Down Memory Lane History & Culture

Unearthing some forgotten tales from the cemeteries of Delhi

Echoes from the past: Delhi Gate graveyard

Echoes from the past: Delhi Gate graveyard   | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

Delhi has many cemeteries, among them Muslim and Christian ones, besides the Parsi Rustam Bagh. Rustam was the great epic hero of ancient Iran who rivalled the Greek Hercules by his deeds of valour, eventually ending up killing his only son Sohrab by mistake and passing the rest of his life in misery because of a lie by his wife, that she had given birth to a girl so that Rustam might not take him away on his exploits and endanger his life. The Parsi Aramgah commemorates the two, and hymns in their praise and other Iranian heroes are sung every morning at the Delhi Gate fire temple.

Not far is the Dilli Gate Kabristan which was set up in 1924, two years before the death of Hakim Ajmal Khan, the legendary physician born in 1863. The kabristan was once part of the palace grounds of the famous Mughal general Mahabat Khan, whose very name instilled fear in his opponents and who served Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, once taking Jahangir captive to outwit Nur Jahan.

His real name was Zamana Beg. A Sunni, he later became a Shia, who found his burial spot in the Jorbagh cemetery, though his daughter rests in a maqbara in Agra. It is worth noting that the Muharram procession to Jorbagh Karbala (later expanded by Qudsia Begum, wife of Mohd Shah) used to go past his house. Nearby is the Abdun Nabi mosque of Akbar’s days which is now well maintained after losing its embellishments.

Among those who rest in the Delhi Gate kabristan are many famous shopkeepers, like Kale Baba, the gola kabab maker of Suiwalan, who once told a fastidious customer that taste was a temporary thing and lasted only so long as one was alive, which held good for his kababs too. Kallu Nahariwala and Jameel Ahmed Rampuria, the fish seller who came to Delhi to earn fame from the Rampur Nawabi State, are also buried in the cemetery, along with the Persian scholar Yunus Jaffrey who was William Dalrymple’s guide when the Scottish author was writing his masterpiece “City of Djinns”.

Most of the graves are “kutcha” or mud ones in keeping with the strictest tenets of Islam, among them those of Haji Zahooruddin, of Haji Hotel, his wife, mother and grandmother and also the ones of one of his sons, who died in his youth, and daughter-in-law, the wife of Haji Mian Faiyazuddin, who now runs Haji Hotel, bang opposite Jama Masjid. Some graves are plastered “pucca” too. When newspaper offices opened in Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg and made it known as Delhi’s Fleet Street, press workers doing night duty used to complain about spirits from the cemetery troubling them. The dandy Vernon Ram, sports editor of the Express, who later went away to Hong Kong to edit the South China Morning Post , revealed that once he went to sleep on a bench in front of his office and was rudely awakened at midnight by someone pulling his legs. He then decided to rest in the newsroom as he wanted to pursue a story early in the morning when the Indian cricket team was to arrive from Bombay for a Test match with the MCC XI of Nigel Howard.

Some press workers also had the same experience, complaining that it was an old woman and a young man who would arouse them from slumber as they relaxed after duty. Whether such incidents still take place is hard to ascertain, as the noted editor Frank Moraes stopped workers from sleeping outdoors and his successor, Prem Bhatia made special provision of a resting room for them.

A sketch of Lothian road cemetery

A sketch of Lothian road cemetery  

This kabristan is not so old as the ones in Nizamuddin, Panchkuin Road (near the shrine of Hazrat Rasool Numa) or the ones at Mehndiyan, Chamelian, Tikonia, Punjabiyan and the graveyard named after Khwaja Baqibulla, the saint. Very old also is the cemetery near the Idgah, where just about 10 days ago the publisher of the now defunct Shama Magazine, Yunus Dehlvi was buried in the family plot. However, most of the graves at the Idgah, which dates back to the time of Aurangzeb, are those of butchers from Qasabpura and shopkeepers of Bara Hindu Rao, named after the Maratha nobleman who came to Delhi as the agent of his brother-in law, Maharaja Daulat Rao Scindia and bought the mansion of William Fraser after the assassination of the British Resident that had actually been built by Sir Edward Colebrooke, who lost his job earlier as British Resident at the Mughal Court on the charge of embezzlement.

A small burial plot near the shrine of Hazrat Kalimullah Jehanabadi, opposite the Red Fort, contains some graves of noted people who were mureeds or devotees of the saint. Among them was the wife of Barrister Nuruddin Ahmed, thrice Mayor of Delhi, who used to come every evening to offer fateha prayers for her and stay on to hear qawwalis sung by three brother-qawwals, Ibrahim, Munnu and Chunnu. About the Dilli Gate Kabristan one intriguing story is of a woman who was buried there initially but later the remains were moved to Lothian Road Cemetery, on the way to Kashmere Gate. The reason was that she was a Christian married to a Muslim businessman and when her husband buried her, her relatives protested and, after a civil suit, the body (or whatever remained of it) was moved to Lothian Road. But the vacant grave continued to exist. Whether it is still so is not known, but octogenarian Haji Mian does not remember having seen it though he has been visiting the kabristan as a child, when his grandmother was buried there sans a tombstone.

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Printable version | Apr 6, 2020 5:02:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/grave-matters/article26495938.ece

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