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Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

Delhiwale: The dargah’s grave arithmetic

Counting the scores of graves at Delhi’s most famous Sufi shrine - the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

delhi Updated: Mar 30, 2019 13:08 IST
Mayank Austen Soofi
Mayank Austen Soofi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah’s countless graves are like a refuge to its devotees.
The Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah’s countless graves are like a refuge to its devotees. (HT Photo )

They don’t instantly catch your eyes, these graves. But soon you end up seeing them virtually everywhere.

And yet this isn’t a graveyard. This is the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi shrine in central Delhi that has so spectacularly expanded its appeal from the sacred to the secular that no self-respecting Delhi guidebook is complete without a long mention of this place. It has also appeared in a few Bollywood films.

Some of us may recall this central Delhi destination merely as the setting of a chartbuster song in Rockstar, the movie in which actor Ranbir Kapoor lip-syncs to Kun Faya Kun, the qawwali composed by Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman. But to millions of people, this shrine is first and foremost the final resting place of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.

The inner life of the dargah plays out uninhibitedly around the domed mausoleum of his 14th century grave. All day long you will see people eating, sleeping, singing, crying and praying in the courtyard surrounding it. A similar monument stands close by — it is the tomb of poet Amir Khusrau, the Sufi saint’s greatest disciple. Legend has it that he did not live long after Hazrat Nizamuddin, and wished to be buried beside his beloved master. Khusrau’s grave is no city secret, nevertheless. Friends of yours who have attended the dargah’s famous Thursday night qawwalis will tell you about it. Some flâneurs might also impress you by showing you the tomb of princess Jahanara, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter. She was buried in a roofless marble enclosure across the courtyard from Hazrat Nizamuddin’s tomb. Next to Jahanara’s tomb is another similar enclosure: It is the resting place of Muhammad Shah Rangeela, the Mughal emperor most notorious for letting himself be depicted in a lovemaking posture — a painting you may not want to see with your underage cousins. But even this might be known to the curious among us. One thing that has truly remained an open secret is that the dargah has more than 70 graves. This was confirmed by some of the dargah’s khadims, the shrine’s traditional caretakers who claim their descent from Hazrat Nizamuddin’s bloodline. “We never thought of numbering the graves,” says Fida Nizami, a khadim.

Why don’t you, dear reader, try to be the first person to count the exact number of graves in the dargah? In many ways, midnight is the best time to be there. No tourists, no beggars and no selfie-seekers. Just a few reclusive cats, and a handful of devotees here and there.

Now is the moment to start counting the graves. And it seems easy. 1, 2, 3… but! The compound, half the size of a football field, is dotted with so many similar-looking graves scattered asymmetrically that you’re left doubting your count. Stone slabs project from the smooth floor almost everywhere, including inside the hujras, the chambers of the khadims. In one hujra lies the grave of Abu Bakr “Musallahdar”, a Sufi mystic who acquired his moniker because he used to carry Hazrat Nizamuddin’s musallah, or prayer mat.

So, anyway, your count is 65 graves? Sure? But you missed four graves dispersed around emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela’s resting place, and you also failed to spot a baby’s tomb in a corner of Princess Jahanara’s tomb complex.

And what about the three graves in the residential quarters of Chand Nizami, the qawwal who lives in an outer section of the dargah?

Perhaps it’s a good idea to forget being exact about your count. There are graves in just too many previously unseen alcoves and galleries.

Take the hujras. The dargah has around 25 of them — some of them opened by their khadims for limited hours — and who knows how many have graves in them? Most of the tombs have no inscriptions. Who are the people buried there? One khadim suggested they might belong to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s many disciples, who, like Khusrau, wished to be buried close to him. Only a handful of tombs escaped anonymity, such as those of Mirza Babur and Mirza Jehangir, brothers of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor. Amir Khusrau’ tomb faces the other identifiable gravestone. It is of Ziauddin Barani, a contemporary chronicler of 14th century India. Occasionally, musicians sit beside Barani’s grave with their harmoniums and dholaks to offer qawwalis to Khusrau.

The only book said to have extensively documented the graves in Hazrat Nizamuddin’s dargah was published in Urdu 50 years ago – Nizami Bansari: Hazrat Khvajah Mahbub Iláhi Sultan Nizamuddin Auliya Ki Savanih Umri was written by Hasan Nizami, a khadim in the shrine.

To be sure, this dargah is not unique in housing so many graves. It is a feature of every Sufi shrine. There are dozens of marble graves at Hazrat Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki’s mausoleum in south Delhi’s Mehrauli. “It is the ardent desire of every devotee to be buried close to their peer (saint),” says Altamash Nizami, a khadim. “That is why it is no accident that the tombs of (emperor) Humayun and (poet) Ghalib are within walking distance from our (Hazrat Nizamuddin’s) dargah.” For that matter, Bahadur Shah Zafar wanted to be buried next to Bakhtiar Kaki’s tomb in Mehrauli, and had chosen a place well in advance. But fate had something else in store, and he was buried in faraway Rangoon instead.

As for Hazrat Nizamuddin dargah’s countless graves, they are like a refuge to its devotees. One night in an outer courtyard, two women were fast asleep on either side of a marble grave (see top photo). It was as if some one had opened a window, just slightly, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. This was a strange setting – surreal, and yet believable.

First Published: Mar 30, 2019 13:06 IST