Lesley Esteves is a queer rights activist and freelance editor who identifies as gender-queer and lesbian. Together with Mario da Penha, her colleague at Voices Against 377, Esteves had accompanied Nagma, a victim of sexual assault, for a court hearing to Ajmer in October. The party, also comprising Nagma’s chelas, visited the dargah of Ajmer Sharif, the famous shrine of 12th century Sufi saint Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti “Khwaja Garib Nawaz”, who is revered by hijras across the subcontinent.


Esteves kept a diary of the trip, recording the “other” learnings besides the actual case work, including how the shrine warmly and indiscriminately accepted all pilgrims, including gender transgressors or those who don’t follow conventional ways of being men and women. An edited excerpt:

Sufi spaces are by far the most open to gender-transgressing people. But nothing I had experienced before came close to the inclusiveness at the dargah of Ajmer Sharif. Even at the two famous shrines of Qutub Sahib and Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi, the hijra is respected but is still on the outside. And whatever one’s self-perception of one’s gender, if you have a vagina, you cannot touch a Sufi tomb. You must view it from a separate enclosure or from outside. The only Sufi tomb I had touched till date was that of Salim Chishti at Fatehpur Sikri. Nagma said this is because the tombs of the Chishtis are open to all genders.

Our cook Chandbi in Mumbai had asked me to place a chadar on Khwaja Saab’s tomb, so Nagma and I bought one. To my surprise, the chadar was placed on my head by Rafi bhai, one of thousands of khadims at Ajmer, who was escorting us that day. This was not necessarily a gendered gesture towards the most masculine person in our group, as all genders lift the chadars. Yet it was an unforgettable gesture.

As a masculine person born female, I have always found spaces of worship, with their associated codes and rules, daunting to negotiate. If I enter them at all, I instinctively try to be low-key, something many gender transgressors would be familiar with—this trying to merge with the background when feeling vulnerable. So it was a new feeling to learn what it was like to have your devotion catered to by the officialdom in an important shrine, in this case the khadims who attend to pilgrims at Ajmer. I didn’t find out why I was offered the chadar to carry that day, as by then we were completely caught up in devotion and focused on the dargah. It was a situation beyond words and discussion. Such is the magnetism of Garib Nawaz.

It is difficult to describe the feeling of walking in the footsteps of emperors, who came here as supplicants before a greater durbar than theirs. As we walked past, people touched the chadar to send their prayers to Khwaja Saab. The devotion of nameless millions across the subcontinent and across faiths is too much to take in. All I could do was hold on to the chadar, absorb the prayers all around and experience my own devotion.

Suddenly we entered an impossibly narrow door and were crushed in a throng of people. Somewhere beyond them was his tomb. We could barely move, and unseen hands guided and supported us from all sides. What followed was a blur of the chadar being wrapped around all 10 of us, a fatiha spoken, the chadar pulled off and placed on Khwaja Saab’s tomb, another fatiha said, the chadar replaced on all of us, many hands placed on our heads by many khadims and pilgrims blessing our prayers and adding their own, kissing and holding the chadar tightly before it was placed back on the tomb. As we showered the tomb with rose petals, a khadim realized that the roomal wrapped around my head had come off, and told one of my hijra companions to open her dupatta and wrap it around my head till we were outside the tomb.

Holding hands, and led by Rafi bhai, we squeezed our way out through one low door, past uncountable people, and somehow found space to prostrate on the ground, our foreheads touching the cool marble, touching also the tomb before us. Someone with their hand on my head said, “Beta, jo chahiye dil khol ke maango (son, wish for whatever your heart desires).” We squeezed past some more people and found ourselves in a courtyard where we sat uncrushed for a while, meditating and absorbing the devotion around us. Rafi bhai placed magenta dupattas on all the hijras and tied a pink safa on Mario. He asked me in clipped English, “Should I treat you as a mard (man) or an aurat (woman)?” I was speechless, so Mario answered for me, and a pink safa was tied on my forehead too.

I told Mario that it would be nice to go to the chilla (a chilla khana is a peaceful place where Sufis meditate, often a cave) of Qutub Sahib, not too far away, as he was the badshah of Delhi and the immediate successor of Khwaja Saab. Rafi bhai heard me and was delighted, because it was where he went too, and practised as a Sufi. The chilla was on a hillock overlooking the Ana Sagar lake. As we climbed, the contours of Ajmer revealed themselves slowly—the Aravallis cradling the city, the dargah area and neighbouring hillock crowned by the Adhai Din Ka Jhopra to the south-west, the massive fort of Taragarh on a hill beyond, modern Ajmer on the other side of the lake, and the road to Pushkar across the hills in the distance. This time Rafi bhai gave me a male pilgrim’s skullcap to wear and we offered prayers at the chilla. Then we climbed higher, as he told us the entire hillock was covered with the chillas of many Sufis. On top was the chilla of Khwaja Saab himself. As we reached the main enclosure of chillas, we came to Rafi bhai’s room. Inside was a young man, a close friend of Rafi bhai. We said our prayers and then sat down for a long chat with him. He had worked as an engineer, but like thousands of other Hindus over the centuries, had decided to renounce the world and follow the Sufis.

He said Rafi bhai ought to write a book about all the many stories and beautiful thoughts in his head; Rafi bhai blushed modestly. Sitting beside the unchanged stone slab on which Khwaja Saab meditated 900 years ago, we discussed past-life regression. Though the air was cool, it was late afternoon, and Rafi bhai suggested we head back to our hotel and get some rest; we had to return to the dargah later that evening. Nagma and her chelas stayed on to spend time with Rafi bhai, but he came down part of the way to say goodbye to “he” and “she”. I miss him.

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