October 16, 2014

Dargah Shah-e-Mardan Complex, Delhi

“Just as I am the lord and guardian of all the Muslims and I have full authority on them, so is Ali the lord and guardian of every one.”
– Prophet Muhammad at Ghadeer-e-Khum 

Continuing with the thread of heritage sites in the Shia majority Aliganj–Karbala area, after the mausoleums of the renowned statesman-governor Mirza Muqim Safdarjung and the forgotten general Mirza Najaf Khan Safvi, we come to the reason for their existence in this specific area within Delhi’s territories – the presence of the largely unknown and uncared for Shia shrine Dargah Shah-e-Mardan, also otherwise known as Qadam Mubarak (“Exalted footprint”) – dedicated to Hazrat Ali ibn Abu Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and first caliph of the adherents of Shia faith (fourth for the Sunnis), the shrine commemorates his memory by housing an imprint of his foot on a small piece of stone and is not a "dargah" (“tomb of a holy man”) per se. The shrine is unfamiliar to the citizens of the city and it isn’t hard to fathom for the reasons – the relatively fewer numbers of the Shia community and their avoidance of public display of their faith to avoid clashes with the majority Sunni Muslim community, also the general obscurity in which most of the later Mughal heritage structures find themselves to be (given the antiquity of several shrines in the city and the age of some monuments, the shrine is really a newborn!) – such is the obscurity of the dargah complex that the guidebook “Safdarjung’s tomb and its surroundings” issued by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) in collaboration with Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) confuses it with another Qadam Sharif located in the Paharganj locality near New Delhi railway station and even depicts a line drawing of the latter’s massive gateway! I have already discussed the Shia-Sunni conflict in detail here – Pixelated Memories - Safdarjung's Tomb complex and in this article we shall try and throw some light on the life and history of Hazrat Ali and his wife Bibi Fatima.

Dargah Shah-e-Mardan - Bibi ka Rauza (right) and Qadam Mubarak (left). The associated building in left background is a "Majlis Khana" (congregation hall).

In AD 610, when Prophet Muhammad first received divine wisdom and tried to explain to his family and social contacts the message of God and his theory of creation and existence, Hazrat Ali, a young boy ten years of age then, was the first person after Hazrat Muhammad’s wife to believe in the religious uttering and therefore the first convert to Islam outside the Prophet’s immediate family – however, the Prophet’s beliefs and his interpretation of the divine encounters gained him a number of enemies and ill-wishers amongst the surrounding Jewish, polytheistic and idolater population and religious scholars whom he opposed besides territorially dominant and financially affluent regal and military authorities belonging to Roman Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires who had begun to feel threatened by the new religion and its increasing clout, therefore prompting Abu Talib, Hazrat Ali’s father, who was the guardian of the Prophet, to ensure that the latter’s life was safeguarded against all threats, even while he slept. Fearing assassination attempts, Abu Talib ordered his own sons to sleep in the Prophet’s place and sacrifice their lives to save him from imminent danger – Hazrat Ali famously rose to the occasion and never once relented from risking his own life and well-being in favor of the Prophet, especially when the latter fled with his family from Mecca to Medina in the face of grave opposition and severely violent repercussions to his beliefs. Hazrat Ali too soon followed him to Medina with several other faithful and the Prophet displayed his love and gratitude by marrying the beautiful and religious Fatima Zahra, his favorite daughter from his first wife Khadija, to the charismatic Hazrat Ali and also bestowing upon him the political and military command of the increasing number of devotees and converts to Islam. Following this delegation of authority, Hazrat Ali led a number of skirmishes and caravan raids and also participated with distinction in numerous battles as the commander and standard-bearer of Islamic forces to establish territorial domination of the nascent Muslim community; he was regarded as an extremely pious, humbly austere and benevolent individual rigorously observing religious duties, besides being a favorite and a loyal devotee of the Prophet; in the battlefield he was known for his unwavering valor, insurmountable steadfastness and a deep dedication towards the safety and service of the Prophet; off the battlefield, he was considered throughout his life an unparalleled and meritorious authority on Islamic jurisprudence, religious legislation and Quranic interpretation.

Spic - Shah-e-Mardan shrine interiors

The Prophet himself designated Hazrat Ali with the titles “Asadullah” (“Lion of Allah”) and “Nafs-e-Rasul” (“The Prophet’s own self”) and ordained him as a scribe penning the holy text of Quran which had been revealed by divine intervention in the previous two decades – yet such was the humility of Hazrat Ali that he did not shy away from tasks others would have considered unworthy – he nourished his family by working as a water-carrier tending the gardens of the rich Jews living in the vicinity and would often be found joyously taking up chores like repairing the Prophet’s slippers. Following the Prophet's demise, Muslims became galvanized in two factions, the former referred to as “Shi’a Ali” (Shias or “Proponents of Ali”) claimed that Hazrat Ali possessed the right to lead the Muslim community and be regarded as the first caliph of Islam (“Khalifa” – supreme political, religious and military authority) since he was the Prophet’s immediate family and his sons were the descendants of the Prophet; the other faction, known as “Sunni”, professed to faith in the capabilities of Abu Bakr, the father of the Prophet’s other wife Aisha. Abu Bakr was historically declared the first caliph and Hazrat Ali continued to be a counsellor to him, but  the divisions had begun to reflect bitterly – Hazrat Ali’s venerable wife Fatima fervently and fiercely guarded her husband against the enemies and some Shias hold that her and her unborn child’s premature death in AD 632 was a result of being violently struck by Umar, one of Abu Bakr’s supporters and later caliphs, when the latter tried to force entry into her house to physically persuade Hazrat Ali to promise allegiance to Abu Bakr, a charge rejected by Sunnis and some Shia sub-sects; the hostilities between the two groups took a fierce turn following the murder of the third caliph Uthman ibn Affan and subsequent exaltation of Hazrat Ali to caliphate (deservingly and through vigorous support, though despite his wish to remain a mere counselor), leading to the first Muslim civil war (“Fitna”) and extremely violent repercussions for Shias that continue to this date. Shias do not believe in the authority of the three caliphs before Hazrat Ali and assert that the caliphate only begins with him.

Bibi ka Rauza sanctum - The chakki of the noble lady and other objects of reverence

Faced with vociferous opposition from numerous channels, Hazrat Ali was forced to participate in a number of battles, especially against the ferociously vicious and terrorist Kharijite sect, where he demonstrated his combat and administration abilities through his double-tipped sword “Zulfiqar” – however, barely three years later, while prostrating during prayers at the Masjid al-Azam (Kufa, Iraq) he was attacked and hit on the head with a poisoned sword by a Kharijite assassin and died shortly afterwards. The year was AD 661 and he was sixty years of age then. Fearing desecration of his grave, he wished, like Bibi Fatima before him, to be buried secretly and the actual location of his burial is still debated – he was either buried at Masjid-i-Ali (“Mosque of Ali”) in the city of Najaf (Iraq) or at Rawze-i-Sharif (“Holy Blue Mosque”) in the Afghan city of “Mazar-i-Sharif” (“Venerable mausoleum”) – both the sites are considered exceedingly holy, though the former has the confidence of later caliphs and a majority of Muslim population as the actual site of the grave.

His death concentrated the political and religious powers of the caliphate in the exceedingly beneficent reign of his eldest son Hazrat Hasan, considered by Shias to be the second caliph, with all the provincial governors of the caliphate pledging allegiance to him, except Muawiyah I (a relative of Prophet Muhammad and the cousin brother of murdered caliph Uthman Affan), renegade governor of a vast territory extending from Levant to Egypt and the commander of the largest military force in the Muslim empire, who had also (with initial support from Bibi Aisha) vehemently opposed Hazrat Ali and cheated him on the pretext of preventing bloodshed of pious Muslims into stepping down from the caliphate. Nefariously, Muawiyah bought off all of Hazrat Hasan’s generals through bribes, promises and threats and forced the latter, precariously seated as he was, to negotiate and yield the caliphate to him – the manipulative Muawiyah, who once staunchly opposed Hazrat Muhammad, the foremost of Muslims, and chased him from his native land, came to become the caliph, the most influential authority over all Muslims! However soon, Muawiyah’s Ummayad caliphate, though it expanded the frontiers of Muslim territorial domination to hitherto undreamt of lands, by virtue of its divisive governance, repressive administration, vindictive retribution and biased nepotism began to irk even those who had supported him against Hazrat Ali and his descendants.

Dargah Shah-e-Mardan sanctum - The hexagonal basin houses the Qadam Sharif

Compared to the repressive later caliphs, the freedom and generosity afforded by Hazrat Ali’s reign came to be seen as a golden age and Hazrat Ali was posthumously garlanded with the titles “Commander of the Faithful” and “King amongst Men” (“Shah-e-Mardan”). Muawiyah had Hazrat Hasan poisoned; the latter’s younger brother Hazrat Hussain, who had risen in revolt against Muawiyah’s repulsive policies including persecution of the Prophet’s relatives, challenged him in the Battle of Karbala (Iraq) but was killed along with several of his relatives and all of Hazrat Ali’s sons (AD 680). The Ummayad caliphate instituted the practice of abusing Hazrat Ali in their daily prayers though it was later abolished from most parts of the Muslim empire; the tenth day of Muharram is considered a day of mourning by both Shias and Sunnis since the Prophet’s grandsons were murdered on this day – the Shias refer to this day as “Ashura” and publically remember and mourn the martyrdom by taking out processions and indulging in self-flagellation and mutilations (practices that Sunni Muslims consider, as has been pointed to me by them several times during discussions, as against the spirit of Islam); persecution of Shias still continues in most Muslim societies, including to an extent in India too, and most Shias practice “taqiyah” (hiding one’s religious views against aggressors to ensure personal safety).

Hazrat Muhammad’s lineage survives through the descendants of Bibi Fatima who survived the massacre of Karbala – these descendants are referred to as “Saiyyids” (“Lord”), a distinguished religious honorific they suffix in their names – the most notable of them in Delhi’s history being the legendary Sufi saints Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Saiyyid Kaki and Hazrat Nizamuddin Muhammad Saiyyid Auliya (see links at the end). Hazrat Ali is immortalized in Sufi traditions which mourn him as a true gentleman unmatched in knowledge and devotion and an able administrator who was generous in forgiving his fallen enemies.

Inside the small shrine opposite the dargah

The Dargah Shah-e-Mardan complex, as mentioned before, is not a tomb but a memorial commemorating the existence and sanctity of Hazrat Ali and the martyrdom of his family – the complex, much like the other dargah complexes in the city, consists of several individual structures built at different times in the dargah’s not so distant history – the oldest structure is the central shrine built in AD 1724 by Empress Qudsia Begum, wife of Emperor Mohammad Shah “Rangila” (ruled AD 1719-48), who besides being a major patron of architecture, especially mosques and garden complexes, was one of the most prominent Shias in Delhi’s history and also a contemporary of the other two Shia warlords buried nearby – Nawab Mirza Safdarjung and Mirza Najaf Khan (refer Pixelated Memories - Najaf Khan and his tomb and Pixelated Memories - Safdarjung's Tomb complex). Entitled “Sahibat-al-Zamani” (“Mistress of her age”), Qudsia Begum had risen from being a mere dancer to become the Empress of India and was considered a genuinely generous and kindhearted lady even by her detractors. It was during her influential reign as the Empress and later during her son Ahmed Shah’s reign (AD 1748-54) that Shias began to gain considerable power in the royal court and military circles, and events such as Muharram became lavishly sponsored ceremonies. It is believed that she had the Dargah Shah-e-Mardan complex built to accommodate the sacred relics given to her by Shia religious dignitaries in the court of her husband. However recent research estimates the existence of the dargah complex as far back as AD 1543-44 (Suri Dynasty), thereby conferring on it the status of the oldest Shia shrine in the city – it is hard to explain how it came to be associated with Begum Qudsia Mahal if it was built around two hundred years before her time, in all probability, she must have been responsible for commissioning exorbitant reconstruction or ornamentation of the complex and the structures within, besides of course building the white mosque that still bears her name (more on that later). 

The dargah complex is reached to after traversing a large grass-covered tract of land and via a massive double-storied gateway (“Naqqar Khana”). Topped by a black miniature onion dome, the gateway, commissioned by Sadiq Ali Khan in AD 1821, was where the royal musicians would sit and announce the arrival of dignitaries and ambassadors.

"Naqqar Khana" - The entrance gateway

The central shrine consists of two adjacent identical chambers – the first, open to men only, is dedicated to Hazrat Ali and the object of veneration here is the foot impression (“Qadam Mubarak”) of the revered Ali depressed on a piece of stone that, on account of being cracked and broken, doesn’t really appear like a footprint; the second, where entry is only permitted to women, is referred to as “Bibi ka Rauza” since it is dedicated to Bibi Fatima Zahra and the object of reverence displayed here is her “chakki” (flat circular flour grinder) wrapped in a crimson red cloth embroidered with inscriptions from Quran – both the Qadam Mubarak and the chakki are placed in small hexagonal basins built of and in the same black marble that is used in the construction of the two sanctums so that the basins can be filled with sweetened milk whenever a devotee’s wishes come fulfilled for distribution among the faithful present. The chambers are large, covered with red and green carpets throughout and boasting of extremely exquisite plasterwork along the walls and the roof; the sanctum are composed of black marble as mentioned and lined with numerous gilded and intricately sculpted replicas and artworks of Hazrat Ali’s mausoleum (Masjid-i-Ali, Najaf, Iraq) and Hazrat Hussain's mausoleum (Imam Hussain Masjid, Karbala, Iraq) and framed photographs and fragments of paper/cloth imprinted with verses and calligraphy. Though male entry is prohibited to Bibi ka Rauza, the humble and very well-spoken caretakers allowed me to go within and photograph, they even filled me with basic details about the complex and explained the poor condition of the soot-covered graves and simplistic structures to the lack of funds from religious donors within the community and the ignorance and uncaring attitude of the government – surprisingly and admirably though, despite the glaring absence of visitors and the shocking silence the complex affords, the dargah is amongst the most well-kept and clean religious shrines I have ever been to, there wasn’t a corner that appeared old or unkempt, nor were there any signs of littering or incineration of daily wastes. The interiors of Bibi ka Rauza are ornamented with painted stucco depicting the black stone of Kabba (Mecca), the shrines of Hazrat Ali and his sons and a dense foliage with numerous flowers each inscribed with a single word (perhaps the names of Allah or the titles of Hazrat Ali – I cannot read Arabic), however no artwork can match the single line of plasterwork consisting of floral and geometrical patterns that runs along the intersection of the roof and walls in the two adjacent shrines.

Strikingly exquisite!  - Stucco artwork ornamenting the walls and roof of the double shrine

The two shrines, though part of a larger enclosure, are separated from each other by means of a white marble partition that runs through the center. A white "tazia" (miniature mausoleum used in ritualistic mournful funerary processions and burial) is placed close to the sanctum of Hazrat Ali’s shrine; stacked in the opposite corner are numerous standards too – these tall panels of black cloth are hoisted on tall poles and embroidered with calligraphy and pictorial representations of Karbala, Hazrat Hussain’s mausoleum and his horse, are used on the day of Ashura when Hazrat Hussain’s martyrdom is mourned and processions taken throughout the city – the processions from all the neighborhood areas gather at Dargah Shah-e-Mardan and from here proceed to the nearby Shia graveyard (“Karbala”) where the tazias are buried in remembrance of Hazrat Hussain (more on the graveyard later). Following independence and partition of the country into India and Pakistan and the subsequent massive migration of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs to either of the country, the Qadam Mubarak and Bibi Fatima’s Chakki were removed for a short period from the dargah to another Shia shrine known as Panja Sahib near Kashmere Gate for safekeeping since the incoming deluge of Punjabi Hindu refugees had taken up residence near and around the dargah complex and its associated graveyard and heavily damaged the subsidiary structures and shrines. A trust by the name of Anjuman-e-Haideri was instituted in the immediate aftermath of the partition for the maintenance and protection of the Dargah complex and the associated graveyard and mausoleums besides conduction of the annual Ashura processions. In its initial years, the trust functioned under the leadership of the architect-engineer Nawab Zain Yar Jung of Hyderabad who was also responsible for the reconstruction of Mirza Ghalib’s tomb near Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, refer Pixelated Memories - Ghalib's Tomb.

Adjacent to the central shrine is a large congregation chamber (“Majlis Khana”) commissioned in AD 1808 by Ishrat Ali Khan – externally decorated with stained glass windows above the wooden doorways and gold-painted fluted pillars with floral capitals and bases, the chamber’s real magnificence is in the interiors where dark red and green carpets cover every inch of the floor and the dark chamber is made more handsome by rays of light streaming through the stained glass windows and lightning up the rows of gold and pale-yellow pillars; numerous soft bolsters grace the carpets while huge frames inset with sheets of Arabic calligraphy rest inclined along the walls. The Majlis Khana, in the capacity of “Ashurkhana” (or “Imambargah”), plays host to the faithful who gather on the days of Ashura and Arba’ean (formal mourning observed forty days after Ashura) and sermons are preached to seated devotees from the center of the chamber where microphones have been installed alternating with the bolsters.

Affably luxurious - Majlis Khana interiors

Opposite the central shrine is another small shrine, a white-painted rectangular chamber topped by two miniature onion domes and a single slender minaret (each covered with vibrant blue tiles); along its bottom, this shrine boasts of a molding of a row each of white and black marble and a layer of arches painted light green above it, but the attention is immediately drawn to the posters that adorn the exterior walls and mention the Congress leader Ahmed Patel in harshest terms, accusing him of destroying graves and structures within and around the Karbala graveyard and illegally occupying Shia religious land – similar posters and newspaper clippings are affixed in bulletin boards nailed on the walls of the Majlis Khana. The interiors of the small shrine are very similar to those of the dargah – on the walls are hung several of the black standards adorned in golden embroidery with inscriptions and representations of Hazrat Hussain’s battle horse, the floor is draped in a large and elaborate red carpet while a brass replica of Hazrat Hussain’s tomb is placed on a pedestal in a corner – devotees, beseeching the Prophet's family for fulfillment of their wishes, have placed steel locks on the thin pillars of the mausoleum’s replica – traditionally, a pilgrim has to return and remove the lock/colored threads upon the occasion of the fulfillment of their desires and thank God by feeding the poor or leaving behind donations for the shrine (in this case, filling the hexagonal basin housing the footprint with milk and distributing it among the faithful). A wide courtyard laid with white marble separates the dargah and the small shrine, one side of the courtyard is flanked with couple of graves around which devotees leave incense and earthen oil lamps (“diyas”), a water cooler stands nearby and its chilled water proved to be a much desired relief in the scorching summer heat of the month of June when I visited the dargah complex – the courtyard is raised slightly higher around the dargah and one is required to remove footwear, including socks, before stepping on this raised portion and walking into the dargah and it is highly advisable to visit the dargah complex either early morning or when the weather is pleasant since walking on the fiery marble is an agonizing torment in itself!

The small double-domed shrine opposite the dargah. In the left background can be observed a dome of the red mosque.

Next to Bibi ka Rauza is a narrow strip of marble-covered courtyard that leads to the aforementioned Qudsia Begum’s mosque – a simplistic yet graceful white structure surmounted by three plump ribbed domes that add a certain serene countenance to its otherwise resigned existence – the courtyard immediately in front of the mosque has been covered with fiber-glass sheets mounted on iron pillars so that the effective area the mosque encompasses is several times much larger than what it was originally supposed to harbor, the downside is that the mosque, preserved otherwise in its original state, cannot be clicked in its entirety from any side or angle and the only photograph of the three domes can be achieved from the grassy patch outside the Naqqar Khana gateway from where nothing of the mosque’s three semi-circular arched entrances is observable.

Onions! - Qudsia Begum's flawless white mosque, as seen from the road leading to the dargah complex

The interiors of the mosque are exceedingly straightforward – triangular arches demarcating the three interconnected chambers outlined by plain plaster embossment shaped in semi-circles with a few floral bouquets for company at the corners; the concave surface of the central dome and the qibla (wall indicating the direction of Mecca, faced by Muslims while offering prayers) too are decorated in a similar fashion, except that the plaster embossment along the dome’s interior is thicker and throughout composed of floral motifs; only these plaster embossments, colored slightly cream-brown, break the overall monotony of the white surface. Originally the mosque also had a large tank with a fountain in its courtyard but it doesn’t exist anymore.

Sigh! No fountain? Drastically modernized or irrevocably altered?

The dargah complex has been built on a stretch of land just encompassing the complex and raised high with respect to the surrounding residences and subsidiary structures. The wide courtyard between the dargah building and the small shrine opposite is at level with the base of the apex of the arched entrance of the tomb of Hazrat Arif Ali Shah Saiyyid who is said to have achieved sainthood at a very tender age and also passed away when he was around twelve years old. The square tomb is led to by a path that branches off from the route connecting the Naqqar Khana gateway to the dargah complex and has been demarcated by numerous markers and direction boards – seated in a small compound of its own surrounded by small residential quarters of the surrounding population, the tomb has been grotesquely covered with blue and white tiles that would have been more suitably used in toilets! The arched entrance to the tomb is set in a similar arched depression flanked on its periphery by floral-patterned tiles, a few have also been inscribed with Arabic inscriptions and representations of Kaaba and other holy shrines. The dome is surmounted by a fully-developed inverted floral finial while octagonal minarets crowned by miniature onion domes top three corners of the tomb’s roof (the fourth minaret lies broken in the tomb compound). Also present in the tomb’s small compound are two other structures – the first, located immediately besides the entrance, is a typical Mughal-era construction consisting of a cuboidal structure topped by a shallow ribbed roof, it was perhaps a mosque once, but is now being used as a storehouse-cum-residence; the other is a canopy tomb possessing a very strange curvy roof mounted on four rectangular pillars and a single grave underneath.

Grotesque tiles! - Hazrat Arif Ali's tomb

Stepping within the child saint’s mausoleum, one realizes that the employment of those horrific tiles does not just limit to the exteriors but continues inside too – a single grave wrapped in grass green cloth rests in the middle of a funerary zone designated by a black marble enclosure, the most curious, and also dazzling, of all the articles within the tomb is a line stretching over the grave that is hung with numerous vibrantly colored and sparkling “pankhas” (cloth fans) inscribed with Arabic texts and floral motifs in glittering gold and silver artwork. A “pagdi” (headgear for a bridegroom), complete with white beaded strands interspersed with alluring tinted ornamental beads, has been placed on the considerably raised portion of the marble enclosure that is contiguous with the head of the grave.

Unique? - I doubt if I have earlier witnessed brilliantly colored cloth fans as a mark of respect and devotion in any tomb/dargah

Past Hazrat Arif Ali Shah’s mausoleum and through an extremely narrow and dark space between the residential apartments, one comes to a small opening between the houses from where a dwarfish mosque with three bulbous red onion domes can be spotted – a locked gate bars the entry to the mosque’s small courtyard but the residents of the adjacent house or the children playing nearby will arrange for the keys if asked for. In contrast to the subdued white and red exteriors, the interiors are flamboyantly painted in glistening green and white colors which appear garish in combination with the striking symmetry of the arches demarcating the three bays of the prayer chamber that was a hallmark of Mughal architectural tradition. The congestion of the densely populated locality makes clicking the mosque, unimaginatively referred to as “Lal Masjid” (“Red Mosque”), difficult – I had to climb the stairs of the house opposite to photograph it, but was ordered to descend by the neighbors and subjected to severe inquiry – in short, it isn’t advisable to climb any staircase, notwithstanding the inability to get a proper click from anywhere else! 

The "thoughtfully named" Red Mosque - It is cherubic cute in reality given its round proportions, but the surrounding residential quarters make photographic compositions complicated. 

Also located couple of hundred meters from the dargah complex is the Karbala graveyard built during the time of the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II (ruled AD 1759-1806) – quite sparse and plain compared to the Christian cemeteries of Delhi and the Chinese graveyards of Calcutta that I have been to, the Karbala graveyard is largely an open, dry grass and weed infested tract of land with notices and information boards all along its periphery warning trespassers of legal action under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Given the distance of the Indian subcontinent from the Karbala battleground and the shrines of Hazrat Hussain and his brothers in Iraq and the financial inability of most adherents of Shia faith to make a pilgrimage to Iraq, throughout the subcontinent wherever Shia Muslims have settled they have built graveyards christened “Karbala” where soil from the Iraqi Karbala is scattered and miniature replicas of Hazrat Hussain’s mausoleum (“tazia”) are buried annually on Ashura in a symbolic ritual religiously significant as a gesture of making pilgrimage to the actual Karbala. To the regular chants of “Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain” and the beats of numerous mourners beating their chests forcefully as a mark of remorse over Hazrat Hussain’s suffering and killing, the tazias are bought in a winding procession by the faithful heralded by numerous standard bearers and buried – bigger tazias are commissioned by larger Shia organizations and shrines, while private individuals might bring their own smaller versions for burial; occasionally the mourners could also be seen weeping in remembrance of the Prophet's family and their martyrdom.

Near the entrance of the graveyard is a crumbling medieval wall mosque (“qibla”) of unremembered antiquity and a rather ostentatious appearance given that it has been painted pale yellow throughout with vibrant blue highlights for the five shallow arched indentations that mark the prayer niches and the small alcoves between them. Notwithstanding the nearly 400 year old history of the mosque and any other name it might have possessed in the long years that it has been standing on this location, it is at present referred to as Qanaati Masjid, a name originating from the cloth canopies/awnings (“qanaat”) that emanate from the mosque wall and are stretched and supported on iron pillars to shelter devotees from the sweltering summer heat. The structure is said to possess basement chambers but I highly doubt it – given its decrepit condition, it would have been inevitable that the chambers cave in or be exposed and I could see no signs of such chambers or the entrance thereof.

Meager - Qanaati Masjid

The only structure within the vast graveyard area is a medieval-era tomb belonging to a certain Mah Khanum (“Noble Lady”) – it isn’t known who the lady was nor why was she honored with the ultimate title of Mughal/Persian aristocracy, but she must have been influential in her time to command a mausoleum, notwithstanding how simplistic, in the middle of a revered graveyard – the Persian inscription on her grave compares her to Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ (the Muslim faith considers Christ as one of the several venerable prophets sent by God to guide humans), and one might conclude that the lady was a virgin and held a position of political or religious power. The tomb, built in AD 1726, is a simple rectangular structure seated on a plinth and possessing a doorway along the two smaller and one larger side; the ornamentation is minimalist, consisting of a curved roof and a line of arched embossments running along the roof of the three sides that possess entrances, a wide chajja (eave) supported on brackets and limited only to the larger side with the entrance, and a shallow alcove on either side of the entranceway on the same side. Entering in the meager tomb, one notices that the fourth side, which doesn’t have a doorway built in it, possesses a staircase that leads underground to the crypt level – in fact, the outline of the crypt can also be made out on the ground since staircases on either short side of the mausoleum lead to a considerably raised platform where a plain cemented square marks the position of the crypt underneath and is punched by small square vents and surrounded by patches of well-tended grassy lawns.

Mah Khanum's tomb - View from the enclosed raised area that demarcates the location of the crypt underground

Prior to my visit to Sultangarhi tomb complex in another part of Delhi, I believed that the crypt of Mah Khanum’s tomb is the spookiest place in Delhi – though it is lighted up by a tubelight, the underground chamber remains extremely dark, especially so since the walls and alcoves have become entirely blackish-gray with the passage of time and bear dark soot deposits on most of their surface from the burning of incense and oil lamps; the marble-lined grave in the center remains wrapped in a red embroidered cloth sheet (“chaddar”), but even the chandelier above it appears haunted, never lightning up but forever remaining dark and antique; a lone earthenware oil lamp sat secluded in the dark black wall alcove, but there wasn’t a soul to be seen in the graveyard who would have perhaps lighted it, nor did any individual appear in the nearly half hour that I was there. Undeniably I was out of the crypt and away from the mausoleum as soon as my terrified legs could carry me! Interspersed by thorny weeds or hidden behind tall dry grass, only a few crumbling graves exist here and there in the graveyard; the only other prominent structure is a grave located in a small enclosure close to the mausoleum that seems to be a recent structure and has been lined with white tiles and draped with a green embroidered chaddar that is usually reserved for Sufi saints.

Spooky! Wait, why is that chandelier here in this medieval tomb? - The dark crypt underneath Mah Khanum's tomb

The graveyard and the Qanaati Masjid on its periphery have become the bone of contention in an unarguably ugly dispute between the Anjuman-e-Haideri trust and Congress politician Ahmed Patel – the trust has accused men backed by Ahmed Patel, specifically nursery owners and gardeners to whom the trust itself leased the Karbala land, of illegally occupying the land, utilizing it for commercial purposes, desecrating the graves and the religious sanctity and refusing to vacate it despite court orders while land sharks led by politicians have been taking advantage of the feud to take over the area gradually and transforming it from religious space to commercial and residential quarters and at the same time fuelling Hindu-Muslim and Shia-Sunni divide leaving the largely Hindu population of the neighborhood up in arms against illegal land occupation by Muslims and the trust’s counter-accusations against Hindu residents of adjoining houses of also illegally occupying the Karbala land. The issue has taken a malicious communal tone with the involvement of Congress and several Hindu militant outfits like Bajrang Dal, Shiv Sena and Vishva Hindu Parishad – in fact, immediately opposite the Naqqar Khana gateway, police have erected a small makeshift post where several policemen are always on duty and keep an eye for untoward communal incidents and sloganeering on part of either Hindus or Muslims. It is hoped that the disputes, which have so far seen several violent clashes between the police and the protestors, would be resolved at the earliest – it is in no one’s interest, least of all the government’s or politicians', to see heritage structures like the dargah complex and its subsidiary graveyards and mosques embroiled in such disgusting controversies instead of providing solace and relief to the faithful in times of their need.

Location: B.K. Dutt Colony, Jorbagh
Coordinates: Dargah Shah-e-Mardan complex: (28°34'58.9"N 77°12'59.7"E); Karbala ground: (28°35'05.3"N 77°12'56.6"E)
Nearest Metro station: Jorbagh
Nearest Bus stop: Safdarjung Madrasa/Safdarjung's Tomb
How to reach: Walk from the metro station (450 meters)/bus stop (600 meters). Ask locals for directions to the dargah/Karbala graveyard – they are aware of shortcuts through parks and streets.
Timings: 6.00 am – 11.30 pm, prayers on the first Thursday every month
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Advice – Since the dargah complex is a religious zone, it is advisable to dress moderately and avoid shorts and sleeveless dress. Entrance for men is prohibited in Bibi ka Rauza and and women can't enter Qadam Mubarak – it is better to ask permission before flouting the rules.
Monuments also located nearby - 
  1. Hardnewsmedia.com - Article "Walled in the Mind" (dated April 15, 2013) by Akash Bisht
  2. Indianexpress.com - Article "High Court restrains Anjuman trust from protesting near disputed Jor Bagh karbala" (dated March 29, 2014) by Aneesha Mathur
  3. Livemint.com - Article "Thousands of Indian Muslims volunteer to protect holy shrines in Iraq" (dated July 15, 2014) by Elizabeth Roche
  4. Tehelka.com - Article "Are Kashmiri Shias The Next Pandits?" (dated Nov 14, 2013) by Saba Firdous
  5. Thehindu.com - Article "Buried in history" (dated Sep 14, 2013) by R.V. Smith
  6. Thehindu.com - Article "From the city of tombs" (dated May 30, 2011) by R.V. Smith
  7. Thehindubusinessline.com - Article "Mission Karbala" (dated July 11, 2014) by Sibi Arasu
  8. Twocircles.net - Article "Qanati Masjid: Another victim of state actors in Delhi" (dated Jan 21, 2011) by Manzar Bilal
  9. Shahemardan.org - Official website of Dargah Shah-e-Mardan
  10. Sunday-guardian.com - Article "Delhi yet to comply with order on dargah" (dated Dec 7, 2013) by Navtan Kumar
  11. Wikipedia.org - Fatimah
  12. Wikipedia.org - Hazrat Ali
  13. Wikipedia.org - Masjid-i-Ali, Najaf, Iraq
  14. Wikipedia.org - Masjid-i-Ali, Najaf, Iraq (Image)
  15. Wikipedia.org - Masjid-i-Imam Hussain
  16. Wikipedia.org - Masjid-i-Imam Hussain (Image)
  17. Wikipedia.org - Prophet Muhammad
  18. Wikipedia.org - Shia Islam in India
  19. Wikipedia.org - Shrine of Ali, Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan
  20. Wikipedia.org - Taziya in Indian Subcontinent


  1. Hi Sahil,

    All your posts are a treat to read and the effort and passion gone into writing them is so apparent. Another epic read that explains the origin of Shias and Sunnis.

    Though the monuments are quite plain here compared to other Delhi monuments, but your description is so well captured. I am sure even the ASI/Intach people will not be able to describe them this beautifully.

    You were lucky to get access to all the places here especially the crypt given the fact that most people who come here do get questioned not too pleasantly. We were lucky when we visited as we met with a gentleman who was a Safvi and who shared some stories. My partner who came back again here was handed over to the police!

    We all hope the simmering problem here is resolved so this place becomes more frequently visited.



    1. Nirdesh Sir,

      Even when I visited there were policemen posted around, but the dargah's caretakers were very generous and opened the shrines for me to photograph. There is so much beauty and tranquility in Delhi - I felt very peaceful inside the two mosques - but certain people heinously get involved in petty quarrels and destroy the serenity these places afford.

      As always, you are too kind with the comments. Thank you!


  2. I couldn't read the article but saw Images. Looks like you covered the Karbala range properly. (Just the naqqar khana opposite road is missing).

    I love the work you do. Keep it up.
    Will read it properly as soon as I get chance.

  3. Salil as a Shia, let me congratulate you on a lovely article.

    After that a few facts which Shia faith believes in since you are writing of a Shia monument.
    1. Janab Syeda was the only daughter of the Prophet. He had sons but they didnt survive infancy
    2. Janab Syeda died fighting for her ancestral property the Bagh e Fidak for which she went all the way to court of the first Caliph to ask for her ancestral right but was denied. She was not allowed to mourn her father and asked not to cry loudly. All this is as per Shia belief.
    She died because she refused to open the door of her house and it was pushed which resulted in crushing her ribs, miscarriage and death
    3. Najaf Khan was a Safvi from Iran ( our ancestor) and not a Baloch.

    1. I am a direct descendant of the Prophet we are not called Fatamids but Syeds. The Fatamids are different. We dont take our lineage from Janab Zainab but from Janab Syeda.
      The rest is too long to explain here. You can meet me whenever you want. I can tell you more from Shia point of view

    2. http://hazrat-e-dilli.com/dargah-shah-e-mardan-in-jorbagh/
      My blog on the Dargah. I visit regularly.

    3. Rana Mam, thank you for the wonderful inputs! Corrected the mistakes. We definitely should meet sometime, it would be my pleasure to hear your anecdotes and learn from the vast knowledge you possess.

  4. Informative and well written article. The exhaustive description provided is a is a proof of in depth research into the topic. Sahil, looking forward to more articles coming up from your end.

  5. Really appreciable posts!!