New Delhi: Walls that are history lessons, streets crammed with flower sellers, and winding lanes that lead to the revered shrine of Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya — Delhi’s Nizamuddin West region has always been a world bustling with colour, culture and chaos.
On Monday, the colour faded as the area was cordoned off and controversy over it being a coronavirus cluster emerged.
A religious congregation held mid-March at the Tablighi Jamaat ‘markaz’, or headquarters, in Nizamuddin saw thousands of people in attendance, including foreigners. Over 400 people are believed to have contracted the infection at this congregation. The markaz is located 100 metres from the dargah.
Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti, named after the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, came into existence in the 13th century, and eventually came to house the famous dargah of the saint who passed away in 1325, and his spiritual disciple, poet Amir Khusrau. The compound also has the grave of Mughal princess Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan. A couple hundred meters away is Humayun’s tomb.
“Sabki khwaish thi ki Hazrat Auliya ke kadmo ke paas dafan ho (Everyone wishes to be buried close to Hazrat Auliya’s footsteps),” Peerzada Alatamash Nizami, a member of the Nizamuddin dargah committee told ThePrint.
This is the first time Nizami is seeing the dargah empty. It’s usually packed to the rafters, especially on Thursday nights when a qawwali session is held for the public.
“It’s a world where people come to find peace in the music, the poems — words which are sung in appreciation of something greater than ourselves, greater than our immediate lives,” Nizami said.
The Sufi saint’s dargah often finds presence in Bollywood popular culture — from A.R Rahman’s composition ‘Maula’ in the movie Delhi 6 written for and dedicated to Hazrat Auliya, to the song ‘Kun faya Kun’ in the movie Rockstar, which was shot at the dargah.
Footfall to the dargah had been falling for a while though, since February, said Nizami. Usually one of the busier months for the dargah, February was when days of communal riots hit Northeast Delhi, killing more than 40 people.
The headquarters of the Tablighi Jamaat is a 100-year-old, six-floor mosque complex also known as the Bangle wali masjid.
The Tablighi Jamaat is a global Sunni Islamic missionary movement with its roots in India. It was started in Mewat in 1926 by Islamic scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas.
However, though, the dargah, which is essentially Sufi in spirit, represents a very different school of thought than what the Tablighi Jamaat promulgates, which is a more “back-to-basics” approach.
“The principle on which Tablighi Jamaat functions is to make oneself a better Muslim. The idea is to go back to the Quran and read up the basics,” said Rashid Iqbal, a member of the Tablighi Jamaat.
“Dargahs are a strict no-no in this school of thought as they find no basis in the Quran,” Iqbal explained.
This co-existence of different schools of thoughts barely a stone’s throw away from each other is one of the distinctive qualities of the Nizamuddin Basti.
Loss of social space
Historian Rana Safvi describes Nizamuddin as the “center of Delhi’s spiritual existence, and that of pluralistic, syncretic society”.
In her book The Forgotten Cities of Delhi, Safvi chronicled the history of the cities that predated Delhi — Siri, Tughlakabad, Mehrauli and Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti.
“All the rulers who built the other cities ultimately perished, but Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya was the ruler of hearts. And he lives on,” she told ThePrint.
It isn’t just the dargah that has come to mean something for the people who frequent the Basti — it’s everything from the food corners, to the flower shops and the monuments that make Nizamuddin a special meeting point of history, spirituality and life.
Food served in the Basti is often referred to as “langar” — a term traditionally associated with the food distributed in gurdwaras.
“There is always abundance of food at Nizamuddin. Whether it’s the dargah which feeds people Iftar during Ramzan, or just the hotels which are constantly giving food to the poor — no one goes hungry there,” said Abdul Rashid, a businessman who frequents Nizamuddin.
Author and photographer Mayank Austen Soofi is also a frequent visitor of the Basti. “Before the epidemic took over our lives, I used to go to Nizamuddin Basti almost everyday. I know the rhythm of the place, it’s in my heart,” he told ThePrint.
For Soofi, who also goes by moniker ‘the Delhi Walla’, Nizamuddin doesn’t necessarily stoke emotions because of the cultural celebration it is seen as; it’s the ordinary aspects of the place that stay with him.
“I took a small room near the dargah and lived there for a whole year. It’s not like I just go there for a few hours, photograph someone and never return. The people there are my friends. It’s where I am most comfortable,” he said.
Close by is the Ghalib Academy — a museum dedicated to the works of the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. Before the Covid-19 lockdown, many local poets would meet on the footsteps of the academy every evening and recite their works.
“Nizamuddin has given birth to so many exceptional poets. I am always in awe of them,” Soofi said.
With reports that as many as 10 people who contracted the virus at the markaz have died, Soofi said, “This could have happened anywhere. I am honestly just worried about the people who live in Nizamuddin. I hope they come out of this safe.”
Until last month, Soofi said he would instinctively shake hands with the people there, including flower sellers.
The Nizamuddin Basti is also marked by the presence of many ‘fakirs’, ascetics who have renounced much of the worldly gains for spiritual purposes.
While tourists and pilgrims are drawn to the congested lanes for the food and sights, Nizamuddin Basti is home to hundreds of people who have been born and raised there.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has been working with the residents to try and improve the quality of life of the people.
“Nizamuddin has a rich cultural heritage of over 700 years. We decided to use that heritage and build economic opportunities for the people there,” Ratish Nanda, CEO of AKTC told ThePrint.
The organisation runs self-help groups for the women who live there. These include groups where women cook local food items, and learn sewing, especially the traditional zardosi and crochet works that replicate the design on the historical walls of the city.
“The heritage of Nizamuddin isn’t limited to its historical monuments, but its food, its culture, its qawwalis. The conservation needs to go hand in hand with the development of the region,” Nanda said.
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