Jenny December 14, 2012

Among all historical, mystical and legendary places in Delhi (of which I didn’t see more than a handful – this time around), one of the most fascinating is the tomb of 14th century sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The dargah (which by the way is a Persian term, meaning “portal” or “threshold”) is hidden inside a handful of small, busy market streets in central Delhi’s Nizamuddin area, a neighbourhood which has two parts: one which is upmarket and residential, and the other, where the tomb is situated, which is poor and crowded.

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An piece in India’s Kindle Magazine about the work that the Aga Khan Trust is doing to preserve the area describes the situation for the residents. Some 30,000 people live in the neighbourhood, many of which lack basic amenities like water and sanitation. When the fund started working there, 22% of the families had no toilets (a number by the way, that is not higher than so many other parts of the city, and the country). Malnutrition, lack of education and economic deprivation are everyday-life facts.

As often in the vast and magnificent place that is India, hardship and glory reside side by side. Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah – which has another historic tomb, that of poet-philospoher Amir Khusro, right next to it – is Delhi’s most visited pilgrim site, and represents 700 years of living popular-mystical culture. Each evening, the dargah sees a myriad of people. All sorts of people!

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Old ladies, who probably have lived all their lives in the streets, line the narrow corridors leading in to the dargah, asking passers-by to spare a few rupees. Young boys with white taqiyas and girls with colorful scarves mingle with kids and their parents. Along the wall facing the dargah sit men with beards that long ago grew together with their white hair, and with hard and rugged feet from walking barefoot on Delhi’s dusty streets. Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya was a sufi, but people from all religions, not only Muslims, visit the dargah (something that one finds with many holy sites in India: sacred personalities often attract devotees from more than one faith).

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Each country, each city – most often, each single village – on this planet has its own holy sites and sacred buildings. Not all are accessible, living memories of what they represent: often, a visitor from outside will not get an immediate spiritual connection when visiting a random church or a temple. But some places have that special energy. The church in Chamula, a mountain town in Mexico’s Chiapas, is one of them. There, villagers offer prayers and offerings that are essential Mayan – to a Catholic saint. Another is the magnificent Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Walking barefoot on the cold marble floor inside the mosque walls, mingling with the old men reading the morning paper and the kids playing under the open air, is divine.

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San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

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The Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, Syria

To me, Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah is another such exceptional place. It has a very special and beautiful energy, which seemed to affect the mood of everyone I met there. If you are in Delhi, this is a great place to spend an evening. If you’re not there, rest assured: there is another way! The Delhi Walla, this great source of info on the Indian capital, has written a lot about the dargah and the different people (and a cat!) you can meet there.

The beautiful photos from the dargah are all by Karim Mostafa.