An afternoon with the saints

On a heritage walk through the three Chisti shrines in New Delhi

August 22, 2015 10:32 am | Updated March 29, 2016 04:49 pm IST

The entrance to the tomb of Baktiar Kaki

The entrance to the tomb of Baktiar Kaki

On a crisp Delhi winter morning, I stood in a courtyard surrounded by people. The air was heavy with the smell of roses and incense; a robust qawwali session — interspersed with ‘wah wahs’ — was going on full swing. People chanted prayers and exchanged news in an environment of calm and goodwill at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, one of the most popular saints of the Sufi Chisti Silsila.

I was on a heritage walk — organised by writer, academic and activist Sohail Hashmi — to the Chisti shrines in Delhi. Sufism came to India through Moinuddin Chisti in the 12 century and, of those who followed him, Nasiruddin Mehmood Chisti Nizami, Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya were buried in Delhi.

The first stop was Chirag Dilli — the resting place of Nasiruddin Mehmood Chisti Nizami, the youngest of the three saints. So far I thought of Chirag Dilli as the “awful-traffic place”. But I changed my mind when we got off the bus and reached the dargah after navigating a narrow gulli . The view of the minimalist 14 century architecture was breathtaking. In one enclosure was a flat wooden platform or taqt where it is believed Nasiruddin Mehmood performed chilla (a spiritual practice involving praying in seclusion for 40 days).

In fact the place got its name from the saint. Nasiruddin Mehmood was named ‘Chirag-e-Dilli’ by Nizamuddin Auliya. Here is the story behind that name. When the Tughlaqabad fort was being built, Sultan Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq ordered that the masons should work only on the fort and on no other building. Around the same time Nizamuddin Auliya had commissioned a baoli (step well) at Ghiyaspur (today’s Nizamuddin) and the masons worked on the well at night. The enraged Sultan cut off oil supply to Ghiyaspur so that lamps couldn’t be lit and the masons could not work in the darkness. So, Nasiruddin Mehmood is said to have worked a miracle by using water to light the lamps. 

Next on the itinerary was Mehrauli, which is not too far from Qutub Minar. Buried here is the man who brought the qawwali to India: Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki. The spiritual successor of Moinuddin Chisti, he came to India in the 13 century. He lived in extreme poverty, and is credited to have created kak (bread) miraculously; hence the name Kaki.

His remains lie behind an intricately worked trellis wall. And only men are allowed inside. I spotted women peering through the trellis; some praying, others weeping softly and tying prayer threads through the jaali .  Kaki’s mother and wet nurse also lie beside him. During the Urs (death anniversary) of Moinuddin Chisti, pilgrims first visit Kaki’s dargah before making their way to Ajmer.  In 1947, the mausoleum was desecrated by rioters. The jaalis were broken and Mehrauli was witness to mass killings. Mahatma Gandhi went on a hunger strike demanding that the dargah be restored in time for the Urs and the structure was renovated within 72 hours. 

It was midday when we arrived at the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. We entered through the back entrance and arrived at the baoli . Yes, the same one that features in the Chirag Dilli story. In the passages leading to the shrine, food was being distributed to the poor; a reminder of how Nizamuddin Auliya often gave his food away to those in need. People milled around the vast courtyard. Men entered the mausoleum to offer prayers and women sat with Qurans in the veranda.

The poet Amir Khusrao is also buried here, as he was devoted to the saint. He died a bare six months after the saint’s death. His couplet inscribed on the tomb reads: “Everyone decides who they want to venerate. I have chosen to venerate the one who wore a crooked cap”. Khusrao’s Urs is marked by qawwali evening, marking his contribution to Indian classical music.

The other notables buried in this place are Ziauddin Barani (the historian who documented history of the Delhi Sultanate) and Jahanara Begum (Shah Jahan’s daughter). Jahanara’s epitaph reads: “Let no one cover my grave except with greenery, for this very grass suffices as a tomb cover for the poor”. 

I took a deep breath, smelt the roses and the incense, heard the qawwals sing about Nizamuddin Auliya. Then I returned to college, just in time to attend my lecture on Medieval Indian History. 

How to get there

Chirag Delhi:Closest Metro Station is Hauz Khas (Yellow line)

Shrine of Bakhtiar Kaki:Closest Metro Station is Qutub Minar (Yellow Line)

Shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya:Closest Metro Station is Jangpura (Violet Line) or Pragati Maidan (Blue Line)

Entrance to all three is free

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