June 18, 2012

Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin, New Delhi

Tucked in a forested weather-beaten location near Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station is a simplistic structure part-modern and part-medieval. Known as Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin, it can easily be missed by someone not specifically looking for it. Flanked on one side by the rubble-built boundary walls of Humayun’s Tomb complex (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and on the other two sides by the white-washed walls of Gurudwara Damdama Sahib, the white-green structure fits so snugly into the heritage zone that it is ignored by almost everyone wandering around its precincts. Passing cars do not stop here, nor does anybody get down from local trains at the railway station adjacent to visit this place. I did, but I am, as always, an exception. Except the caretaker and the resident “fakeer” (spiritual mendicant), there was not a single soul to be seen at the large complex in the entire duration that I explored about. Surprisingly, the beautiful dargah (mausoleum) of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, one of India’s foremost Sufi saints and the patron saint of Delhi, a few kilometers away, is the site of revered prayers and pilgrimage for thousands of faithful devotees who throng to it every single day to pray for health, prosperity and fulfillment of wishes, and yet the actual hallowed site where the benevolent saint, bestowed with the honorific “Auliya” (“friend of God”), spent 65 years of his life till his demise has been relegated to an unenviable existence of isolation and ignorance! To confess the truth, even I wasn’t aware of this medieval spiritual gem and wouldn’t have stopped by were it not for the Urdu signboards indicating its presence that I noticed while on my way from the forgotten but bejeweled Nila Gumbad mausoleum to the magnificent Humayun’s Tomb complex. I cannot read Urdu, but the signboards piqued my curiosity and I couldn’t stop venturing within to determine what this verdant, pristine complex was. It was then that I noticed that there were Hindi and English boards too, hidden by foliage and visible only on close inspection.

Entrance to Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin and the Urdu signboards

I had read a lot about the 14th-century Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and his powers, how his curse brought down rulers, most notably Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq (refer Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad Fort for the inimitable tale about Ghiyasuddin's fortified citadel), and how he bestowed prosperity and wellbeing on his followers (Read “Delhi – A Novel” by Khushwant Singh) and his chilla-khanqah being located in the Nizamuddin area. However I had neither the clue about its exact location nor any plans of visiting the spot anytime soon. But now that I had, coincidentally, discovered it, I had to have a close look at its constituents – the graves in the marble-lined, open courtyard out front; the simplistic, L-shaped, green-white structure which, given its architectural features (battered walls, wide eaves (“chajja”) supported on heavy brackets, lack of ornamentation, unadorned rectangular pillars supporting the arches), dates to the early Tughlaq-era when Hazrat Nizamuddin walked the earth; large equally old and crumbling chambers towards the back of the complex accessible from a doorway built in the longer side of the L. The immediate structure, that is the aforementioned shorter side of the L-structure that bears the distinct architectural features easily recognizable as Tughlaq, functions as a mosque – the small covered portion along its western wall acts as the mihrab (a mihrab is a niche in a mosque wall to indicate west, the direction of Mecca. Muslims face this while offering prayers) and alcoves built along its surface are filled with books and framed posters of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s and Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer’s dargahs. Also located towards the side facing the colossal Humayun’s tomb complex is a small graveyard.

The Chilla-Khanqah. The arched doorway on the left leads to Hazrat Nizamuddin's personal chambers.

A “khanqah” is a small monastery used for praying. It was here that Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya lived, meditated, interacted with followers and died. This place was also where he performed the practice of “chilla-kashi” in which a Sufi secludes him/herself from the general population and followers and undergoes extreme penance without water, food or sleep for 40 days continuously while indulging in reverential prayers and commune with the divine. Hence, the name “Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin”. Hazrat Nizamuddin’s adoring followers would come here to see their beloved saint, hear him deliver sermons and seek from him blessings of happiness, marital bliss, fertility and childbirth, agricultural beneficence and legal/diplomatic achievements. A community kitchen functioned from the premises where the saint’s affluent devotees would contribute food materials and have it prepared for distribution among the crowds gathered irrespective of any distinction of religion, gender and social and economic status. The white marble-lined veranda leads to the chambers towards the back of the complex where the saint lived and meditated – though the rest of the complex has since been painted and modified through the use of marble, plaster and stone numerous times since, this area is maintained as near to the original state as feasible, and thus the dull, faded paintwork, crumbling structure baring the rubble skeleton of the walls underneath, and the overall ruinous existence of the primary chamber that is now revered as a shrine.

Unbelievable - The Auliya lived and meditated here!

When Hazrat Nizamuddin was sent to Delhi as the “Wali-e-Hind” (“Saint of Hindustan”) by his spiritual master Sheikh Fariduddin Ganjshakar, the area where the chilla-khanqah exists today as well as the adjacent Humayun’s Tomb complex used to be complete wilderness and the nearest settlement was that of village Ghiyaspur several kilometers away (since then renamed as Nizamuddin Basti and more recently as Mirza Ghalib colony). The monastery is said to have been built by an unparalleled devotee Ziauddin Wakeel Mulk (also spelled Vakil or Wakil) who was a contemporary of Hazrat Nizamuddin. Legend is that when Wakeel offered to build a humble monastery for the saint, the latter warned him that the person commissioning it would not live for long. Unperturbed in his devotion to the Auliya, Wakeel went ahead with the project saying that everyone has to die someday. The complex took 30 days to finish and a “mehfil” (celebration) was organized on the first evening following its completion. As prophesied, Wakeel danced ecstatically throughout the night and his pious soul left its mortal body as the music reached its crescendo! He is buried in a solitary grave, perennially covered with green cloth and surrounded by green flags, in the grassy lawn in front of the chilla-khanqah. Green and red flags, symbolic of Sufism, also flutter around the place, especially near the simplistic entrance.

Eternal slumber - The grave of Ziauddin Wakil, the sincere devotee

The saint’s decrepit rooms are stuffed with miscellaneous items like posters, cloth bundles and praying mats while the floor around is lined with small earthen vessels filled regularly by the faithful with grain for birds and milk for the resident cats. The uncharacteristically unkempt wall alcoves, lined with beautifully embroidered green cloth but also clogged with spider webs and blackened by the lightening of oil lamps, contain hardbound photographs of Mecca and Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah. Belief is that if one reverentially asks for the fulfillment of a wish while facing these alcoves it does come true! Despite it being a summer afternoon and the sun blazing scorchingly, the interiors maintained an unbelievable coolness brought about by the traditional architectural practices and construction techniques that are sadly no longer of use to the modern air-conditioned city and its closeted inhabitants. Immediately opposite the entrance from which one enters is another doorway, now barred and locked, that leads outside to the other side – during his lifetime, Hazrat Nizamuddin extensively stressed upon the separation of religion and state and boasted that his monastery has two doors and if a Sultan comes in through one he himself quickly leaves from the other. As I roamed about the place silently like a cat (I wanted to be quiet, the caretaker had, after showing me in, fallen asleep in a corner), I noticed that some of these medieval chambers were grilled and locked to prevent visitors from entering. In one of these there was a large transformer but I have no idea what lies in the rest. (Edit: Interestingly, I realized much later that, were they not grilled and barred, Hazrat Nizamuddin’s rooms would have opened directly to the landscaped lawns of Humayun’s Tomb complex that came up here over two hundred years later. The tomb complex’s enclosure walls culminate into a serene pavilion christened as Chilgah pavilion (refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun’s Tomb complex for details and photographs of the same) that overlooks the chilla-khanqah complex and Gurudwara Damdama Sahib adjacent.

The associated graveyard

Wandering around, I reached the small graveyard on the other side of the complex – there couldn’t be more than one score graves, some of which were delightfully decorated with “jaalis” (stone latticework) and vibrant, multi-hued embroidered cloth sheets. Almost all of them were well-kept and several had small plants and grass growing through the shallow hollows built along the upper surface. This practice, of leaving small space for plants to grow from on top of the tile-covered graves, besides being in accordance with Islamic burial specifications that require a grave to be covered by nothing but grass and being regularly wetted by dewdrops (that is, not enclosed by extraordinarily colossal or rich mausoleums) is also visually appealing and spiritually heartwarming. Eco-friendly graves, I call these!

Solemn - Some are remembered and some are not.

The resident mendicant, a very old and very friendly person who believed that Nizamuddin Baba looks after everyone, was sitting in the graveyard. He inquired if I had been to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s room and if I had, if I asked for a “murad” (wish). On hearing that I didn’t ask for anything, he led me back to the room where he made me sit on my knees in front of the alcove and placed his hand on my head while muttering incantations to Allah to grant me success and health. A few seconds later when I turned my head he had disappeared and was nowhere to be seen. Leaving a ten rupee note in the alcove, I returned to the graveyard to check if he was there, but he wasn’t. Instead there was another old mendicant, sitting atop a solitary grave and having his lunch – he happily offered to share it with me, even though it was apparent that he didn’t even have enough to sustain himself. That’s why I find Sufi dervishes so endearing, they are always genuinely sweet and compassionate and willing to share what they possess. It is revolting to think that the universal syncretism, musical spiritual congregations and methods of worship and devotion, such as those involving the benevolence of deceased legendary saints and mighty djinns to intercede to Allah on behalf of mortal humans, practiced by Hindus and Muslims alike at community shrines such as dargahs that are open to every person irrespective of any distinction of religion, gender, socio-economic status or belief have come under criticism and fierce, intolerant hostility from orthodox organizations such as the Tablighi Jamaat that has opened its headquarters immediately at the footstep of the route leading to the Auliya’s dargah and opposes visiting both the dargah and the chilla-khanqah on the grounds of it being against the tenets of Islam.

Having finished with the photography and following a thorough recce of the foliage-veiled complex, I moved ahead towards the next destination with the prayer incantation of the fakeer still resounding in my head. The serenity and quiet of the place is touching and invigorating at the same time, soothing both mind and body. It felt amazing to just be cut-off from the world and be in a place, even for a short while, that is secluded from all the noise, commotion and worries of life and is also luxuriously surrounded by a diminutive forest with multi-hued butterflies and pretty peacocks for company . And then there is the sacred presence of the boon-bestowing Hazrat Nizamuddin penetrating every stone and cranny of the complex lovingly overlooking every soul who ventures within.

The mendicant who disappeared

Location: Nizamuddin area, hardly 20 minutes walk from Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station (Coordinates: 28°35'42.2"N 77°15'06.9"E)
Open: All days, sunrise to sunset
Nearest Metro station: JLN Stadium
Nearest bus stop: Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah/Humayun's Tomb complex
How to reach: Walk from the railway station. The metro station is situated several kilometers away and one can either take an auto from there or alternately take a bus to Humayun's tomb complex and walk a kilometer and half from there on. The chilla-khanqah lies immediately to the back of Humayun's tomb complex and one can walk along the latter's boundary walls to reach it.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 30 min
Other monuments located in immediate vicinity - 


  1. AnonymousJuly 24, 2015

    NIce article, shows the hardship of muslim sufi saints..

  2. thank you for this beautifully written post