The call of the muezzin flowed through the air, as we stood on the threshold, waiting to enter a place that bespoke love, music, religion and culture. A swarm of humanity surrounded us; chaotic, but familiar in its purpose – waiting to pay respects to a saint who lived 700 years ago and who preached the message of tolerance and peace. Monarchs came and went; some challenged this saint, others followed him, some took his counsel, but none could match the popularity of this fakir whose fame and message survived 700 years to inspire people.
The Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah is home to the remains of Nizamuddin Auliya, the Sufi saint who shook the roots of power and royalty, who, centuries ago, had rooted for the causes of gender equality and benefit schemes for the poor and was a force to be reckoned with. There are many parables surrounding him; and the most famous is about how he once produced an unending amount of oil from the tip of his finger. To most believers, he is God; having the power to cure the sick, producing huge amounts of wealth and lighting lamps with water. But if one were to believe factual historical accounts, his worldly contributions were way more extraordinary.
His political shrewdness and his humanistic approach to religion made him a legend, in spite of him being in conflict with the monarchy most of his life. He formulated the idea of being lost in God: God being the male lover and all of humanity being the female half, pining for eternal union. It is only when we get liberated by death do we unite with our mehboob, our lover God. Poetry, music, art, verse – they became the media through which we express our divine longing and love.
Using art in religion was a revolutionary idea, and was met with disdain by some religious leaders and rulers alike. To this day, this tussle continues. But that still does not prevent hundreds of people turning up at the dargah at this day and age to listen as the sounds of the Qawwali flow through the air. The passionate, luscious cries of the singers cut through your heart, and very soon, you are lost in their ecstasy, their transcendence. You start swaying to the rhythm of the percussion as they cry out to the Lord to answer their prayers and bless them with the singularity with God they so wish to possess.
The walk through the narrow lanes is an immersive experience; you get completely caught up in the emotional energy that is present in the Dargah. The qawwali is a mesmerizing affair, having an otherworldly quality about it. One engages deeply with its history, its culture and the origins of the syncretic nature of the religion that evolved into Sufism, the mystical faith. Amir Khusro, Auliya’s most famous disciple is buried within the same dargah, and his shrine is a coalescence of humanity of all religions and nationalities. Backpackers from other countries can be seen with their heads bowed and touched to the ground, their backpacks protruding out and threatening to fall over, their sandals unpacked outside. A woman, her red vermillion streak glinting, offers prayers outside the dargah, knees bent, hands folded. As one covers one’s head in deference to the Saint, they surrender to its rules; and the result is adherence to a sect that puts humanism at its core.
There was a perfect balance of history and experience in this walk. One of our companions, an expert in Sufi history, prudently narrated the history to us before entering the premises of the dargah, lest we attract the ire of the devotees for whom this legendary figure is the representation of God himself. History and religion share a deep relationship; yet sometimes they fall out like quarrelling siblings. The dry accuracy of history can be unappealing to the romantic followers of a religion, while the blind faith of religion may cause derision to historians and social scientists. One has to accept this conflict as one prepares oneself to take up this walk; or be caught in the inward tussle where one struggles with fact and fiction.
For me, the fascinating aspect was the humanism of this Saint. In times when religious leaders would question the progress and growth of women, this man used sharp metaphors and an all-encompassing philosophy to argue in their favour. When monarchs would look in disdain upon the poor, this saint gathered food for them by going door-to-door and would distribute this food for free, partaking only what is left at the end of it. He opened his door to people from all religions; and did not encourage conversion. To this day, people from all religions visit the Dargah, hoping to find peace and tranquillity in the remains of the man who ushered in an era of progressive religion.
As I draped my dupatta around my head to enter the Dargah, I felt a great sense of joy and divine connection. We walked barefoot into the arcade, holding onto each other in the massive crowd that occupied the inner space of the Dargah. There was the Tomb of Jahanara, Shahjahan’s daughter and the Tomb of Atgah Khan, the father-figure for Akbar. It was believed that the proximity of a person’s grave in the tomb of the Saint made it easier for the said person to enter Heaven. That is the reason kings, aristocracy and the ruling class competed for burying spaces near to the tomb of saints, and the Dargah was cluttered with graves of various sizes.
A trip to this abode of peace is highly recommended for people who find history and religion fascinating. One can appreciate the wonder of the devotees, while not taking the myths literally. At the same time, one cultivates a sense of passion for the great man who fought the societal norms of his time to establish a culture of equality and freedom.
A lover of literature, music, babies and anything that captures her imagination, Raina Bhattacharya loves to write about topics that challenges her notions and brings out hitherto unexplored bits. Currently a development professional, she loves interesting conversations and experiences that leave a mark in her heart and mind.