The sound of a qawwali

Devotees at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi.  

I follow the sounds of a harmonium, tabla and dholak being tuned and someone exercising their vocal chords. The invisible singers launch into a qawwali. I quicken my stride and turn into the gali that leads to the dargah where Nizamuddin Auliya and his favourite disciple Amir Khusrau are buried.

Life within

It's Friday, and the evening prayers are just over. People are spilling out of a mosque nearby. The path is lined with brightly lit shops. Prayer mats in shades of blue, green, yellow, red, purple, orange, silver, golden and pink are strung outside; I feel like I have bumped into a rainbow. The shop-owners fan themselves stopping only to sprinkle water from plastic bottles on their baskets of roses. The scent of the flowers mingles with the smoke from agarbattis.

Leaving my slippers with a man tending to flowers, I turn the corner and find people milling around a mausoleum. It is not Nizamuddin's, as I thought but the poet-historian Amir Khusrau's. The shrine inside is full of men; I have to be content looking from outside. Women are not allowed in. They ask for dua from outside and tie prayer threads to the marble trellis.

I meet Syed Kabiruddin Nizami who claims to be a Nizamuddin descendant. We watch a Sikh gentleman lighting a candle at the dargah and Nizami tells me with pride that this is a non-political and a completely secular area. In one corner of the dargah, opposite Khusrau's mausoleum, an old man cleans green and yellow lamps. The green lamps are for Amir Khusrau and the yellow for Nizamuddin. The tradition has continued since the 14th century.

In the courtyard I finally get to see the Qawwals. A crowd has settled around the musicians whose voices soar powerfully. They are said to be descendants of court musicians from Nizamuddin's time. An old man with a green cloth tied to a thick stick moves around fanning the visitors. A couple of five or six year olds do the same with smaller fans.

Family business

Chandeliers gleam at the entrance to Nizamuddin's mausoleum. Women sit in open corridors chanting from the Koran. Syed Parvez Nizami (another descendent) informs me that there are 500 family members (all descendants of Nizamuddin) who run the dargah. I look taken aback and he grins as he adds that thes dargah of Moinuddin Chishti (Ajmer Sharif) is run by nearly 6000 descendants of the saint! On a serious note, he says all the donations and maintenance are taken care of by the family and that the government has no hand in it.

After sending up a quick prayer, I head to the baoli and watch enviously as kids dive off the high walls into the green waters. And past the kebab walas, chai wallahs and flower sellers, I wind my way back home.

Sudarshana Srinivasan is a III year student of History Honours at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi

Fact file

Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia lived in a small village called Ghiyaspur on the outskirts of Delhi. He lived there for 60 years and was buried there. In his lifetime, he was frequently at loggerheads with the Delhi rulers but was also sought after for advice and blessing. Eight hundred odd years later, the dargah still retains the essence of what it must have been like all those years ago. Today, Ghiyaspur is better known as Nizamuddin.


The Aga Khan Trust for Culture along with the Archaeological Survey of India, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and the Public Works Department is working on the cultural and economic revival of the Nizamuddin basti. It aims to integrate the community with its cultural heritage. To know more visit http://www.nizamuddinrenewal.org/

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 4:33:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/nxg/the-sound-of-a-qawwali/article3522957.ece

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