The dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya isn’t just a tomb; it’s a pilgrimage. Here, amidst crowds of devout pilgrims, the religious fervour reaches its apex- and strangely enough, manages to remain far from fanatical. Even more astounding is the fact that this tomb isn’t just revered by Muslims. I saw Hindu women, clad in bright nylon saris, a streak of vermilion in the parting of their hair, sitting by the saint’s tomb, listening to the prayers being intoned. And not seeming at all out of place.
My last visit to Nizamuddin’s tomb was on a dry, dusty Sunday. Our walking group began at an early hour (7:30), but the neighbourhood, also called Nizamuddin, was already a hive of activity. The Nizamuddin Police Station was our starting point, and stepping into the narrow bylanes beyond it catapulted us back in time. The traffic—rickshaws, cycles, motorbikes—slow us down, and we gawk at the wares on sale around us. All along the right, men squat on the ground, with shoebox-sized wooden boxes in front of them. Neatly arranged atop each box are mathematically precise, tidy rows of pale brown sticks.
"Meswak," replies one of the hawkers, when we ask him what it is. Ah. Enlightenment dawns. Meswak is a shrub that’s reputedly excellent for the teeth. Chew a stick, they say, and you do your teeth a favour.
Other items on sale are more easily identified, which doesn’t mean that they’re common. A woman sitting at the corner has a large tray spilling over with shells, dried sponges, twigs. On top of the clutter sits a calcified starfish. We follow an unbroken line of stalls and shops, all pointing the way to the dargah. The projecting roofs of the stalls on either side cover the narrow lane to the tomb. The shopkeepers offer a very limited range of items, everything destined to be offered at the dargah. There are packets of lump sugar, known as bataashas. There are garish chaadars—sheets of polyester or nylon, invariably a garish red or green, with an image of the Qa’aba embroidered on it. And, most visible of all, there are chaadars made solely out of local roses. Full-blown, deep pink roses, strung onto thread, the resulting garlands woven into a fishnet-like sheet of blossoms.
Our group prepares to enter the dargah. Some of us buy the ubiquitous rose chaadars; nearly all of us take up the offer of the nearby shopkeepers to leave our shoes at their shops. Gratis.
We step into the large dargah complex. It’s very impressive, not just because this happens to be one of India’s most popular shrines, but also because of the history that surrounds it. Although he is known primarily as a Sufi mystic, Nizamuddin wielded considerable political influence (his feud with Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq is of the type you could write a story about and no questions asked). By the time he died in 1325 he was generally accepted as a saint, and that’s why the area around his tomb is chock-full of the tombs of other equally famous people.
The first of these, a structure of white marble with a roof that curves at the edges, is that of Nizamuddin’s dearest friend, the poet Amir Khusro. Khusro is considered one of medieval India’s finest poets, and his love for Nizamuddin was so deep that when Nizamuddin died, Khusro pined away in sorrow and died within a few months- at Nizamuddin’s grave. My sister, who’s leading this walk, hands over a chaadar of roses to the guardian of Khusro’s tomb. The man’s poetry deserves it.
From Khusro’s tomb, a short flight of steps leads down into the courtyard where Nizamuddin’s tomb holds pride of place. Before reaching the saint’s tomb, however, we edge up a couple of steps to the right, to the tomb of a little-known but interesting character called Mirza Jahangir. Mirza Jahangir was the elder brother of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, and should (by rights) have been the emperor...his father, in fact, had nominated him the heir. Mirza Jahangir’s ascension of the throne was not to be, however; when he opposed the posting of a British guard inside the Red Fort, he was accused, on a trumped-up charge of having tried to kill the British Resident, Seton, and was exiled to Allahabad.
His distraught mother immediately began praying in earnest for her son’s return, and vowed that if his exile was revoked, she would go all the way from Nizamuddin’s tomb to the tomb of the mystic Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaaqi (in Mehrauli) to offer votive chaadars. Her prayers granted, she carried out her vow. Her trek between the two tombs is traced even today by a large crowd and is known as the Phoolwaalon ki Sair or the Sair-e-Gulfaroshaan (The Walk of the Flower-Sellers).
Down the steps, and we step across the narrow corridor towards the tombs of two very different people. Both royal, and both with very distinctive tombs. One is the tomb of the Mughal emperor Mohammad Shah Rangeela" (rangeela means colourful; and this man, with his unashamed love of debauchery, was nothing if not colourful). His tomb, as you’d expect, is an ornate, intricately carved one of white marble.
Next to Mohammad Shah’s tomb, and separated from it by a screen of carved white marble, is the tomb of the Princess Jahanara, daughter of Shahjahan. Jahanara had desired that, as a token of her humility, her grave be left open to the skies- in other words, not covered with an ornate cenotaph. Her tomb, therefore, is a comparatively simple one: there is white marble, and it’s carved, but all along the top, a panel has been left out, which is just plain earth.
In the centre of the complex is the main tomb- Nizamuddin’s. It’s in a hall, surrounded by pillars. The bright, freshly painted and gilded flowers decorating the pillars somehow seemed to detract from the beauty of the place, but to each his own, I guess. Dozens of people mill around here, praying, sitting and listening to discourses, or just coming in to see the saint’s tomb. There’s an imposing mosque right next to the tomb, made of red sandstone and white marble (both, unfortunately, painted over).
If you go past the dargah and out the other side, you’ll come to the baoli or stepwell that Nizamuddin had built here. Having been forewarned that it’s now pretty filthy, we gave it a miss and headed back the way we came. Back, past the tombs of Jahanara, Mirza Jahangir and Amir Khusro, past the first few shops- and then, instead of going right, we turned left and ducked under a strip of grubby sacking stretched across the lane. And there we were, at the amazing tomb of Atgah Khan.
The story of Atgah Khan is an interesting though tragic one. His wife, Jiji Anga, was the wet nurse of the Mughal emperor Akbar; and her arch rival was the other wet nurse, Meham Anga. A bitter rivalry existed between the families of the two women, and Meham Anga’s son Adham Khan, eventually murdered Atgah Khan. Akbar was so incensed at this act that he reacted with sudden (and one hopes uncharacteristic) brutality- he had Adham Khan thrown to his death from a high wall.
Atgah Khan’s tomb is a beauty, a lovely domed building sitting in its own little courtyard. The outside is decorated in red sandstone and white marble, both elegantly carved- and on the far side is a wall mosque. This is a pattern of arches, made of glazed tiles fitted on a wall: the simplest form of mosque there is.
At Atgah Khan’s tomb, our group is joined by a local tramp, wearing a scruffy T-shirt and knee-length pants. He’s obviously a little weak in the head, and prances gaily about, all across the tomb. Looking at him, I can’t help but remember the old "Walk like an Egyptian" song—his dancing is almost exactly like the music video. All of this is very incongruous.
He trudges along faithfully with our group till the next (and last) tomb on our walk, the tomb of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, the son of the ill-fated Atgah Khan. The tomb, built in 1624 and known as Chaunsath Khamba ("Sixty four Pillars") is very unusual: it’s a flat-topped, large hall of 64 white pillars. The tomb is a combination of white marble and incised plaster, not extremely ornate, but definitely very large and roomy. Except for the heavily carved cenotaphs (not just Kokaltash, but various other members of his family are also buried here), it looks more like a large assembly hall than a tomb. Our voices echo here, and the man who’s tagged along looks a little sober.
The walk back to the Nizamuddin Police Station is short. So short, in fact, that it seems as if we’ve gone from the 17th century to the 21st in a matter of mere seconds.