Nizamuddin’s Tomb

In the central courtyard of Nizamuddin’s Tomb, in Delhi, stands a beautiful white building. Pillars support an ornate canopy with an onion shaped dome. Its underside is finely painted with swirling greens and reds: a floral pattern. Crowds push between the pillars, straining to reach the golden chamber at the centre. Inside is a bed-like marble platform, the pillars at its corners stretching up to the ceiling. A bright lumpen cloth lies on the platform, like a covered body.

I watch the people circle slowly around it. Some bring wreaths of flowers and drop them delicately onto the cloth. Others stroke, or kiss the four smooth pillars. They appear hypnotised, their whole minds consumed by the spiritual experience and solemnity of the occasion.

The tomb was built to commemorate the Saint Sheikh Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Chisti shortly after his death in 1325. Nizamuddin practiced Sufism -– a form of Islam that emphasises embracing god within life. He offered food and spiritual education and was revered for his kindness and tolerance of different people. Since then, the original buildings that comprised his tomb have been rebuilt several times, but the place has retained its power.

I first encountered the tomb through fiction, in the short story ‘Royalty,’ by Anita Desai. Describing the buffalo’s innards that “hung like curtains” in the butchers’ booths, and the air “rife with raw blood and the thrum of flies”, Desai wonderfully captures the atmospheric approach to the tomb and uses this to express the turbulent emotions of the story’s characters as they encounter it.

For me, the journey to the tomb is as wonderfully overwhelming as its destination. In the crowded and ragged neighborhood where the tomb is located, also known as Nizamuddin, poverty and strong Muslim spirituality jostle together. After work one evening, I join the scrum pushing their way onto a spluttering old bus and hung on as it lurches its way south to get there.

Beggars line the shadows of the road leading up to the tomb, hobbling around on old wooden crutches with their lame legs dragging, or sit smothered in layers of dusty clothes. There’s a butcher shop, its meat flushed where it hung beneath bright white lights. Next door stood food stalls with big metal trays of curry and piles of flat breads.

Thousands of Muslims come to visit this tomb each week, making pilgrimage here from other parts of the city and even the rest of country. People push in on either side of me –- many with white skullcaps and whispy beards — moving slowly forward and carrying me with them.

The road narrows into a maze of small lanes, twisting through to the temple with stalls selling souvenirs and garlands of flowers. A man stops me and insists that I take off my shoes.  Pulling them off, I shuffle barefoot forwards with the crowds. Another man drapes a garland of flowers around my neck. I keep moving slowly forwards, then finally burst out into the open courtyard.

As with most Indian Temples, a visit to Nizammudin’s Tomb isn’t conveyor belt tourism. People stay here for a long time, absorbing the spiritual atmosphere around them. There are women in bright saris, with a piece of coloured cloth pulled up to cover their hair. Groups of men stand together, hands on hips as they discuss the affairs of the world. On Tuesday evenings, Qawwali singers perform their mesmerising devotional music, sitting on the smooth stone of the courtyard with a crowd gathered around to listen.

Two play box organs that give out a warm drone, while another beats at a drum with a hollow pulsing throb. The singers clap along with the accompaniment and wail Arabic lyrics that float powerfully above this rhythm. One would start first, laying down the theme for the other singers to follow.

Their voices looped over the same chants, swelling into a powerful sound. The music had a beautiful force to it that took over my thoughts and gripped my body. The powerful spirituality of this magical place wasn’t just on view; it could be felt.

This entry was written by Nicholas Olczak , posted on Tuesday March 13 2012at 11:03 pm , filed under Public Space, Society and Culture, South Asia and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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