Safina, 26, fled from Afghanistan with her family two years ago, but the fear of the past still haunts her.
Mariam, 50, constantly worries about her 25-year-old son Rahim who “keeps bad company, sleeps all day and doesn’t go to work”.
Rashida, 35, wishes her husband wouldn’t throw away his earnings in cheap bars.
Shabnam, 24 and married for four years, desperately wants a child.
They are just four of the hundreds of women in Old Delhi seeking solutions to life’s myriad problems. And every day, their search leads them to the far end of the busy Meena Bazaar market where, hidden amidst familiar monuments thronged by tourists and myriad mosques frequented mostly by men, lie two shrines where popular stereotypes associated with religion-based inequalities in Islam break down, and where Muslim women find themselves welcome.
Located behind the eastern gate of the imposing Jama Masjid, the Dargahs of Hazrat Sarmat Shaheed and Hare Bhare Shah seem at first sight unlikely destinations for those seeking solutions to life’s ills. Shaded by a large Neem tree, and mostly hidden from sight by noisy biryani sellers and quarrelsome vendors, there is nothing that spells ‘special’ about these shrines, or their patron saints.
Sarmat was an Armenian Jew, mystic and a gay poet who was executed on the orders of the Mughal king Aurangzeb in 1660. History says Aurangzeb hated the ascetic for his public nudity, and for his proximity to the then heir-apparent Dara Shikoh, the king’s elder brother. And Hare Bhare Shah, who migrated to Delhi from Central Asia, is believed to have been Sarmat’s master.
Apart from these possibly apocryphal stories, little is known of their origin. But the opacity of their origin stories doesn’t seem to matter for thousands of women who throng to them. The shrines aren’t just places to pray for the women; they are a sanctuary, an asylum, a refuge in an otherwise hostile world, where the rigid dogmas of their religion don’t apply and where they are free to just be.
Here, they don’t just seek God. They seek solutions, hope, peace, consolation. Or at the most basic level, a sense of comfort.
To the casual observer, the sight of so many women congregating in this little corner of the old city can be disorienting. The Old City is a male preserve; men are everywhere, running their businesses, chit-chatting in street corners or back alleys, and women, for the most part, are largely absent from the public sphere.
Hiding in their homes, behind curtained screens and veils, they make for invisible, shadow creatures, rendered unseen by the dark robes of religious rules and patriarchy.
At times, it’s easy to forget that here, women once ruled kingdoms and fought wars. After all, two of the capital’s most iconic landmarks – Humayun’s Tomb and Chandni Chowk were built by women. Their shadow looms over the city’s history, but in this present, they are banished to the shadows.
These twin shrines tucked into a corner of Meena Bazaar, however, come as a stark contrast. An air of calm shrouds the area. Step inside their doors and you are enveloped in the gentle orange glow of the cobwebbed chandeliers that light the red and green walls. Daylight slips slyly in through concrete latticed windows. Quiet conversations drift through the air. Women slip in and out of the chambers where the saints lie buried. And an unofficial women’s only club thrives inside this space.
In the narrow passageways that lead up to the dargahs women pray, whirl, moan, sob as they battle their particular demons. An old woman lights a lamp in a corner. A young girl scribbles a letter to her god. A group of women huddle in a corner, hands raised in ‘dua’. A lone woman weeps inconsolably into her handkerchief. Somewhere, a woman soothes a crying baby. Others engage in casual conversation as they await their turn to speak to the pir, the spiritual master.
As the clock strikes five, more women stream in, and the crowd in the passageway swells in expectation of the arrival of the master.
“Women come here for different reasons,” says Syed Muhammad Sarmadi, the pir of Hazrat Sarmad Shaheed. “It was believed that if a childless woman visits the shrine, Allah blesses her with a child. That is why women were initially allowed access. Things have changed now; they come because they want to talk. Some have domestic issues, others have health concerns. I try to guide them as best as I can.”
The conversations offer a peek into their inner lives. Outside the master’s office are wives who are desperately looking to fix estranged marriages, old women who want a cure for hairfall and arthritis, teenage women seeking relationship advice and young mothers anxious to know more about caring for their children. The ‘normal’ nature of their problems takes one by surprise. The women maybe Muslim, but their concerns are universal.
Shabnam Rehman, 35, is single. She comes here when the loneliness becomes overpowering. In her society, she says, it is a curse to be unmarried. “I have thought of killing myself. Now, I just come here.”
Safina, 25, wants the good night’s sleep that has eluded her for the last two years, ever since she fled Afghanistan with her family. She is scared all the time, and she doesn’t know why. Her children stay up all night because sleep brings nightmares.
In the fractured Hindi she has picked up during her stay in India, she asks the pir for a taweez (amulet), for dawa, for anything that will ‘fix’ her state. The master hands her a little parcel of rice and ash, and instructs her to rub it on her forehead seven times, then throw it away.
Safina sits still, processing this. She slips the parcel into her bag and walks out of the room, her place immediately taken by another woman in need. One woman complains of a constant headache; the pir places three lemons on her head and cuts them in halves. A young mother is worried her son is not as focused on his studies as he should be; the master suggests he take a lick of honey.
The solutions offered are in the nature of placebos, and sometimes border on the absurd, but the women have no option but to accept these fixes; to hope they will work. Even in this seemingly free space, ironically, it’s the male authority that defines and dictates answers, to whom the women eventually turn to and with whom the buck stops. And the women are expected to trust their wisdom blindly.
Not all are convinced, though. A tall, sharp-voiced lady who complains of the decline of her husband’s business, rejects the small parcel the master offers as an antidote. “You did the same thing last time,” she says dismissively. “Nothing happened. Try something else.” She doesn’t have much success, and after a 10-minute conversation, the pir convinces her to take the parcel and leave.
The rice, the ash, the limes, the small parcels are dispensed repeatedly, in various contexts and as the panacea for various ills. Some, like the lady coping with the failure of her husband’s business, are sceptical. But most of the women, numbering in the hundreds, who visit the shrine every day, the rote solutions on offer make do. Desperately looking for solutions, a word, a gesture, a placebo is all the solace they need.
To most, the master isn’t just a religious figure, he is a confidant, a friend, and sometimes the only voice of calm in a noisy, chaotic world. It doesn’t matter that he is clueless about their issues and ill-equipped to solve them.
They need to talk; he is there to listen, and for now, that is enough.
We wish to thank the National Geographic Society and the Out of Eden Walk, whose 2018 Journalism Workshop supported the creation of this project.