Watching Over Delhi’s Soul

The history behind Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti neighborhood.

Watching Over Delhi’s Soul

Photo by Chiara Goia

Name: Farid Ahmad Nizami
Age: 36
Neighborhood: Nizamuddin Basti, Delhi, India
Lived Here Since: 1972
Occupation: Lawyer for and caretaker of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, a 700-year-old shrine to the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya. Nizami’s family are descendants of the saint and have been the shrine’s caretakers since Nizamuddin died in 1325. Nizami successfully fought an effort by a local organization to wrest control of the shrine from the family, arguing in court that the saint’s dying wish that his grave would always provide for his family was tantamount to a will.

My area, the medieval neighborhood known as Nizamuddin Basti–or “Nizamuddin settlement”—is an overcrowded maze of narrow streets. This is the only place I know of in the world where you can find so many important monuments of so many different periods in such close proximity—whether they are from the Khalji period [1290–1320], the Tughluq period [1320–1394], or the Mughal period [1526–1857].

It’s a vibrant, lively neighborhood, one of the few places in Delhi where the street markets stay open until the early-morning hours. Late at night, you will find so many cars parked out on Mathura Road, and the people are inside the basti standing in front of a kebab stall at the bazaar. I go there for a late-night snack.

You find many people whose families have lived in Nizamuddin for centuries and who are still doing the same jobs—working as tailors or barbers. That’s why the Muslim-style mutton curries, kebabs, and biryanis of this place are so popular: The cook’s great-great-grandfather ran the same dhaba [diner], so he knows the right taste. If somebody comes and opens a new dhaba, the right taste will not come. My favorite sit-down restaurant, for example, the old Karim Hotel, has been run by the same family for generations. It’s a small, dimly lit place on an anonymous lane in the basti, but people come from all over India to eat here.

My family home is just inside the ancient Kot Gate, about 150 meters from the shrine of Saint Nizamuddin Auliya. The shrine is an incredibly important center for Delhi at this time. If you go to the mosque, you’ll find only Muslims. If you go to the mandir, you’ll find only Hindus. If you go to the church, you’ll find only Christians. But thousands of people from all walks of life, irrespective of caste or creed, visit Nizamuddin Auliya’s shrine every day. Why, in this time, do you find the people of all religions here? It is due to the message of the saint, who vowed to destroy India’s oppressive caste system and forbade his followers from asking the religion of the people who came seeking alms or advice. Even in 1947, when there was rioting between Hindus and Muslims all across the country due to the partition of the nation into India and Pakistan, there was no fighting in Nizamuddin. I come to the shrine whenever I get stressed by city life, and it immediately gives me a feeling of inner peace.

In the Sufi tradition, we celebrate a saint’s death anniversary, or urs, because we believe that when a saint dies, his soul departs from his body and he meets his beloved father. In such joining, the soul of the saint feels extreme pleasure. For both Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple Amir Khusro, we hold a five-day urs celebration every spring and fall in the dargah and in the urs mahal—a special hall set up nearby for the ceremony. A temporary market, the urs bazaar, also takes place, where people from all over India come to sell their handicrafts and snacks. The main attraction, though, is halva parantha, which people from all over Delhi come to eat. [Halva parantha is a huge flatbread stuffed with fruit and semolina.]

The neighborhood’s main attraction is the qawwali program, devotional music played at the shrine on Thursday and Sunday nights, after the evening prayer. Recently, the American ambassador was here for the second time in two months, and nearly every Indian prime minister, from Jawaharlal Nehru on down, has come to visit. We don’t have any special protocol for them. Before God, everyone is the same.

Though we welcome tourists, for the true devotee, qawwali is more than entertainment. Its devotional lyrics teach the message of Sufism, and the music can have a powerful effect on the emotions. Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, a Sufi whose shrine is in the nearby Mehrauli neighborhood, died listening to qawwali. The qawwal [leader] was reciting poetry, and Qutbuddin was taken by a spirit of ecstasy and fell down dead.

The area around Nizamuddin’s shrine, top, Nizami says, “is littered with the tombs of great men who believed this is a very holy place” because of the saint’s message of tolerance. A devotional music program at the shrine, called qawwali, draws tourists and diplomats, as well as the devout. “Before God, everyone is the same,” says Nizami.

On the busy streets leading to Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, vendors sell rose petals, top, to leave as offerings for the saint. Crowded restaurants like Karim Hotel serve dishes once prepared for Mughal emperors, and roadside wallahs grill mutton kebabs. Inside the shrine, the devout pray and read the Koran. Nizami says, “I love this place because of the sense of peace that stems from the presence of the saint’s tomb.”

I have worked for more than a decade as a foreign correspondent for GlobalPost, Newsweek and the Far Eastern Economic Review in Germany, India and China. Specializing in human-interest magazine features, I have written dozens of articles, essays and reviews spanning business and economics, social and political affairs, and arts and culture, and science and the environment.
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