On a cold winter’s night, when the stars lay across the sky, my friend and I decide to visit to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah. It’s Thursday and the entrance to the dargah is swarming with pilgrims. Wires twist like tendrils around a forlorn lamppost at a distance. Translucent-winged creatures whirl around like Sufi saints lost in prayer. There is a spell of the theatrics. In a corner, a shoe-shiner with weary eyes argues with a man for an extra coin; a bald hawker wearing a taqiyah slips off a slipper from his cart and offers it promptly to a passerby. Men stroll at an unhurried pace; women, burqa-clad or otherwise, bolt past; arms shielding their bodies. Perhaps they are wary, perhaps it is the winter chill. As we needle our way through the crowd, we pass a busy bookstore of Urdu books. We pass a barbershop with pale yellow walls and circus mirrors. We pass the solemn and gated Ghalib’s tomb.
As we delve deeper into this oceanic splendour of lights, people and colour, I become exceedingly fascinated and curious. There are teasing whiffs of charcoaled meat and parathas. Brightly lit shops push and squeeze into one another. There are chadars—emerald green, tangerine and wine red with golden borders on display. Rose petals—plucked, pink and fleshy—rest in baskets. Shop owners sit cross-legged at the edge, handing out business cards. A few of them call out, asking if we would like to leave our shoes behind. “Ignore them,” my friend says. “There is a stall up ahead, closest to the dargah. We will leave our shoes there.” He then tugs my dupatta that I have slung across my shoulder. We are nearing our destination. It is time to wrap it around my head in respect.
We reach the stairs: a descent we must make, and I am caught off guard. There is a sudden flurry of people. I hold on to a wall while my feet try to find grounding. When the crowd trickles away, it lays out a perfect image before me: worshippers, curious tourists, pirs and pirzades, buoyant across a sea of white marble like coloured boats. There is a startling energy here. As we descend, before us lies the shrine of Amir Khusrau, a gifted poet and Hazrat Nizamuddin’s favourite disciple. My friend directs me to a washing ground where men and women cleanse their hands and feet. A few feet away, I hear something: a tuning of a harmonium, a staccato of claps searching for a rhythm, someone clearing his throat, a shuffle in the crowd. I quicken my pace, steering myself in the direction of the mehfil.
In an open courtyard, facing the mausoleum of Hazart Nizamuddin, the Qawwals have settled down for the evening serenade. About 80-100 odd people sit cross-legged in anticipation, framing the Qawwals from three directions. We negotiate our way through the crowd hawk-eyeing for a perch. Hazrat Nizamuddin’s tomb is a fascinating structure, characterized by marble pillars and trellis for walls. Orange threads weave in and out of the trellis. The threads symbolize mannats, wishes of thousands who visit the dargah. I notice a yellow board with a green border that hangs at the grilled entrance of the tomb. It cautions: ‘Ladies are not allowed inside.’ Outside the tomb, a few women mumble something repeatedly and kiss the walls; another cluster of women sits with children in tow, reading diligently from books in hand.
My attention is diverted. The Qawwali has begun and I settle at the edge of the gathering. A man stands guard: his job is to ensure that a human wall isn’t constructed between Hazart Nizamuddin and the Qwwals. He ushers people to either sit or walk by. “They are singing Tajdar-e-haram,” my friend leans over to inform. I nod and take out my phone to quickly jot down the lyrics:
Kismat mein meri chain se jeena likh de
Doobe na kabhi mera safeena likh de
Jannat bhi gawaara hai magar mere liye
Eh kaatib-e-taqdeer madina likh de
I request my friend, who is more informed about Hindustani poetry than I, to translate and he obliges:
Write, in my fate, the ability to live peacefully
Write, in my fate, that my paper boat must never sink
I would accept jannat (paradise), but for me,
Oh writer of destiny, at least write down the city of Madina
The evening eventually comes to an end and the crowd disperses. My friend and I decide to take a long, leisurely stroll around the tomb, observing the people and the ritual of prayer. “I did not know that ‘safeena’ meant paper boat,” I tell him. “The word is beautiful.” He smiles knowingly. It has become colder and we must leave. We make our way to the exit, merging into the crowd, passing Ghalib’s tomb, the library, the chaiwallas—returning to reality.
About the Author: Radhika Iyengar works as a Deputy Editor for a creative arts lifestyle magazine called, Platform Magazine. She has done her Masters in Mass Communication from Sophia Polytechnic, Bombay, where she studied documentary filmmaking. Her other avatar is that of a photographer, where she tries to give a visual expression to her writing. She lives in New Delhi.
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