The Spirit Can Never be Killed


Amjad Farid Sabri Qawwal Marhoom

The story is told that one day, Akbar the Great heard some wandering minstrels singing about the glorious wali who lay slumbering in the desert town of Ajmer. He enquired of the malangs about this great soul who moved them to sing so beautifully. They replied in verse:

Hazaron badshah aaye
Hazaron sultanat badli
Na badli na badlegi huqumat mere khwaja ki
Mere khwaja badshah hai

[Thousands of emperors have come
Thousands of kingdoms have fallen
The kingdom of my lord has never and will never change
My lord is the emperor]

The devotion of the minstrels so impressed the Emperor he let their frankness pass without comment. Some years later he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, founder of the most influential Islamic mystical order in South Asia, and in effect, gave the House of Timur’s blessing to the Sufis of Ajmer.

Khwaja was well loved by his followers not just for his teachings but also for his methods of teaching. These included the practice of sama, which involved the playing of instruments and singing (solo as well as chorus) to aid spiritual contemplation and produce trance states in the faithful. From this practice, and through the creative brilliance of a disciple of one of Khwaja’s successors, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, this practice became gradually known among devotees as qual and ultimately, qawwali. The disciple who is credited with creating this new and distinctly subcontinental religious music is Amir Khusro, one of India’s great artistic geniuses.

When Khwaja Moinuddin passed away in 1265, the Chistia silsila (Chisti order) produced two branches. One, centered in Delhi, was led by Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The second, founded by Ali Ahmed Alauddin ‘Sabir’, is known as the silsila Chistia Sabriya. Both branches gained disciples all across northern India and both nurtured and promoted the practice of sama through qawwali.

These days, qawwali is loved across the world. It is performed not just by Pakistani and Indian qawwali parties, but also embraced by jazz musicians, Spanish flamenco guitarists, American mystics and the ultra-chilled lounge music set. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is usually regarded as bringing qawwali to the West but in fact, it was two adherents of the Chistia Sabriya silsila who blazed that trail more than a decade earlier.

The Punjabi qawwali tradition draws inspiration for its lyrics from the saints and shrines of Punjab and other parts of what is now Pakistan. This style of qawwali is regarded as a more vigourous and emotional form than the traditional, sophisticated style from further east in India.

It was part of the Sabri brothers’ brilliance that they were able to sing and perform in both styles. They quickly realised there was a new Urdu-speaking audience in the cities that also had expendable incomes. Their first record, Mera Koi Nahi Hai Terey Siwa (“I have no one but you”) was released in 1958, when Maqbool was still a teenager, to great acclaim, partly because it was accessible to this new audience. [full article]

Quotidian Majesty: Qawwali from Ajmer

Ajmer Sharif

Ajmer Sharif


Ajmer, a city in the western deserts of India, is a regional Jerusalem. A town sacred to Hindus but especially to Muslims with a mystical inclination.   Ajmer is without a doubt the most important Muslim pilgrimage site in India and draws a large number of visitors from Pakistan as well. More would come if the reality of a highly politicised border did not lay between them and the city of Khawaja Moinuddin Chisti.


The city was established in the 11th century by the Rajput Hindu family of Chauhans and was known as Ajaimeru.  The city it seems was established by the Chauhans as part of their alliance with other rulers to keep Arab Muslim raiders of northern India at bay; its early history was as a regional power center from which the Chauhans eventually captured most of modern Haryana up to Delhi.


Ironically, in one of her wicked twists, Fate has turned what started as a wall against Islam into one of the most vibrant centers of Muslim faith on the sub-continent. This is largely because this is where the 12th century Sufi teacher, Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, settled after receiving a message from God to leave his native Persia and spread the message of Islam in India.


I’ve wondered about his selection of Ajmer, an apparent fortress town in the desert, as his seat of spiritual power but have so far been able to find any rationale.  But given that just 11kms further down the road is one of India’s holiest towns, Pushkar, the site of India’s only Brahma temple, I suspect that the site of Ajmer has been sacred to locals for thousands of years. Perhaps the great Sufi felt a certain spiritual energy in the place that made him stop in Ajmer.  Whatever the reason, it was from here that one of the richest forms of mystical religion and oldest silsila (order) of Sufis began to spread its influence throughout the rest of India.


I had an agonisingly brief visit to Ajmer late last year which whet my appetite for a longer more considered trip in the future.  One thing I did have time to do as I walked up the crowded street, full of pilgrims and tourists from all over India, toward Dargah Sharif (the Noble Tomb), burial site of Moinuddin Chisti and focal point of any visit to Ajmer, was ask a few shop keepers for a selection of local qawwali.


That qawwali is one of the most potent and beloved forms of worship across the northern half of the sub-continent, needs no further explication here. I’ve written about qawwali, some of its performers and forms in other places on this blog. What I want to share with you tonight is a taste of the sort of music that blasts loudly out of shops and cafes throughout Ajmer.


This is qawwali but not for the intellectual (Eastern or Western) critic or connoisseur.  This is qawwali performed by local Ajmeri artists who sing regularly at sacred venues around the city and farther afield. Their audience is made of pilgrims and resident adherents of Garib Nawaz (Protector of the Poor), Khawaja Piya, Waliyon ke Shahensah (Emperor of Saints) Maharaja, Ghausul Azam Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti.


In response to the changing world, these artists have been recorded and their music pressed onto cheap VCDs, DVDs and MP3 discs. The bitrates are low (80-128mpbs) and the artwork garishly cool.  The language is flowery only when it refers to the Great Man or some universally understood Islamic phrases.  In the main the lyrics are simple and sung in straightforward, almost chaste Hindustani. This is music that listeners with rudimentary educations would dig and understand.


Subject matter centers mainly on the miraculous, splendour and glory of Khawaja Moinuddin, or, the fantastic city of Ajmer itself. Like many of the Psalms of David which extol the greatness, beauty and wonderousness of Jerusalem, these qawwalis spend a lot of time reminding their pilgrim listeners that they have experienced a truly heavenly city.  Other subjects covered in these qawwalis are quotidian like asking the Spirit of the Khawaja to secure a visa for the Haj!


The singing is fierce, energetic and one hundred percent heart-felt.  Arrangements have been adjusted to include a few modern electronic keyboards but in essence it is voice, drum and hand claps.


I’ve got about 500 tracks of such ‘latest and best’ (so assured my interlocuters) qawwalis. They are absolutely fantastic and I share a dozen of them with you tonight.


Ya Ali Madad!!

24 Qawal _0001

Track Listing:

01 Garibon ke Wali Yatimon ke Maula

02 Faiz-o-Karam ka Saagar Ho

03 Ajmer Madina Lagta Hai

04 Mere Khwaja Madine ki Hamein Visa Dulange

05 Bataun Kya Raaz Apne Dil Ka

06 Main to Khwaja ke Dar ka Faqir Hogaya

07 Chalo Aaj Shaadi Khawaja Piya Ki

08 Gham Sabhi Rahato Taskin Mein

09 Chalta Hai Sabir ka Sikka

10 Khwajaji Ka Jaam Hai

11 Khwaja Piya ne Ajmer Bulaya

12 To Se Lagi Lagan Khwaja Khwaja