June 29, 2012

Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, New Delhi

"I come running to the end of Your street, tears are washing and washing my cheek. 
Union with You - what else can I seek? My soul I surrender as Your name I repeat."
– Hazrat Nizamuddin, about God, on hearing about the demise of a fellow saint

Given the stories and lores associated with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the abilities and supernatural powers often attributed to him, the command over mythical beings he was supposed to possess, his mystical prowess and miraculous capabilities – it is no wonder that almost every visitor to his Dargah (tomb), despite any cultural differences whatsoever or unacquaintance with the traditions of Indian subcontinent, feels a devout reverence, an inexplicable fascination and in several cases an unadulterable adoration towards the saint. Referred to as Mehboob-i-Ilahi (“Beloved of God”) Sultan-ul-Masheikh (“Lord of spiritual masters”), Sheikh Nizamuddin Muhammad Syed Auliya (“friend of God”) had humble beginnings and wished to become an adjudicator of religious matters when he grew up. A 16th-generation descendant of Prophet Muhammad (R.A.), he was born in AD 1238 to Khwaja Syed Ahmed and Bibi Zuleikha and his grandparents had migrated to India along with their families from Bukhara (modern-day Uzbekistan) and settled in Badaun (in Uttar Pradesh, a center of trade and learning back then). His father passed away when he was still very young and he decided to relocate to Delhi with his mother and sister where he spent the initial few years in extreme poverty, often sleeping in mosques with little or nothing to fill his stomach for days. Yet in accordance with his dream of becoming a Qazi (judge), he took keen interest in philosophy and Islamic theology from an early age and also learnt the Quran and the tenets of Islamic jurisprudence, mechanics, arithmetic and literature from some of the most renowned teachers and theologians of his time. Despite gaining worldly knowledge and becoming a prominent scholar, the boy’s appetite for learning burnt him from within and he became inclined towards religion and started out on the search for a true spiritual master.

A glittering tribute - The Khwaja's tomb

Introduced to the teachings of the Sufi saint Baba Farid-ud-din Ganjshakar of Pak-Pattan (then Ajojdhan, modern-day Pakistan) by wandering mendicants and travelers, one morning the young Nizamuddin was moved to pious tears by the recital of a Quranic verse by the muezzin of the mosque where he was sleeping. Affected by the recital and with a profound desire to meet Baba Farid-ud-din in his heart, he headed to the latter’s hermitage. It is said that Baba Farid-ud-din was informed by divine intervention of the arrival of an illustrious student who would later take the mantle of his spiritual heir and thus he took Nizamuddin under his tutelage and taught him about religion, spiritualism and Sufism. Initiated into the Chishtiyya order of Sufism to which his master belonged, Nizamuddin stayed and listened to discourses at his master’s hermitage for several years before being accorded the highest honor of “Khilafat-i-piran-i-Chisht” (Caliph of the Chishti order of Saints) by the latter and given the territories of India to spread the love of Sufism. Before his departure, Hazrat Farid-ud-din asked the Auliya to “Be like a big tree, so that Allah's creation, the human beings, in their vast multitudes, may find rest and solace under your shadow.” The spot where Nizamuddin decided to settle down isn’t very far from where his Dargah is today situated. The history behind the choice and development of the two locations is interesting, but little known. Hazrat Nizamuddin wanted to establish his Chilla–Khanqah (monastery) at some secluded spot where he could practice meditation and formulate his own beliefs and discourses and for the purpose chose a location on the periphery of a small, sparsely populated village known as Ghiyaspur at the outskirts of the then citadel of Delhi (Ghiyaspur was christened after Ghiyas-ud-din Balban (ruled 1266-86 AD) who built his pleasure palace “Lal Mahal” (“Red Palace”, now partially demolished) here. Lal Mahal also happened to be the first Islamic palace of the subcontinent). The Chilla–Khanqah still exists towards the back of Humayun’s tomb complex near Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station; river Yamuna used to flow next to it but has since diverted course. You can read about the structure here – Pixelated Memories - Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin.

Exquisite - One of my favorite clicks!

As “Sheikh-i-tariqat-i-Chishtiyya” (Master of the Chishti spiritual lineage), Hazrat Nizamuddin stayed here for several years; his spiritual prowess strengthened over the years and he established himself as a religious teacher-adjudicator par excellence. As his fame grew far and wide, more and more people began residing near his monastery and hundreds of devotees started flocking to him every day desiring contact with him and to seek his blessings or advice over various personal, social or economic issues. Despite being revered by kings, the saint led an austere lifestyle – Sultans, merchants and nobles came to see him but he would often escape to some isolated spot to avoid meeting the powerful because of his deep-seated beliefs about the separation of religion and power (He used to say that his hermitage has two doors so if an Emperor comes through one, he would quickly leave by other). The boy who often slept empty-stomach had been transformed into a magnificent saint who received enormous sums of donations everyday and gave it all for charity – nobody returned empty-handed from his hermitage but went back with their bellies full and hearts satiated. It was here that the saint became closely associated with the highly-appreciated poet-writer-compiler-soldier-scholar-publisher-philanthropist-spiritualist master Amir Khusro with whom he had a lifetime of camaraderie and a relationship more close than that of brothers. I have written an extremely long post about the life and times of Khusro, which can be accessed here for further information – Pixelated Memories - Amir Khusro & his tomb. Such was Khusro’s philosophy, his deep fixation towards his spiritual master and his belief in God that he was composing love songs that went like “Chaap tilak sab cheeney mosey naina milayke; Mohay suhaagan keeni re mosey naina milayke” (“you have taken my peace and ornamentation by a single look; you have made me your own by a single look”) at a time when emperors and governors who preferred torture and blinding over killing ruled the country and Mongol hordes were raiding the countryside with impunity and carrying off men, women and children as slaves, including at one point the soldier Khusro himself!!

The dargah's baoli - Only stepwell that has never dried up in the 700 years of its existence

The saint played a legendary role in Delhi’s history and politics and influenced Sufism (and Islam as a whole) in an impressive way – he encouraged a merger between Islamic practices and Hindu religious worship to promote communal harmony and bring more people towards the faith. As a practicing Sufi, he was part of the Reformation Movement that swept through the country in 14th century. He emphasized on equality, charity and religious brotherhood, often incorporating in his worship practices like music (“Qawwali”) and dance (“sama”) that were considered heretic or anti-Islam by the orthodox community. He stressed upon literature/language diplomacy and devotional poetry in Hindi/Urdu instead of Persian in order for it to be comprehensible to a larger population and bring more people to the folds of Islam; Khusro largely composed his works in Hindi and its dialects. Hazrat Nizamuddin and other saints of the Chishtiyya order were missionaries responsible for the Indigenization of Islam through use of vernacular literature, religious symbolism and sentimental brotherhood and admiration – it is therefore no wonder that the saint’s dargah has come to be recognized as one of the most important religious sites in the country, physically the focal point of a large settlement and spiritually an axis for Islam and Sufism, that has transcended religious and geographical boundaries to survive as an active worshipping site despite changing political scenarios, religious upheavals and economic changes. The Auliya’s miraculous association with the divine, his focus on religious harmony and his towering personality even amongst powerful religious and political personages of his time allowed him to forward spirituality and diplomacy that often disregarded orthodoxy and flouted as well as challenged political authority in favor of a more down to earth brotherhood amongst followers of different religions and traditions. He stressed upon love towards all humanity, irrespective of gender and religion, as a means of divine realization – without limiting itself to theoretical or theological aspects of Islam, his religion consisted of prayer with a firm belief in God and the human capacity for cohabitation marked with an advanced form of kindness and secularism. The Sufis always have followed the policy of love towards all creation and a resignation to the divine, the same has been stated by the writer William Dalrymple in his touching book “Nine Lives” as –

“All religions were one, maintained the Sufi saints, merely different manifestations of the same divine reality. What was important was not the empty ritual of the mosque or temple, but to understand that divinity can best be reached through the gateway of the human heart – that we all have Paradise within us, if we know where to look.”

Devotion - At the dargah's "Jamaat Khana" mosque

Desiring the saint’s benefaction, Khizr Khan, son of Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji (ruled AD 1296-1316) built a massive mosque within village Ghiyaspur (approx. 2km from the Chilla-Khanqah) for the saint to pray at while he lived and be buried in when he was dead. Painted brilliant red, the three-bay mosque, christened “Jamaat Khana” (congregation house), bears the architectural practices inherent in almost all Khilji-Tughlaq era structures – thick, sloping walls, arched entrances, jaalis (stone latticework), sparse ornamentation and squinch arches within to support the heavy roof. With the construction of the mosque, the attention largely shifted here from the Chilla-Khanqah since Hazrat Nizamuddin stayed here extensively, praying, offering Namaz and interacting with the faithful who brought him their troubles and grief for solution. It was here that he came in bitter conflict with Sultan Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq that began with the former’s refusal to return the five hundred thousand gold coins that he had received as charity under the previous regime of a widely-hated Hindu-convert sultan, magnified with the feud over employment of workers for the construction of Tughlaq’s gigantic fortress and Hazrat Nizamuddin’s modest baoli, and ended with the death of Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq. The same has been documented here Pixelated Memories - Baoli, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah – and Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad fortress complex. Though some of the saint’s predictions did come true (interestingly these do not figure at all in the contemporary accounts of his life, later embossments??), he personally did not believe in performing miracles to gain followers, considering the same as a diversion from the path of God and reconciliation. Later, Muhammad Tughlaq (ruled AD 1325-51), the then Sultan, added side-chambers to the mosque in order to expand it to accommodate the increasing number of devotees and also to display his affection towards the saint. The mosque, supposedly the oldest active in Delhi, has since been modified in various ways by the caretakers of the Dargah complex – the vibrant paint is a later addition, so are the calligraphic inscriptions in silver hue running along the arched entrance and front face; the ornamental pillars, floral motifs, medallions and the lotus bud indentation decoration that fringe the double arches have also been painted silver – the red and silver complement and contrast with each other to create an impressive fusion that is glaringly vibrant but in no way projects flamboyance, instead the look is considerate and brings in sharp focus the painstakingly executed designs and ornamentations against the red background relief.

Vibrant - The mosque's exteriors

The cavernous interiors of the mosque have been painted reddish-pink and silver with the inscriptions done in gold; again the use of numerous arches provides impeccable symmetry and dazzle to the mosque’s sides; the intricately designed central indentation of the mihrab (western wall of a mosque towards which the faithful kneel to offer Namaz) has been lighted up with fluorescent lamps while the side indentations are stuffed with books and religious discourses. The huge side chambers are painted glistening white on the inside and boast of magnificent incised plasterwork medallions in red, green, yellow and blue hues on the dome interiors. With its three small domes half-hidden over the roof, the mosque invites visitors to take a break from their journey & rest in its cool, shaded interior. The side chambers are for the women to sit in while the men visit the tombs and the mosque. Though photography is prohibited inside the mosque, the caretakers seldom refuse permission to click if anyone solicits it.

Testimonial to an artist's unparalleled skill - Roof medallion in the mosque's side-chamber

Hazrat Nizamuddin passed away in 1325; before his demise he had expressed the wish of being buried under the sky in the open courtyard flanking the Jamaat Khana mosque and accordingly was buried in a simple grave. His death was mourned by almost all the citizens of Delhi irrespective of religion, faith or gender – legend is that when the funeral procession was on its way from his hermitage to the mosque and religious couplets were being sung following the saint’s directive of there being a celebration at his funeral, so trance-like was the effect that even the dead body of Hazrat Nizamuddin began throbbing to come out and dance but was restrained by reminding the rules of life and death by his foremost disciple and spiritual successor Hazrat Nasir-ud-din Chirag-i-Dilli. Hazrat Nizamuddin’s burial at Ghiyaspur changed the nature of the place and turned it into a living heritage zone – it’s a common belief in Islam that the tomb of a holy man (“dargah”) sanctifies the area around itself for several kilometers – soon the area took the appearance of an ever-growing settlement with tombs, both splendid edifices and simple for-the-purpose structures, cropping up as far as the eye could discern. The area around the Dargah is literally dotted with hundreds of graves. At the time of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s demise and burial, his friend and companion Amir Khusro was on a tour of Bengal with Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq; well-aware that Khusro wouldn’t be able to bear the grief of their parting, the Khwaja decreed that the former should be buried close to his own grave when he passed away and every visitor who wanted his/her wishes fulfilled should first offer prayers and respects at Amir Khusro’s dargah. Such was the nature of their relationship that the saint further emphasized that he didn’t even want Khusro to come close to his grave for fear that his mortal remains might come alive and burst out of the grave to embrace his beloved acquaintance! Heartbroken and bereaved, Khusro was unable to accept his friend and master’s demise and continued to get mentally and physically shallower till he too passed away in grief exactly 6 months after Hazrat Nizamuddin’s death and was buried on a raised platform referred to as “Chabutra-i-yaar” (“Terrace of the friend”) in front of the saint’s tomb.

View of the dargah courtyard from Amir Khusro's tomb

Muhammad Tughlaq had the pearlesque-white tomb constructed over Hazrat Nizamuddin’s grave and it was repaired by Feroz Shah Tughlaq when he ascended the throne of Delhi following Muhammad Tughlaq’s death; however very little of the original structure survives now and several additions and modifications have since been made to the structure by the faithful and the caretakers. It has been documented that the Mughal emperor Akbar Shah II (reigned AD 1806-37) had the huge and proportionate, onion dome that is striped with black marble, topped by a pointed golden finial over an inverted lotus and flanked by numerous miniature domes all along the length of the eaves (“chajja”) constructed over the tomb. Such delicate yet elaborate is the intricacy of the gild artwork in red, green and violet that adorn the tomb’s gold-painted walls, such skilled is the execution that every conceivable nook and cranny of the exterior surface of the tomb has been ornamented with calligraphy inscriptions and floral/geometric motifs. Breaking the monotony of the striking gold panels are large stone lattice panels (“jaalis”) that too have been crafted with much precision and effort under commission by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan (ruled AD 1628-58). The entire tomb sits on a high platform and the narrow walkway that surrounds the tomb is marked with beautifully decorated fluted pillars that explode into splendid golden floral outbursts and support the white arches that themselves are covered every square inch with floral patterns in yellow, red, blue and orange. The ethereal nature of the tomb is further propagated by large chandeliers that hang along the length of these extended courtyards and green flower-like lanterns. Around the tomb are railings where the faithful tie sacred red and yellow threads while beseeching the saint to grant their wishes; one has to return and remove a thread when their wish is fulfilled; hundreds of such threads, long and short, can be seen dangling from the railings and the lattice screens – they speak of the devotion of the visitors, the faith they have in the Khwaja’s boon-bestowing capabilities that makes them, men and women, old and young, sick and infirm, come from far and wide to pray at the hallowed structure. The lines of the devotees entering and exiting the tomb are kept separated by means of a railing – the effort is commendable since its implementation in a place so small and congested helps maintain the order to a great extent.

Symmetry - The tomb's fluted pillars topped with golden capitals

Many devotees claim that the Auliya comes to them in dreams, or they can see him as an old man sitting on his grave or walking around the courtyard – I don’t know how true it is or how much faith does one require to reach this stage of adoration, on my part I come to the dargah not to beseech the saint for favors or ask him to remember me in his good books and intercede on my behalf to Allah (that, as many orthodox Muslims would point out, is against the spirit of Quran which prohibits praying at a tomb or grave or asking the dead for favors that only Allah has the right to grant) – I just like being here, the spirituality that emanates from this 700 year old location, the history, the myths and the enchanting fables that sweat out of every pore and corner of these antique structures, the heritage and the faith – enough to make a person swoon and fall in love with this place again and again!! Inside the tomb, the grave is surrounded by a huge railing with a wide scented cloth thrown end to end; bewitching colored embroidered “chaddars” (cloth/floral spread embroidered with Quranic inscriptions and imitations of Mecca – offered at dargahs as a mark of respect and spread over the sacrophagus) can be seen peeping out from under the covering cloth; devotees come and shower flower petals on the grave before bowing down and sitting to offer prayers; common tradition is to sit near the head of the grave while praying and then move towards the feet to raise the multiple layers of chaddar and kiss the grave or touch the forehead to it as a mark of utmost respect and unflinching trust and respect followed by a circumambulation of the sarcophagus/tomb. The flower petal-covered green chaddar with layers of colorful chaddar visible underneath is a sight that sweeps one off one’s feet – the brilliant colors, the sweet scent of incense, the line of devotees offering fervent prayers and the look of dedicated sincerity and faith on their faces – all of this has to be seen to be believed.

Faith and prayers (Photo courtesy - Blogs.hindustantimes.com)

The devotees believe that though the saint has abandoned his physical form, his spirit transcends time and space and can be availed to act as an interlocutor between the pilgrim and God himself on account of the saint’s spiritual prowess and proximity to the divine – there is no contradiction between religion and faith here as the orthodoxy often likes to point at – the devotees do not for a second believe that it is the Auliya who grants the favors, that is Allah’s jurisprudence and will, the saint only intercedes on behalf of the devotees for he is close both to the divine and humanity. What is noteworthy about Hazrat Nizamuddin is that he has been universally accepted as the patron saint of Delhi while the same cannot be said with equal confidence about other saints like Hazrat Qutb-ud-din Bakhtiyar Kaki and Hazrat Nasir-ud-din Chiragh-i-Delhi. One can see people coming from near and far to pray at the dargah – buses traversing on the stretch of Mathura road that flanks the basti on one side ferry hundreds of devout Muslims everyday; in fact, the very entry to the narrow street (opposite Humayun’s Tomb complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, refer Pixelated Memories - Humayun's Tomb Complex) that hides behind a juice stall can be identified by the large congregation of Muslims going about their business or aggregating there to make a pilgrimage to the dargah complex.

Dedicated - The Urs celebrations (Photo courtesy - Thedelhiwalla.com)

The way to the dargah is through an ever narrowing labyrinth of alleys that slither their way through the heart of the Nizamuddin basti area (documented records indicate that Ghiyaspur was christened as Nizamuddin immediately following the saint’s demise); eateries, stalls offering cold sherbets and the choicest of lamb cuts, makeshift shops selling clothing accessories, prayer materials and flowers for offering at the graves line the streets, but once one leaves the streets behind and enters the dark and colorful alleys that guide to the dargah complex, the nature of the shops transform – the small hole-in-the-wall structures sell prayer books, mats, batashe (sugar balls), rosary beads, skullcaps and plates of fragrant, pink-red flowers – the entire area is involved in the commercialization and business of traditional religious material in line with all religious structures, big or small, throughout the country. But the true beauty of this bazaar (marketplace) where every stone and every structure seeps history and mysticism 700-years old is courtesy of the beautiful, embroidered chaddars that are on display in virtually every shop and make the bazaar appear like a gorgeous bride veiled – hanging from overhead wires, kept neatly folded on stalls or displayed in entire shops – these chaddars, made of brilliant violet, red, green and yellow cloth are worked upon with eye-blinding sparkling golden threads that adds to the their luster.

Colorful - The dargah bazaar

The colors, the texture of the flowers on the satiny sheets with the rough golden thread grazing through it, the fragrance of incense, the chatter of devotees compounded with their adoration for the saint and the emotions that surge through on being present at such a holy site – it is a unique experience and ambiance altogether, as if time has come to a standstill here and got stuck at some point in medieval history, as if the bitterness, betrayals and battles of the world are nothing but mere diversions. You don’t have to be a believer or even theist to feel the aura of the place, to feel the surge of emotions or go through a oneness with all the souls who are your companions in this journey. The traders at the shops are kind enough to take care of your footwear (which is prohibited within the Dargah complex) for free – but that’s not what I always felt about them – the first time I visited the complex, three years back, as always they began shouting at me too to come to their shop, leave my shoes with them and buy flowers and chaddar – the shouting, the cacophony and their rough treatment scared me and I noticed the same with many other visitors – and you cannot actually escape from them either, if one stops calling you to his shop another would soon take over and begin beckoning you with a fierceness that would make you believe his life hangs on selling you a plate of flowers and with enough authority to make you feel you’ll be beaten if you don’t respond! One of the last traders in line before I finally stepped through the bazaar’s threshold to the complex stopped me and explained that they would keep my shoes safe with them for free if I didn’t want to pay – he was gracious enough too to give me a skullcap for free when I refused to buy one to cover my head since I didn’t know the rules and rituals back then (I still possess that one though I’ve bought numerous since). It is sad that despite their good nature & praiseworthy intentions, the traders often scare away visitors who aren’t intimate with the dargah's rules and practices by their shouts and harshness; several people prefer to carry their footwear in hands throughout their sojourn through the complex rather than deposit it with these shopkeepers. Interestingly, according to government regulations and the zone development directives, commercial activity is only allowed on this particular street connecting the arterial Mathura road to the dargah complex cutting through the basti! The rest of the entire settlement has been classified as slum residential area.

Delicate craftsmanship - wares on sale at the dargaah bazaar

As soon as one enters the Dargah complex through the medieval gold-painted arched gateway, the first structure one notices is the red sandstone tomb of Amir Khusro – the large grave is surrounded by an enclosure of marble lattice screens which is further ensconced within a larger enclosure constructed with red sandstone. All visitors are first ushered into Khusro’s tomb, anybody can enter the outer enclosure, but entry to the inner enclosure is prohibited to women and instead they sit in the passageway between the two, tying threads to the exquisitely-detailed spaces in the lattice, gazing through the spaces into the central tomb chamber and praying for fulfillment of their desires. A large board outside the tomb informs devotees that they are supposed to pray at Khusro’s tomb before going to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Dargah & the same is also announced over microphones again & again. The tomb, despite regularly being painted by the Dargah caretakers, appears a sorry picture from the outside with its blackened lattice screens, fading paintwork and disfigured inscriptions. The interiors are much well-kept with the roof of the portion between the two enclosures adorned with calligraphy going about in a massive circle. For a larger context about Khusro’s life and works along with his service under various Sultans of Delhi and his spiritual relationship with the Auliya, please refer – Pixelated Memories - Amir Khusro & his tomb. The tomb is surrounded by dozens of graves, some with black headstones, others with white, but antique nonetheless. Opposite the entrance to Khusro’s tomb is another raised pavilion with rooms towards the back where the caretakers maintain their offices and a few of the visitors sit down for a chat or a siesta – one of these rooms is the Hujra Qadeem (“ancient room”) which remains locked except for use by the Qawwali singers (more on that later). Constructed in 13th/14th century, the room bears verses in praise of Hazrat Nizamuddin penned by the famous Urdu poet Allama Iqbal.

Splendid - Looking into Khusro's tomb

Such was the generosity of the Auliya that even though piles of wealth came in his monastery every single day through the benediction of wealthy devotees, not a single penny was employed for his own wellbeing but promptly distributed for social service by means of feeding the poor (“langar”/free kitchen, still active) and financially funding the students and the learned. Story goes that once a man, impressed by the quality and quantity of food served to the beggars, faithful and the poor at the monastery’s kitchen, expressed a fervent desire to eat with the saint himself in the hope that the saint’s meal would be an even sumptuous one. The saint’s followers and kin (who call themselves “Nizami” after his name in a tradition initiated by Amir Khusro) tried their best to dissuade the man but to no avail. In the end, when he sat down to eat with the saint, they were both presented with bitter vegetable curry with no bread to accompany and the saint only ate the inedible portions of it, leaving the edible to the man who couldn’t even ingest that! Often times, the Auliya would go hungry and skip even this meager meal to express solidarity with the poor who slept empty-bellied. He prayed that after his death, the affluent patrons continue to feed the poor as a mark of gratitude to him and even today the beggars and the mendicants do not go hungry from his dargah – one can see several rich men buying food for the poor at the many eateries outside the dargah; beggars, both male and female, go about the dargah complex from devotee to devotee asking for alms; mendicants dressed from head to toe in green and claiming to be dervishes sit near the tombs and affect prayers and abolition of malevolent djinns and spirits from a person’s being by chanting some rituals and waving peacock feathers in return for money (they would even pose for cash, but then get struck at the amount being paid, always resentful and asking for more); poorer beggars dressed in tatters also go about carrying small bundles of peacock feathers tied together which they brush over the visitor’s head claiming to have ridden them of evil spirits and desiring alms in return – none of these ever go hungry at the dargah. The descendants of the saint now bear offices and are responsible for the care and upkeep of the dargah – they ensure that the complex is clean, habitable and the structures and tombs are not disfigured by vandals or taken over by encroachments (though the shoddy treatment of the dargah’s baoli has brought them in for a much-deserved reproach) – they can be found either sitting along the tombs where they interact with devotees and also provide slips of donation for larger sums offered by the faithful, some also maintain proper offices near Khusro’s tomb.

Warder of evil spirits - A mendicant at the dargah

Down the stairs leading towards Hazrat Nizamuddin’s tomb, one comes across two “muhajjars” (tomb enclosures open to sky) built out of white marble. The one on the left belongs to Sahibat-ul-Zamani (“Mistress of the age”) Jahanara Begum, daughter of Emperor Shahjahan (ruled AD 1638-58) & elder sister of Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir (ruled AD 1658-1707), who despite being one of the most powerful women of her time was deeply inclined towards Sufism and mysticism and belonged to the Sufi order of Qadiriyya. As the inscription on the tombstone reads, her one wish was to be buried near the Khwaja in a simple grave with grass growing through it as a mark of her humility –

“Let naught but green grass cover my grave; For mortals poor, it’s a grave-cover brave”

Despite its simplicity and ordinariness, the marble tomb with its intricate lattice screens and exquisite artwork adorning its heavy door is a picture of gracefulness and serenity. Of course, like almost every other thing in this country, there is another side of this tomb too – the interiors are very poorly kept and being treated like a storehouse to stack brooms, empty cartons and broken chairs – a fate not suited to a princess who held in her gentle hands the key to India and its fortunes!

Surprisingly modest - A princess rests here

The other tomb, more profusely decorated than the princess’ but relatively unkempt belongs to the Mughal emperor Muhammad Shah “Rangeela” ("colorful") – he ruled from AD 1719-48 and though his reign saw an unprecedented development of dance, art, music and language with Urdu being unquestionably accepted as the prevalent language of Delhi court, it also proved to be a period of instability and chaos – the Emperor spent all his time dressed as a woman, gratifying his sexual passions and presiding over his famed dance and art ateliers at the cost of administration and governance, the result being the strengthening of fringe forces like the Sikhs, Rohillas, Nawabs of Bengal and the Marathas to an extent where they could challenge the might of once-unconquerable Mughal Empire. The Sikh and Maratha raids became frequent and the country was dealt massive blows on accounts of the defeats administered by the Persians led by Nadir Shah (1739) following which the Emperor did take some recourse to diplomacy and statesmanship but the end of the empire could by then be seen by one and all. Nine years later, Afghans under the command of Ahmed Shah Abdali too attacked the empire and though they were defeated, they too caused irrevocable damage to the country. The Emperor's tomb, with its beautiful lattice screens and intricate marble work, is now a resting place for beggars who prefer to sleep in the shade of the screens and is also a thoroughfare connecting the dargah complex to the houses beyond the tomb with kids running to-and-fro and the local residents standing at the doorways and conducting long conversations (as you can guess, I had to wait for long before I could get one uncluttered shot, then too most were sabotaged by the hyperactive kids!). From next to it start the line of small houses where live the Qawwals, caretakers and other people associated with the dargah complex – many of these houses have name boards hung over them, almost all are in dire condition with a desperate and urgent need for upkeep and decongesting. I won’t be writing a separate post about the Emperor’s tomb since its architecture follows that of Begum Jahanara’s tomb.

Profusely ornamented but unkempt - Marble entrance of Muhammad Shah's tomb

There is a huge courtyard towards the back of the Auliya’s tomb where people can be seen sitting, sleeping or simply pacing around immersed in their own thoughts under the colorful awning that protects from the scorching sun. Every time that I visited the dargah complex, be it summers or winters, afternoon or late evening, there hasn’t been a time I didn’t find the pilgrims covering almost every square inch of the space available, such is the pull of the Auliya’s charm, such is his reputation. Many of the faithful can be seen sitting next to the tomb with their fingers entwined in the lattice screens and their heads bowed in prayer and reverence. The shops lining the end of the courtyard are similar to the ones in the alleys leading to the dargah except there are no tea sellers, no whiffs of biryanis or kebabs, but it looks like a perpetual fair nonetheless with the vibrance of the chaddars competing with the fragrance of incense to pull the devotee’s attention. A narrow lane in the corner opposite the mosque leads, via recently conserved and whitewashed passageways, to the dargah’s notable baoli (christened “Chashma dilkhusha” or the “heart-uplifting spring”) on one side, and on the other through a realm of hostile glances and non-cooperative residents to the bejeweled tomb of Atgah Khan, trusted lieutenant and foster father to Emperor Akbar (reigned AD 1556-1605).

In the shade of the saint - Towards the other side of the tomb

As mentioned earlier, entry to the women is prohibited in the tombs of the saint and Amir Khusro as well as in the Jamaat Khana mosque, a tradition that I found highly ignorant, antiquated and condemnable. Yes, it is a part of Islamic tradition to not allow women enter places of burial but Hindus too didn’t let women attend funerals and at one time even subjected them to the loathsome practice of “Sati”, but shouldn’t a religion keep pace with modern times and beliefs? After all, religion is meant to provide relief and succor in times of hardship and poverty and not distinguish between people on the basis of their faith, gender, social or economic status. As far as I am aware, the Auliya did not discriminate, he was known for interacting with all his followers – men, women, children, even those who didn’t profess to Islam; neither did Amir Khusro who would amuse and entertain the womenfolk with his mesmerizing poetry and witty riddles – then why should we impose this entry ban on their final resting places? The sorry part is that at the time of penning this post, a female friend told me she hates the dargah because of the way people stare at her and it is a humiliating experience altogether even though nobody leers or leches (and she's one of those girls who has spent all her life in Delhi and is no stranger to unwelcome advances and embarrassing situations - stares are, she says, everyday every moment happenings - something Indian females learn to ignore for lack of an alternative)


Hazrat Nizamuddin’s burial at Ghiyaspur supposedly purified the whole area, bringing the residents and those buried here close to God; it was a transformation unlike any other, converting the region into the favored burial ground of the high and mighty – among the powerful who decided to be buried here where Khan-i-Jahan Malik Maqbul Telengani (prime minister to Emperor Feroz Tughlaq), Azam-i-Humayun Isa Khan (warlord in Emperor Sher Shah’s cabinet), Bi Halima (courtesan-courtier in Emperor Babur’s court) among others. But it was in the 16th century that the area was transformed once and for all – the Mughal Emperor Humayun was buried in a massive regal funerary complex that paved the way for the commissioning and evolution of one of the country’s largest funerary zones – the entire area has since come to hold an assortment of architectural and historical gems in the form of artistically and architecturally rich and magnificent tombs and mosques such as those of Atgah Khan (General in Emperor Akbar’s army and also his foster-father), Khan-i-Khanan Abdul Rahim (General in Emperor Akbar’s army and also his foster-son), Jahanara Begum, Mirza Aziz Kokaltash (General in Emperor Akbar’s army and also his foster-brother), Muhammad Shah “Rangeela”, Mirza Jahangir (younger brother of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah “Zafar” II) – in fact, Humayun’s Tomb alone houses over 150+ graves belonging to his wives, brothers, sons and descendants, among them the most well-known being Dara Shukoh (eldest son of Emperor Shahjahan, defeated and executed by his own brother Aurangzeb Alamgir in the brutal war of succession).

Bejewelled - Atgah Khan's tomb

Little known is the fact that Mirza Ghalib, one of the most famous poets that India ever produced and a fervent lover of Delhi and its culture, also decided to be buried close to the Auliya whom he so revered; his grave (refer Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb) forms a corner of the larger area leading to the dargah that begins with the narrow alleys suffused with the whiff of meat, fragrance of incense, bright colors of the chaddars and flowers and the delectable flavors of “roohafza” (an Indian concotion prepared with sugar syrup, herbs and fruit and vegetable extracts ) topped with lemon juice. Humayun’s tomb complex across the road, one of the most well-preserved monuments in the country, is set in a huge, landscaped garden setting which represents a unique contrast to the congested, cluttered basti that engulfs the dargah – the former, with its timeless beauty, striking architecture and inspiring grandness, attracts both Indian and foreign tourists who may or may not know about Humayun and his reign; the latter has been rebuilt time and again by devotees and visited by people of all religions & customs with a deep respect for the Auliya in their hearts. In short, while Humayun’s tomb complex has been sanitized, maintained in its ethereal beauty to attract tourists and present a pretty face dedicated to conservation of heritage and monuments, the dargah complex is a living-breathing space made distinguished by the crowds milling about it and the devotees whose faith defy explanations.

Try the oily buffalo nihari with traditional Muslim bread ("roti/naan") at one of the numerous eateries near the dargah

Close by also stands the Urs Mahal, an open courtyard flanked on one side by a colonnaded stage for the qawwali singers and artists to perform at and on the other by "Chausanth Khamba" (literally “64 pillars”, the tomb of Mirza Kokaltash, undergoing repairs and conservation work for the past couple of years under care of Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC), more on that later). Led to by a medieval-looking double-storied gateway, the historical structure was built in 1962 by Hazrat Pir Zamin Nizami Syed Bukhari, Sajjadanashin (caretaker) of the dargah complex with financial assistance from Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir. The vast courtyard of the structure hosts all events related to the life of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Hazrat Khusro, most importantly their Urs (death day) celebrations – death is considered to be an auspicious occasion in Sufism, they prefer to refer to it as a wedding where the saint leaves behind his physical form to become one with the divine. Hence, the death anniversaries of Hazrat Nizamuddin and Hazrat Khusro are celebrated by decorating the entire dargah complex with beautiful carpets and ornamenting the walls and pillars with fairy-lights and bouquets of roses and marigolds. Qawwali sessions are organized through the night and often attended by the leading dignitaries of the city, at times including the President and Prime Minister of the country too. The Urs mahal has been recently restored by the AKTC – the colonnaded stage has been whitewashed and repaired; a stone floor with proper symmetric designs unlike the one that pre-existed has been added in the courtyard; the rectangular well and the platform on which rest couple of graves has been restored; sadly though, even the diligence of AKTC workers and officials cannot overcome the apathy that exists in this city towards its heritage and monuments – one needs only to climb up the narrow staircase leading to the roof of the gateway to find heaps of rubble, broken furniture and cardboard boxes scattered around the passageways comprising the middle-level, making it look more like a dark, dank miniature landfill than a recently worked-upon monument. One can view the principal street of the basti from the roof – the numerous shops and Muslim institutions, small buildings fitted with loudspeakers, pedestrians and civilians on cycles motorbikes going to and fro for their business, the hawkers and their stalls.

Urs Mahal

As part of their Nizamuddin basti renewal plan which is a segment of the larger Nizamuddin Dargah – Humayun’s Tomb Complex – Sunder Nursery Complex restoration and conservation project, the AKTC has adopted the entire basti (settlement) area which has for seven centuries become the final resting place for Emperors, aristocrats and writers vying to be buried close to the Qutb-i-Islam (“pillar of Islam”) in the hope for a shortcut to heaven and has in the process become a mosaic of architectural and artistic sensibilities made more profuse through a fusion with traditional Hindu architecture with a sprinkling of Baghdadi and Central Asian influences for company. The downside of the fiercely Muslim character of the settlement is that while it once housed only the Peerzadas (descendants of the saint through his sister’s lineage) and those associated with the Dargah, it became a magnet for displaced and refugee Muslims after the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh partition of 1947 and other communal tensions in the last three decades which has led to overpopulation and congestion of the basti space through a population overflow and overstacking of residential quarters, often overtaking monuments and converting living spaces like the dargah itself into densely packed residential holes. Even today, the basti residents, though adhering to an omnipresent quality of religious syncretism, hospitality and deep devotion to the Auliya, prefer to remain in their self-contained sustenance zone, resisting invasion from community trusts, conservation agencies or govt. As with any overpopulated, marginalized ghetto, the first calamity besides the architectural heritage was the education and confidence of the residents.

Another click, taken from the corner alley leading to the baoli

This is where AKTC has defined its role as a socio-economic agency and not just a cultural-architectural conservation agent – through a public-private partnership model, AKTC has embarked on a slew of measures aimed at undoing the dismal conditions of the basti – including conservation and restoration of the monuments involved, introducing public facilities like schools, toilets and public lights, educational measures such as construction and maintenance of schools, recruitment of teachers, imparting necessary skills to the basti’s youngsters with respect to traditional art forms like stone cutting, embroidery and marble inlay work as well as training as learned guides, emphasis on healthcare, career development and vocational training among others. AKTC also financed the relocation of 18 families who had built their houses on the terrace adjoining the dargah baoli and were putting undue infrastructural pressure on the baoli structure. The trust work is also in part funded by Sir Dorabji Tata Trust, Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Ford Foundation, US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, World Monuments Fund and the German Embassy and involves the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), Central Public Works Department (CPWD) and Delhi Development Authority (DDA) in the conservation-restoration work as well the provision of civic and educational facilities in the basti area. Among the monuments that have benefitted from the trust’s impeccable conservation-restoration work are Chausanth Khambha, Ghalib’s Tomb, Urs Mahal and Nizamuddin baoli (apart from the more famous cousins within Humayun’s tomb complex and near the railway station). Infrastructure development has been brought to the forefront, especially since the DDA through its zonal plan notifies the entire area as a slum despite there being a significant number of rich residents and has therefore never introduced proper building measures and civic facilities! The trust also provides livelihood to scores of residents besides ringing in funds in the form of regular events such as the Qawwali sessions of Jashn-e-Khusrau (“celebration of Khusro”) and book fairs in partnership with the National Book Trust (NBT). I have to confess that am a big votary for the trust's conservation-development work and have been impressed with the quality of their efforts since I began documenting Delhi's built heritage.

Striking - The mosque's interiors

Khusro, the legendary poet-writer par excellence is credited with the invention of Qawwali, the soulful and transcendental music associated with Sufis. Though Qawwali has seen popular acceptance in modern times with it being featured in popular Indian and Pakistani flicks as well as singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Sabri brothers bringing out record-breaking albums, the devotional musical tradition remains the heritage and pride of Sufi dargahs throughout the subcontinent. Khusro trained several talented singers himself, referring to them as “Qawwal bacche” (Qawwal children), and his legacy continues in the form of the Qawwals (Qawwali-performers) of today who trace direct descent from the original singers. The two competing groups of Qawwals are led by the famed singers Chand Nizami (who featured in the popular and well-acclaimed Bollywood movie “Rockstar” (2011)) and Shadab Nizami – one can feel the passionate adoration for the Khwaja and the fierce spirit of competition in their voice when they begin to render Khusro’s words to voice to the beats of tabla and harmonium. These trance-inducing qawwalis are organized every Thursday evening at Nizamuddin dargah as a form of obeisance to the great saint conducted in the courtyard between the two muhajjars and the saint’s tomb; additionally major Qawwali events are also scheduled for several days during important celebrations like Urs, Ghusal sharif (birth celebrations) and Basant Panchmi (celebration of arrival of spring). Am yet to witness a Qawwali “mehfil” (evening/get-together) at the Dargah but hopefully will soon do and add an individual post bearing more details and photographs related to this form of spiritual music. Khusro is also credited with the invention of the Sufi dance form where an ecstatic dancer raises his arms towards the sky (symbolizing a reaching out towards God) while whirling on his toes (symbolizing pushing the earth/worldly possessions away) – though dance and music are prohibited in orthodox Islam, Hazrat Nizamuddin and some Sufi saints preferred this dance form so as not to imprison and inhibit the intrinsic human emotions to dance and express joy among their followers.

Thoughtful - One of the merchants at the dargaah bazaar

Apart from the monuments, structures, spirituality and tradition that are a significant pull for the dargah complex, the basti around also specializes in traditional Mughlai food including mutton, chicken and buffalo meat curries, biryanis and kebabs.The several small roadside eateries that clog every bit of street space from the very entry at the Mathura Road side till the bazaar dealing exclusively with offerings for the dargah complex are a favorite – I’ll suggest the traditional khameeri roti (fermented Indian bread) with beef or mutton curry with a glass of sweet tea or lemony roohafza to wash it down.

Sweet, lemony roohafza - The perfect response to a scorching summer day

It's difficult for me to end this post since there is so much to describe and so many more photographs to share, I already let this article become a monstrosity – but what can I do, the area comes as a surprise with thousands of things to see, taste and smell that it offers along with the ethereal experience of being at a historic place that has been one of the foremost centers of spirituality and Sufi tradition for the 700 years that it has been in existence, a famed heritage zone boasting of scores of splendid tombs and hundreds of graves belonging to royalty, the who’s-who of Delhi and men and women of words and letters, but more importantly a place of unbelievable relief, of learning and an unbelievable escape from everyday conundrums and grief. Such is the character of Hazrat Nizamuddin, of this place that even an atheist like me finds sudden calmness, more of a soothing sensation that tingles the mind and body combined with an inexplicable elation that liberates the soul. If you are in Delhi and you haven’t been to the dargah, you have definitely missed out on an important part of Delhi’s history and an enthralling and intoxicating component of the city’s charm. To me it is and will remain a place of magic, of fables and legends, of megalomaniac sultans, powerful saints and mythical creatures, a place close to my heart where I can always land up without thought or planning, where I experience a oneness with the Khwaja, myself and my beloved Delhi!

Through the arches - Coming here is like stepping into medieval era

Open : All days, sunrise - sunset. Also open throughout night on celebrations such as Urs, Basant Panchami and Ghusal Sharif
Nearest Metro Station: JLN Stadium
Nearest Railway Station: Hazrat Nizamuddin
Nearest Bus stop: Nizamuddin
How to reach: Take an auto from the metro/train station to the dargah. The bus stop on the arterial Mathura road is located close to the basti entry. Walk from the entrance (guessable by the number of Muslims in skullcaps/burqhas weaving their way in/out), go past the juice seller, perfume shops and eateries till the dargah bazaar. The dargah is few meters further in.
If already at Humayun’s Tomb complex, walk from the entrance at Humayun’s towards Sabz Burj (refer Pixelated Memories - Sabz Burj for identification), the basti entrance is across the road, couple of hundred meters to the left.
Entrance fee: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil. However it’s better to take permission for the same from the caretakers/peerzadas, the office is right next to Amir Khusro’s Tomb.
Time required for sightseeing: 2 hrs
Advise: Since it is a place of worship, it is advisable to be dressed modestly – sleeveless tops and shorts are a big no-no. Head has to be covered at all times within the dargah complex to show reverence to the saint – Ladies should bring dupattas/scarves with them; guys can purchase skullcaps from the bazaar or bring caps of their own.
Footwear is not allowed within the complex - one can leave it with the numerous shopkeepers on the way leading to the dargah or keep it in backpack if carrying one.
Parking is not available around the dargah and it's better to leave vehicles at the parking of Humayun's Tomb.

Earlier posts about the structures located within the dargah complex - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Amir Khusro's Tomb
  2. Pixelated Memories - Atgah Khan's Tomb
  3. Pixelated Memories - Baoli, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  4. Pixelated Memories - Jahanara Begum's Tomb
About Hazrat Nizamuddin's monastery - Pixelated Memories - Chilla-Khanqah Nizamuddin

Other tombs located close to the dargah - 
If it interests you - Tughlqabad fortress, which brought its preceptor, Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq into a bitter feud with the saint - Pixelated Memories - Tughlaqabad - Adilabad - Nai-ka-Kot Fortress Complex

Suggested Reading - 
  1. Aalamekhusrau.com - News articles about Amir Khusrau
  2. Abdaal.wordpress.com - Of Sufism
  3. Archive.today - Article "Walking the Mystic Alleys" by Yousuf Saeed
  4. Bricolagemagazine.com - "Notes from Nizamuddin Dargah" by Vashuda Wadhera
  5. Civilsocietyonline.com - Going wow in Nizamuddin
  6. Dargahsharif.com - Aulia-e-Hind Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin R.A.
  7. Flickr.com/PSMNizami - Urs Mahal, Hazrat Nizamuddin
  8. Hopeprojectindia.org - The Food of Love
  9. Indianexpress.com - Article "ASI clears encroachments around Nizamuddin Dargah" (dated June 02, 2010)
  10. Indianexpress.com - Article "Nizamuddin Baoli gets a facelift" (dated Apr 07, 2011) by Sweta Dutta
  11. Indiatoday.intoday.in - Article "The nights of the Sufis" (dated Oct 11, 2004) by Kishore Singh
  12. Livemint.com - Article "The rest is music" (dated Apr 22, 2011) by Mayank Austen Soofi
  13. Nizamuddinrenewal.org - Chaunsath Khamba
  14. Outlookindia.com - Article "Play With The Khwaja" (dated Apr 05, 2010) by Anjali Puri
  15. Razarumi.com - The invisibility of the Mughal princesses
  16. Sunday-guardian.com - Article "Hazrat Nizamuddin believed in truth of religions" (dated June 08, 2013) by Arif Khan
  17. Tehelka.com - Article "The Mughal Maestro" (dated Dec 15, 2012) by Revati Laul
  18. Thedelhiwalla.com - City Faith – Ghusal Sharif, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah
  19. Thedelhiwalla.com - Photo Essay – Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Birthday Celebrations
  20. Thedelhiwalla.com - Muhammad Shah Rangila
  21. Thefridaytimes.com - Article "A new Nizamuddin" by Rakhshanda Jalil
  22. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "An incredible journey: Basti to heritage guide" (dated March 14, 2010) by Richi Verma
  23. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Illegal floor over tomb in Nizamuddin razed" (dated Dec 13, 2013)
  24. Visual Pilgrim - The Images of Nizamuddin Shrine: Changing narratives of heritage and devotion


  1. AnonymousJuly 20, 2013

    What is the nearest metro station to Ghalib's tomb?

  2. Hi Sahil,

    A sweeping post of Khwaja Saheb and Nizamuddin Basti - a place we all love. Reading a single post about a place has its own charm.

    As always, I learn a lot of new things from your posts. Last few photos are not opening up. Please resolve. Though you have included photos of the life around the dargah, do include photos of Kali Masjid, Telangani Tomb (a little is visible), Kotla walls, Lal Mahal, Barakhamba so that there is completion to the post.

    As always enjoyed reading and the wait to meeting up with you continues!


  3. Kavya SaxenaApril 01, 2015

    This place is forever etched in heart! I did my first walk here!