As I entered a space where whirling dervishes have lived, danced, cried, and loved, I felt intoxicated with energy – energy I am unable to put in words, an energy mystics have devoted their entire lives trying to decipher, energy I still feel hungover with. This space that I talk of is the dargah (mausoleum) of the great Sufi mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, situated in the Nizamuddin West area of Delhi.
I waltzed down the narrow lanes that house heaps of rose petals, itr (perfume), Sufi books, chaddars (holy blanket), and vendors calling out to customers with, “Dargah ke liye yeh lijiye (Take this for the dargah).” I bought two chaddars – one green, embroidered with flower designs, and one yellow, as a gesture of my devotion towards Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, who lies peacefully in a shrine where thousands from all backgrounds come to find solace, everyday.
I had the opportunity of meeting Sufi Syed Ajmal Nizami, a descendent of Prophet Muhammad and a traditional caretaker of the shrine. Sufi Ajmal Ji received me and my family at the main entrance and welcomed us with a warm smile.
We first visited the main shrine, passing by the qawwals, whose voices adorned the evening with Hazrat Amir Khusrau’s couplets in praise of Auliya. Three main singers, dressed in green kurtas with white kufis, accompanied the main singer dressed in white, singing while playing an old harmonium. Women, men, and children bore witness to the gala that celebrated love, adulation, and euphoria.
As I stood there and relished the symphonies of the evening, Sufi Ajmal Nizami educated me on a lesser-known fact. The word ‘naan’ was recorded for the first time in Khwaja Khusrou’s couplets, he claimed.
Pointing to the left, he showed us the tomb of Princess Jahanara Begum, daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan. Pointing even further down he showed us the tombs of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s two sufi brothers — Mirza Babur and Mirza Jahangir.
He apologised for the dire conditions there as he led us into a tête-à-tête, talking about the restrictions put up by the government that doesn’t allow the authorities to use their own resources for the amelioration of the centuries-old dargah.
Q: Why do they not allow you to spend even your own money in order to alleviate the conditions of the dargah?
A: To control Muslims – simple. For the past 70 years, we haven’t been able to do anything for the dargah. We are still hiding ourselves. And this doesn’t apply just to us. Unfortunately, it is prevalent throughout the country.
We have nothing left. We don’t have our libraries, our belongings. Sab cheez toh cheen lee (They have stripped us of everything). You see that masjid there? We cannot even get that repaired. We are low on funds. Even when we try to, we are threatened with official notices from the ASI, the Ministry of Tourism, and the cultural ministry, who, amusingly, don’t do anything themselves. Nor do they let us do it.
Q: Must be nice to meet prominent personalities every now and then.
A: Whenever someone important comes to visit India, there are only two prominent places of worship, the first being Jama Masjid and the second is the dargah of Nizammudin Auliya. Actually, not even the Jama Masjid. This dargah is unrivalled in the country, the primary point of Muslim worship. Because there you only have the mosque. Here, we have culture, we have music. Come, let me show you the mosque from inside…
Q: What is its significance?
A: This is one of the oldest and most important mosques in the country — The Jamat Khana Mosque, built between 1315 and 1325. And it is one of the oldest pulpits for Sufis here, known as minbar, where every Friday the Imam delivers a sermon. And on Eid, we have the namaaz six times here, the sixth one delivered by the Imam himself.
Basically, minbar means “woh jagah jo dusri jagahon se unchi hai” or the place higher than the rest. The mosque you stand in is 800 years old and till 1618 it stood without any support. Even today, the dome stands without any support and no iron has been used. The gate too hasn’t been made of iron.
Q: What do the Arabic sayings on the shrine signify?
A: These are the names of the immediate family of Prophet Muhammad written next to his. The son-in-law, his daughter Fatima, the oldest grandson Imaam-e-Hussain, who was killed in Karbala (one of the most tragic incidents ever recorded). Karbala is the reason why the Shias hit themselves on Muharram.
Khwaja Nizammduin Auliya himself has read the namaaz here. What is interesting to note is that Khwaja Nizammudin Auliya never met any king himself, for he felt that dining and receiving gifts from such nobles was hypocritical on his part as a dervish.
Yahaan ki legacy bohot zabardast hai. Abhi Agha Khan walon ne isse restore kiya hai (The legacy of this place is exciting. Recently, the people from Agha Khan (Trust for Culture) restored it).
Q: How does one become a Sufi?
A: It’s all chosen by the almighty. There are three possibilities. Either you’ve been chosen (Gabriel comes and blows on your soul in your mother’s womb and with that blow you become a sufi) or by serving the people, which in itself shows your devotion towards the almighty. Thirdly, you should be in love with Allah.
Q: (Pointing to a man who was blowing air on people and dancing to the qawwali) What is he doing? What does it mean?
A: It is an old custom to bless the people who visit the dargah.
Q: What is your favourite poem by Maulana Rumi ?
A: It is in Persian, but I can translate it for you —
Koi bhi cheez apne aap cheez nahi ban jaat/ aur koi bhi cheez apne aap se talvaar nahi ban jaati hai/aur maulvi tab tak maulvi nahi banta jab tak woh shamz tabrizi/ ka ghulam nahi banta (Nothing attains itself independent of another/Nothing becomes a sword on its own/And a maulvi does not become a maulvi unless he bows down to Shams Tabrizi)
Q: How do you and your family live with such a prestigious title amidst everyone else?
A: We are very down-to-earth people and we live like this. We lay a lot of emphasis on education. My sisters are also very educated and are government officers. One of them is a dental surgeon at Tihar Jail. My maamu is a retired officer from Air India.
My ancestors migrated from Medina on the basis of education, and to preserve our familial legacy. We shifted to Uzbekistan when Genghis Khan was in power. They say that there have been as many as 124,000 prophets in the world, including Jesus, Solomon, etc…and my family carries the blood of all.
After a minute of silence, Sufi Ajmal Nizami’s father Pir Khwaja Afzal Nizami, a renowned Sufi, said to me, “Sufi is a four-lettered word, and so is Love. Sufi is Love and Love is Sufi. Allah gave us mohabbat (love) and he made us to experience it. Woh hamein pyaar, mohabbat, aman aur chain ka pegam detein hain (His message is of love, peace, and equanimity). We are not concerned with anyone’s religion and we love all. Sufiyon ke mamlon ko samajhna asaan nahin (It is not easy to understand the way of the Sufis).”
Adding to which, Sufi Ajmal Nizami, very beautifully said, “We don’t represent a certain faith. Our identity is far greater and broader than the identity of religion.”