table with a visitor’s book and details of people who have stayed at the Hospice in recent years. Finally, I ask the question that has brought me here: ‘Why is this known as Baba Farid’s Hospice?’

Sheikh Munir leads me to one of the rooms at the far end of the courtyard. An attendant brings out a bunch of keys and unlocks a low door. I have to bend low to step in. Cobwebs flutter in the sunlight that streams in and a dank smell rises from within. He points towards an opening in the floor, barely visible at the far end of the room. ‘There are some rooms below this room,’ Sheikh Munir says. ‘It is believed that those are the rooms where Baba Farid meditated. And in this room my wife and children hid when the bombs fell here in 1967 and the Israeli soldiers entered the Hospice.’ It is our first meeting, so I do not push for details. But I know that I must know. In the long drawing room in the Travancore wing, I meet the sheikh’s wife, Ikram. She speaks little but her presence is pleasing. There is tea, Indian style. ‘Lipton is the best,’ someone says. And bourekas, fresh pastries stuffed with spinach and cheese, and carrot cake and poppy-seed cake. Each of the women has made something and wants me to taste it. There is even a fruit salad. ‘This is a French salad, in the name of Nimala, our sister who lives in Switzerland,’ Nazeer explains. Someone mentions that on an occasion like this they miss Nazer, the eldest brother who lives in Saudi Arabia. They are a graceful and charming family and I hate to tear myself away. I know I will obsess for weeks and months about this little Indian corner in the old city, about the underground chamber of Baba Farid, about Indian soldiers during the World War, about shells raining down on children huddled in a dark, dank room, about the man who came here mysteriously from Saharanpur and about the family who laugh and smile and tease each other.