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Walking the Mystic Alleys

A short guide to the dargah Nizamuddin area at Delhi

Yousuf Saeed

You can easily miss this little mohalla if you are new to Delhi, even though it's in the heart of the city. The Dargah Hazrat Nizamuddin, as it's known today, was the quaint village called Ghayaspur when young Muhammad Nizamuddin migrated to Delhi from Badayun (in UP) in the early thirteenth century. It has survived the ravages of time to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Delhi even if its neighbours - a flyover, a five-star hotel, a police station, and residential bungalows - obscure it today.

One enters the dargah Nizamuddin area from New Delhi’s Mathura Road and finds a distinctly medieval ambience: labyrinthine alleys, crowds of beggars and street-vendors, bazaars with cheap eateries hawking kababs and other delicacies, people selling caps, rosaries, religious posters, and so on. One of the lanes on the left leads to the well-known Mughlai restaurant Dastarkhwan-e-Kareem. Further ahead is the modern building of the Ghalib Academy, established to honour the 19th century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. It has a well-stocked library and museum, and an adjoining compound where Ghalib is buried.

As the road narrows, you meet flower-sellers who lovingly pester you to buy a tray of flowers, sweets, or a chadur (cloth) to offer at the dargahs of Nizamuddin Aulia and Amir Khusrau. Before entering the dargah premises, you have to remove your shoes and preferably cover your head. A medieval archway leads to a verandah that faces the tomb of Amir Khusrau, customarily visited first. Here you will find many claiming to be the Sajjadah-nashins (keepers) of the mausoleum, requesting money for their blessings. The maintenance and upkeep of the dargah, including a daily langar (community meal) for the poor is run with the help of alms and offerings here.

Much of the architecture here dates to the later medieval period. Amir Khusrau's domed marble tomb was constructed in 1605. Intricate filigreed screens (jali) wall the small room that has a tall tombstone constructed in 1496 by Mehdi Khwaja, a courtier of Emperor Babur. Originally in red sandstone, the jali is now covered with years and years of paint and whitewash. In the early twentieth century, Hasan Nizami, a keeper of the dargah, accidentally scratched the paint in one portion and discovered versified dates in Persian etched on the sandstone. An effort by the government to clean the jali at that time was curtailed by strong objections from the community. Devotees now tie colourful threads to this jali. Men and women can always be seen sitting around the jali either reading the Quran, or simply praying in silence.

Opposite the opening of Amir Khusrau's tomb there is a heavy wooden door leading to the Hujra-e-Qadeem (literally, the ancient room). Usually locked, except for the exclusive sama' (qawwali) gatherings of the Sufis, this room is claimed to have been constructed in the thirteenth/fourteenth century. A wall outside this room has a calligraphed poem in praise of Nizamuddin Aulia composed by the Urdu poet Allama Iqbal. Saqqe, or water-sellers, with their leather mashaqs (water bags) pester you to pay for the drinking water offered to devotees.

From here Nizamuddin Aulia's grave is about ten yards to the north. Between the two tombs are situated a few more graves. Jehanara, the daughter of Shah Jehan, and Emperor Mohammad Shah lie buried here. Nizamuddin Aulia's tomb is followed by a courtyard -- the arena for the qawwali performances, and is always full of devotees. Towards the west is the high sandstone wall of the Jamaat-Khana (prayer hall), supposedly constructed by Feroz Shah Tughlaq a few years after Nizamuddin Aulia's death.

Archival photo: click to see larger versionIncidentally, the place where Nizamuddin Aulia's tomb is located is not where he established his khaneqah, or monastery. When he came to Delhi with his mother and sister, he had aspirations to become a qazi (judge) in the town. However, the spiritual world of Sufis, especially the Chishtia order, attracted him, and soon he joined Baba Fariduddin Ganj-e-Shakar's monastery in Ajodhan, Punjab (now in Pakistan). After spending a few years with Baba Farid, he was appointed his spiritual emissary for Delhi. Nizamuddin settled near the Yamuna, about a kilometer east of the present-day dargah, immediately behind Humayun's tomb. This is where he prayed, meditated, and met hundreds of people attracted to his spiritual message. More than seven hundred years later, that attraction still continues.

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© Yousuf Saeed, 1998-2011

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