Sunday, August 5, 2007

Music, magic and a mystic

The dargah of Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Awlia is a revered shrine amongst Muslims and Hindus alike. Barren wombs sprout life and stubborn ailments disappear, it is said, if the faithful pray at the shrine of this Sufi saint. I was accompanying Amim mian, a friend, a colleague, and a dargah regular.

Skewered meat hung in front of a cluster of stalls on my left and on my right sat maimed beggars, with wispy greying beards, arms raised, heads shaking to a near rhythmic chant of “Ya Allah! Ya Allah!” In a corner stood a sheep, the likes of which I hadn’t seen before – the dumba – large, without horns and with a bean bag for a tail. Minarets and domes rose up along a narrow lane. As far as the eye could see, there were prayer caps bobbing in front of me, as I followed the faithful into the cramped lane. Ignoring hawkers, vying for attention, we stepped into a small courtyard as the muezzin called for the evening prayers.

The courtyard was crowded. In the humid July heat, I waited at the tail end of a long serpentine queue of devotees. Mercifully, a middle-aged woman walked up and started waving a pankha (a hand fan). There were others like her at different sections of the queue, all serving the faithful in the hope of alms. The place was crawling with beggars of all ages. Our lady with the fan had only one good arm with which she held the pankha while her other arm lay limp across the front of her torso. Out of gratitude and against my better judgment (beggars should be given food and clothing, not money) I took out my wallet to give her a few rupees, and in response, in the manner of a person who knew more than she was letting on, she said, “mobile sambhal ke, babu”. And something in her tone told me that I would not find my phone in my pocket and sure enough, my pockets were empty. She perhaps knew who might’ve taken it and while she sympathised with me, her loyalties perhaps lay elsewhere. I just smiled and acknowledged my loss but honestly, I was more than a little miffed.

I had come here expecting the healing touch of Sufism – the other side of Islam. The one that lay hidden beneath news reports that suggested that it was the purported fuse that threatened to explode into a clash of civilizations, fuelled by jehadi rage and reactionary outrage – the faith that inspired an Amir Khusro to write “Kafir-e-ishqam musalmani mara darkaar neest…” (I am a pagan (worshipper) of love: the creed I do not need…, We have God in our midst: the pilot we do not need). But I was a trifle disappointed. I did not see the ideal I had come to seek, of crowds of Hindus, their heads covered by a cotton handkerchief, milling with Muslims in skull caps. Perhaps, the winds of suspicion that blew from Glasgow to Brisbane, had reached the little hamlet of Nizamuddin too. Hiding my disappointment over the loss of a phone, & worse, the loss of a notion, Amim mian and I made our way through the throngs toward the final resting place of Hazrat Nizamuddin whose unfettered compassion for both Muslims and Hindus and his miraculous achievements seem to touch the lives even today. His living presence, many say, can be felt to this day, by those who enter these walls with a pure heart.

As the sun set, a soul stirring voice pierced through the thrum that had enveloped the shrine. The qawwals had taken stage. We were standing at the back but one of the qawwals saw us and perhaps he could read my disappointed mind for he motioned for us to come forward. Immediately, like the parting of the Red Sea, the crowd gave way and welcomed us to the front. A group of singers, the Nizami brothers, sang with voices that were loud, grainy, powerful, and yet soothing and beautifully harmonised. Their impassioned piety had the entranced crowd clapping and swaying in rhythm. A man jumped up, eyes closed, he swayed and danced like a man possessed. Still no Hindu men sporting handkerchiefs but I did see some Caucasian women, who in their Western attire blended with surprising ease with the burqa clad Muslim women and were treated with great respect. The evening had acquired a magical hue. From a crowded, grimy courtyard, where thieving fingers lurked in every corner, it had been transformed into a platform where music, poetry, prayer and faith blended to create a timeless, transcendental vignette that touched the very soul of the audience. Listeners and performers swayed in unison – qawwals and faqirs, white women and brown rickshaw pullers, phone-less columnists and turbaned sheikhs, in sync and rhythm with a smile on their lips and peace in their hearts.

The qawwals did not let us leave till the end of their performance and then we were ushered into the inner sanctum of the shrine by a good-looking man wearing a waist-coat and a black cap. “He’s a pirzada, a direct descendent of the saint” Amim told me. After we’d said our prayers, the pirzada draped a holy chadar around my shoulders and Amim’s and blessed us. As we left the shrine, a tall, bearded man with piercing kohl-lined eyes and long henna red hair, in a black tunic walked up to us. The faqir looked fierce but he looked at me, pointed towards the heavens, tilted his head and smiled, as if to acknowledge a secret between, God, him and me. And then he disappeared. I felt blessed and enlightened for I realised that here there was love for man (irrespective of his God) and faith in God, and where there is either, there is no reason to fight. Perhaps this is Islam….

A peerless pir

“Hanoz Dilli door ast!”, Hazrat Khwaja Nizamuddin Awlia had uttered these famous words when Sultan Ghiyas ud-din Tughlaq had threatened the Sufi saint with dire consequences for refusing to let go of the workers who had been working with the saint, trying to construct a water tank for the villagers of Ghiyaspur. The Sultan was shifting his capital to Tughlaqabad and had decreed that all workmen involved in independent projects were to be relieved so that they could be put to work, building the new capital. But Delhi was indeed far away for the Sultan. Tughlaq was on his way back to Delhi from a campaign, but on the very outskirts of the city, the Sultan was crushed to death under a structure raised in his honour.

Tughlaqabad is now in ruins and the dynasty is dead but the tiny village of Ghiyaspur still stands. It is called Nizamuddin after the saint who lived out his pious life in the village, spreading love, blessings and good cheer. Born in 1238 AD in Badayun, the great saint’s mausoleum (where his beloved disciple, Amir Khusro too, rests in peace) is a powerful shrine that shines like a beacon of secular celebrations and one of those rare corners of the globe where different faiths merge into humanity.


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