A Pilgrimage of Sorts

The tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya
The tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya

If you have been to Delhi but not visited the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin, you have missed something! Even if you are not a particularly devout follower of Sufism, this shrine would still give you a spectacle of how faith can indeed move mountains. But let’s begin at the beginning….. So the other day, together with a few of my friends, we ventured into the Nizamuddin area of Delhi. Some of the others in the group had already visited the dargah on prior occasions, and having heard so much about it and having watched it grow popular in travel shows and Bollywood movies, the rest of us consented it was time we earned ourselves some first-hand experience. 

There is much to see in the surrounding area, like the Subz Burj (which was originally green, as the name suggests, but ironically has blue tiles on the dome today), the beautiful Isa Khan’s Tomb, and the ever so majestic Humayun’s Tomb, inspiration- they say- for the pristinely symmetric Taj itself. But today we did not venture into any of those other beauties. We headed straight for the Nizamuddin Police Station which is bang next to the entry point towards the dargah.
From the approach itself the popularity of the shrine became evident. All kinds of people thronged the narrow alleyway that leads up to the dargah. Many a vendor sat around selling pretty pastel skull caps (one must cover one’s head in deference to the tomb in the inner sanctum), fragrant garlands, incense sticks, mini sugar nuggets, ‘chaader’ or shrouds to be offered to the tomb, holy books, and various bric-a-bracs. We made steady headway, dodging the masses walking briskly past us in either direction.

In the alleys of Nizamuddin Basti
In the alleys of Nizamuddin Basti
Knick knacks being sold at the Nizamuddin Basti
Knick knacks being sold at the Nizamuddin Basti
Beautiful shrouds or chaader at the bazaars of Nizamuddin
Beautiful shrouds or chaader at the bazaars of Nizamuddin
An offering for the Sufi saint Nizamuddin
An offering for the Sufi saint

About midway down this alley, there is a huge ancient doorway that opens to the left and leads to the ‘Urs Mahal’, a large courtyard where the death anniversary of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is celebrated with qawwali ceremonies by his devout followers. In Sufism, ‘Urs’ is considered as auspicious as a marriage ceremony, since it represents the saint’s union with God. Next to this there is also the ‘Chaunsath Khamba’ which literally translates to ‘Sixty four Pillars’ and is an open pavilion of the same number of marble columns. It houses the tombs of Ataga Khan , the prime minister to the court of Akbar, his son and several other unidentified people, probably of the same family. It was under repair when we were there.

Barely a few steps down the road is another gate to the left which led us to the resting place of the renowned poet, Mirza Ghalib, marked with shrouds, flowers and burning incense. There are many other tombs in this compound as well, again unidentified. On the wall facing the tomb is a plaque with the deeply reflective words from Ghalib’s famous couplets…

“Na tha kuchch to Khuda tha,

kuchch na hota to Khuda hota 

duboya mujhko hone ne,

na hota main to kya hota”

(“When nothing was, God was there
Had there been nothing, God would have been
My being has defeated me
Had I not been, what would have been”)

Mirza Ghalib's resting place
Mirza Ghalib’s resting place
Ghalib's famous words
Ghalib’s famous words

Adjacent to the tomb is a library of Mirza Ghalib’s works, though we did not visit it just then. Moving on along the alleyway towards the main purpose of our visit, we encountered many more vendors with wares both colourful and odorous. And suddenly at a bend around one of these shops, we came upon our destination. We took off our shoes and left them with a shopkeeper who promised to take care of them and went ahead.

Once inside, the place seemed full of people and tombs. The first shrine to the left is that of another famous Sufi poet and musician, Amir Khusrau, a spiritual disciple of Nizamuddin. Amir Khusrau is said to be the pioneer of the qawwali genre of devotional songs. The bigger shrine to the right belongs to Hazrat Nizamuddin himself. There are many more tombs within the complex, one of them belonging to the Mughal princess Jahan Ara, said to be Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter.

Next to the beloved saint Nizamuddin, even in death
Next to the beloved “peer”, even in death
Flowers for the dearly departed, at the shrine of Nizamuddin
Flowers for the dearly departed
Prayers and prayer threads at the shrine of Nizamuddin
Prayers and prayer threads
Offering incense
Offering incense
A cenotaph with beautiful carvings
A cenotaph with beautiful carvings
Amir Khusrau's tomb on the left, and Nizamuddin's on the right
Amir Khusrau’s tomb on the left, and Nizamuddin’s on the right

Devotees all around were making offerings to the tombs, sitting in meditation or making chants in the name of the saint. Many were entrapped in various stages of trance. One could almost feel their faith pulsating through the air. Unfortunately, women are not allowed into the inner sanctum where the peer is buried, but we could look in through the trellis surrounding it. Men circumambulated the inner tomb, while women did the same outside. Innumerable prayer-threads tied to the trellised walls bear testimony to the thousands of prayers that are sent heavenwards every day. It is clearly a spectacle of belief and hope that we were met with, and every one of us was glad we made this amazing pilgrimage that day.

Prayers and thankfulness sent heaven-wards
Prayers and thankfulness sent heaven-wards
Unfortunately, women are not allowed inside the inner sanctum of the dargah
Unfortunately, women are not allowed inside the inner sanctum of the dargah
Prayer threads at the Nizamuddin Dargah
…so they pray from outside, and knot their prayers into the trellis
The thread tied to so many dreams
The thread tied to so many dreams
I didn't understand what the Urdu script on marble plaques meant, but they looked beautiful
I didn’t understand what the Urdu script on marble plaques meant, but they looked beautiful
Bangles, threads and prayersat the Nizamuddin Dargah
Bangles, threads and prayers
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15 Comments Add yours

  1. Naushirvan says:

    The Urdu text on that plaque provides the names of all the Chishti saints up to Nizamuddin( about 20 in all).

    1. wanderfool says:

      Fantastic! Thank you Naushirvan.
      Twobitwo- don’t you love this new piece of info!

      1. twobitwo says:

        Absolutely! Thanks Naushirvan!!

  2. Great post, great pictures. I know a little about Chisti Sufism but not about this particular site. There are many similar places in Bangladesh (where, of course, Sufism was and is particularly loved) but it is always a joy to see Delhi’s unique form of this wonderful architecture. Everything I see on this blog I want to visit!

    1. twobitwo says:

      So glad you like the post, Ken! If you haven’t already, you should plan it on a thursday to experience the qawwali, as our other reader, Dew remarks below.

      1. I will make a note of that – thank you!

  3. Dew says:

    awesome photography! By the way, there’s a qawwali show that happens thr every Thursday..which is to swear by… and am gonna explore that during my next trip slated soon 🙂

    1. twobitwo says:

      Thank you for sharing that info, Dew! Glad you liked the snaps 🙂

  4. aravingmind says:

    The qawwali is an amazing experience…… The cresendo of rhythm mesmerizes everyone and we all get swept up in the great tide of hope and devotion…… Truly one of a kind experience…… 🙂

  5. Shivya says:

    Loved it. And for once I can say, I’ve experienced this in Delhi and the Qawalli performance was one of the most beautiful I’ve witnessed. Your pictures are awesome 🙂

    1. twobitwo says:

      Hi Shivya! True, the qawwali at Nizamuddin Dargah is as mesmerising as it gets. I can only imagine how wonderful the qawwali during the ‘Urs’ would be…have you been lucky enough to be there during that time?

        1. twobitwo says:

          ‘Urs’ is an Arabic word for marriage or the union of the lover with the beloved. In the context of Nizamuddin, it refers to the celebrations held every year to commemorate his death anniversary, which is symbolic of the union of the Sufi saint with his beloved, God. This is a long standing tradition, since Hazrat Nizamuddin passed away in the year 1325. The ‘Urs Mahal’ is the venue of these annual celebrations held around March, and qawwalis are sung in the name of the saint and the almighty.

          1. Shivya says:

            Definitely have to go for this next year!

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