The first one is near the entrance, next to the stand where visitors take off their shoes. Step into the courtyard and you’ll find another one, half hidden behind a grilled screen. Three more graves are scattered across the floor. Five more are on a stone platform. Two or three are lined up along a narrow alley. Four others are within an arched chamber, though you might not see them at first glance as they lie behind a rusting steel almirah.
No, this is not a graveyard. I am in the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi shrine in Delhi that has so spectacularly expanded its appeal from the sacred to the secular that not only is it reverently portrayed in all the city guidebooks, it has also featured in a few Bollywood films.
Some of us may recall this central Delhi destination merely as the setting of a chartbuster song in Rockstar, the movie in which actor Ranbir Kapoor lip-syncs to Kun Faya Kun, the Sufi qawwali composed by Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman. But to millions of people, this shrine is first and foremost the final resting place of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya (the extra-sensitive faithful always insist on prefixing the mystic’s first name with the respectful “Hazrat”).
The inner life of the dargah plays out most uninhibitedly around the domed mausoleum of Nizamuddin’s 14th century grave. All day long you will see people eating, sleeping, singing, crying and praying in the courtyard surrounding it. A similar monument stands close by—it is the tomb of poet Amir Khusrau, the Sufi saint’s greatest disciple. Legend has it that he did not live long after Nizamuddin, and wished to be buried beside his beloved master. The poet’s devotion to the Sufi has been enshrined in a tradition—devotees first offer prayers at Khusrau’s tomb, and then cross the courtyard to offer haazri at Nizamuddin’s tomb.
Khusrau’ grave is no city secret, nevertheless. Friends of yours who have attended the dargah’s famous Thursday night qawwalis will tell you about it. Some flâneurs might also impress you by showing you the tomb of princess Jahanara, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s daughter. She was buried—in accordance with her wish—in a roofless marble enclosure across the courtyard from Nizamuddin’s tomb. Next to Jahanara’s tomb is another similar enclosure: It is the resting place of Muhammad Shah Rangeela, the Mughal emperor most notorious for letting himself be depicted in a love-making posture—a painting you may not want to see with your underage cousins.
But even this might be known to the curious among us.
One thing that has truly remained an open secret is that the dargah has more than 70 graves. I learnt this after talking to some of the dargah’s khadims, the shrine’s traditional caretakers who claim their descent from Nizamuddin’s bloodline. “We never thought of numbering the graves,” says Fida Nizami, a khadim.
One cold night, I headed to the shrine with the lofty ambition of being the first to count the exact number of graves in the dargah. In many ways, midnight is the best time to be there. No tourists, no beggars and no selfie-seeking photographers. All you can see is a couple of reclusive cats, a handful of devotees with no agenda other than to employ this utterly quiet hour to sit and meditate, and a few pilgrims visiting from villages—they cannot afford to stay in hotels, and are allowed by the dargah authorities to spend the night in the courtyard with their suitcases and mattresses.
The ambitious project turned out to be anything but easy. The entire compound is probably half the size of a football field but it’s dotted with so many similar-looking graves, scattered asymmetrically, that you’re left doubting your count. Stone slabs project from the smooth floor almost everywhere, including inside the hujras, the air-conditioned sitting chambers of the khadims. In one hujra, a coffee machine stands beside the grave of Abu Bakr “Musallahdar”, a Sufi mystic who acquired his moniker because he used to carry Nizamuddin’s musallah, or prayer mat.
Initially, I managed to count 65 graves. When I rechecked, the figure came to 70—I had missed four graves dispersed around emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela’s resting place, and had failed to spot a child’s tomb in a corner of Princess Jahanara’s tomb complex. The third attempt was more frustrating: I discovered three additional graves in the residential quarters of Chand Nizami, the Sufi singer who lives in an outer section of the dargah (you might remember seeing him in the aforementioned song from Rockstar).
Finally, I gave up on the idea of getting an accurate figure. I discovered more graves in previously unseen alcoves and galleries. I had no idea so many graves were hidden from view.
Take the hujras. The dargah has around 25 of them—some are opened by their khadims for limited hours—and who knows how many have graves in them?
Most of the tombs have no inscriptions. Who are the people buried there? One khadim suggested they might belong to Nizamuddin’s many disciples, who, like Khusrau, wished to be buried close to him. Only a handful have escaped anonymity, such as those of Mirza Babur and Mirza Jehangir, brothers of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor.
The other identifiable gravestone faces Amir Khusrau’ tomb. It is of Ziauddin Barani, a contemporary chronicler of 14th century India. Occasionally, musicians sit beside Barani’s grave with their harmoniums and dholaks to offer qawwalis to Khusrau.
To be sure, Nizamuddin’s dargah is not unique in housing so many graves. It is a feature of every Sufi shrine. There are dozens of marble graves at Hazrat Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki’s mausoleum in south Delhi’s Mehrauli. “It is the ardent desire of every devotee to be buried close to their peer (saint),” says Altamash Nizami, a khadim at Nizamuddin’s shrine. “That is why it is no accident that the tombs of (emperor) Humayun and (poet) Ghalib are within walking distance from our (Nizamuddin’s) dargah.”
For that matter, Bahadur Shah Zafar wanted to be buried next to Bakhtiar Kaki’s tomb in Mehrauli, and had chosen a place well in advance. But fate had something else in store, and he was buried in faraway Rangoon instead.
The only book to have extensively documented the graves in Nizamuddin’s dargah was published in Urdu 50 years ago, I was told. Nizami Bansari: Hazrat Khvajah Mahbub Iláhi Sultan Nizamuddin Auliya Ki Savanih Umri was written by Hasan Nizami, a khadim in the shrine. It is out of print but an e-book version is available.
While looking for graves in the thick of night, I came upon the shrine’s outer courtyard. An elderly woman clad in a sari was sprawled beside a grave; a man, sitting by her feet, was eating rice out of a small polythene bag. One grave had a tree growing out of it. Another grave, of white marble, was almost poetic—it was covered with roses, which were rotting. Two women were sleeping on each side.
The grave too seemed like a living person, sleeping. It was perhaps best to leave them all alone.
Other notable graves in Nizamuddin’s ‘dargah’
Khwaja Shamsuddin Mahir
Amir Khusrau’s nephew. His grave is the only one within the marbled enclosure housing Khusrau’s tomb.
Mir Syed Ibrahim Irji
Known as a commentator of treatises on philosophy, he was said to have a great library.
He was one of Nizamuddin’s favourite attendants.
His tomb lies close to his father Khwaja Mubashir’s, near the water taps for ablution. Nizamuddin was said to have a very close bond with him.
A special attendant of Nizamuddin, he managed the daily affairs of Nizamuddin’s kitchen, which would feed a great number of people every day.
—Courtesy Sadia Dehlvi’s book The Sufi Courtyard: Dargahs Of Delhi.