The Sufi Heart of Delhi

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    It’s hard to imagine that India’s political capital and power base Delhi, was known through much of history not as the seat of kings and rulers, but as a shrine of great saints. It is, in fact, the hallowed grounds of this city that brought a series of empire builders here.

    The oldest written reference to Delhi can be found in Jain literature. That is where the name ‘Dhillika’ appears for the first time. Evidence of Over 165 Jain Temples in Delhi confirms the fact that Delhi has been an important site of Jainism, with several Jain saints visiting the city regularly. Over the years Dhillika became Delhi. Interestingly there is another root that the name Delhi traces back to. As Muslim Sufi saints made their way into Delhi some chose to make it their base. People started relating the name ‘Dehli’ with ‘Dehleez’ (Abode) of the 22 Khwajas (Sufi saints), buried in Delhi. These principal Sufi shrines are spread across various medieval settlements, which were later combined to form the present day ‘Delhi’.

    Delhi, being the capital of the early medieval Sultanate and the later Mughal Empire, saw a steady stream of travelers, diplomats, pilgrims and traders. Being a major town on the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest roads connecting Kabul in Afghanistan to Chittagong in Bangladesh, Delhi was also one of the most important stops. Most petitioners from across the empire who were not wealthy enough to afford the luxurious ‘Caravan Sarais’ of Delhi also used the Khanqahs or residences of the Sufi saints of Delhi to live in. These Khanqahs were community shelters with a Langar or free community kitchen, a Jamaat-Khana (a gathering hall) and dormitories. The Khanqahs were run through charitable grants given by the rich of the city. Many of the Sufi Saints are buried in or around their Khanqahs. Most of these Khanqahs are still functional and are visited by thousands of people from different faiths, each year. Throughout the history of medieval Delhi, while the Sufis followed strict Islamic practices, and had a separate Mosque in their Khanqahs, the visitors were never forced, to follow Islamic rituals. Instead, they rejoiced in the absence of caste divisions here.

    Some claim, that the first Muslim to be buried on Indian soil was Haji Rozbih. The exact date of his death is not known, but according to local folklore, he arrived in Delhi, while Prithvi Raj Chauhan was the ruler in the 12th century CE. His grave is in the gateway of Lal Kot, Delhi’s oldest surviving fort from the 11th century, in Sanjay Van, Mehrauli. However, we do not have adequate written evidence to support this claim.

    The oldest Sufi saint in Delhi, based on clear evidence, was Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, who was the successor of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer. Khwaja Kaki first settled in the area that we now know as Kilokri, near Ashram, in South Delhi. A quiet place, on the bank of river Yamuna kissing the khanqah, it was a perfect setup for a Sufi mystic to meditate and pray. However, the frequent visits of court nobles, and especially one of his key disciples, Delhi’s Sultan Altamash, turned this quiet abode into a bustling town. To get away, the Khwaja then decided to move to the main city, Mehrauli. He lived and died in Mehrauli, where his shrine marks the beginning of several important events in the history of Indian Islam.

    The story goes that when Khwaja Kaki left this mortal world, his successor, Khwaja Fariduddin Ganjshakar (popularly known as Baba Farid) was not around. Upon hearing the devastating news of his demise, Baba Farid came to Mehrauli and cried because he had not even been able to offer a fist full of soil at Khwaja Kaki’s grave. The story goes that Baba Farid heard a divine voice, perhaps of his deceased master, asking him to fulfil the last rites. He got up and started putting soil on the grave. In grief, he lost track of time and continued adding soil, until the grave grew so big, that another voice in his ears urged him to stop. As a result, the grave of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki is enormous measuring 15 feet 3 inches by 17 feet 6 inches.

    Among several celebrations and observations at the shrine of Khwaja Kaki, there are 2 of great importance. One being ‘Sair-e-Gulfarosha’n (Phoolwalon ki Sair or the festival of florists) and another one the “ChhaDiyo’n ka Mela” (festival of sticks).

    The later Mughal ruler (1806-1837) Badshah Akbar Shah II is said to have walked to Khwaja Kaki’s shrine from Red Fort to fulfil his wife’s vow. The Queen had prayed that if their son Mirza Jahangir is released by the British, they would walk to shrine of Kaki with a chaadar or cover made of flowers. To fulfil this vow, the royal family, along with most of the residents of Red Fort reached Mehrauli. Before entering the city, the Emperor paused at a temple on the outskirts, of Ma Yogmaya, said to be sister of Lord Krishna. He offered a fan (Pankha) at the Temple and then proceeded to the Sufi Shrine. Since that day, this became an annual ritual, which was continued by his successor, the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. Every year, the royals and nobles from Red Fort would come to Mehrauli, offer Pankha at the little temple and flowers at the Dargah. This practice was stopped after 1857. But immediately after Independence, in 1947 Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru restarted this festival and it is celebrated with great fanfare every year. The President and Prime Minister of India, the Chief Minister and Mayor of Delhi and several other dignitaries fulfil the rituals started by the Mughal Emperor even today.

    The other important festival is ‘ChhaDiyo’n ka Mela’. It is celebrated every year during the Urs of Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer. Several disciples of Khwaja Moinuddin assemble in Mehrauli near the Dargah of Khwaja Kaki and on a certain day and time, they all start walking towards Ajmer. Disciples walking in this massive procession hold sticks and flags, thus giving it its name ‘Festival of Sticks’. They follow the same old route, taken by Khwaja Kaki to walk from Ajmer to Delhi when Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti ordered him to settle in Delhi to preach the word of God.

    After Khwaja Kaki and Baba Farid, the spiritual seat of the Chisti order was passed on to Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya during late 13th century. His Dargah is one of the most visited Sufi shrines in Delhi. He also lived next to the river Yamuna and as the story goes, Sultan Alauddin Khilji of Delhi requested him to choose the newly built mosque in Ghiaspur (now Nizamuddin) as site of his burial. Hazrat Nizamuddin said that he is not big enough to be buried inside a mosque. Instead, he should be buried, where the faithful leave their shoes, before entering the mosque. His wish was followed and he was buried right outside the Auliya Masjid of Ghiaspur. Later, this town was renamed to Nizampur and then Nizamuddin Basti. Today, the locality is officially known as Hazrat Nizamuddin or Nizamuddin West.

    Several other saints, royals, nobles and the Sheikh’s disciples are buried near the shrine of Auliya. The most prominent of course were the Sufi poet and musician Amir Khusrow, the Mughal Emperor Humayun and Emperor Shahjahan’s daughter, Princess Jahanara. This shrine is famous amongst tourists for its Thursday evening Qawwali and for the festival of Basant or spring when entire bastis turns yellow.

    Hazrat Nizamuddin’s prime disciple Amir Khusrow was such a beloved of the Sufi Saint, that the saint once proclaimed: ‘If the Shariyat would permit, I would like Khusro to lie with me in my grave’. Amir Khusrow was a very talented musician and poet, who served in court of many of the early Sultanate rulers. He was employed by Balban and remained under the patronage of his successors. He served 10 rulers from 3 dynasties (Mamluks, Kihljis & Tughlaqs). Hazrat Amir Khusrow is credited with the invention of Sitar, Tabla, Gazal, Qawwali, and above all, the ‘Hindavi’ language, which was later refined to be called ‘Urdu’.

    His work remained par excellence. One such example of his work is the ballad sung by him in front of Sultan Balban, describing the martyrdom of Balban’s Son. It is said that the narration was so powerful, that Balban was struck by grief and died in a few days! Hazrat Amir Khusrow was so attached to Hazrat Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya, that within 6 months of Sheikh’s demise, he also left this mortal world. Amir Khusrow was buried near Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s grave.

    While Hazrat Nizamuddin’s shrine came on tourist circuit for its celebrations and faith, another important Sufi shrine became popular amongst the food lovers of Delhi. The Dargah of Khwaja Sheikh Abu Bakr Tusi became famous due to a biryani seller, settled at the foothill of this shrine. Khwaja Tusi is popularly known as the ‘Matka Peer’ because disciples offer earthen pots (Matkas) at the shrine.

    If I talk about architecture, I would rate the small tomb of Hazrat Sheikh Jamali Kamboh (16th Century) as one of the most beautiful works of architecture. Sheikh Jamali served in the court of the Lodhi Emperors and was the tutor of Sultan Sikandar Lodhi. When Babur captured Delhi’s throne, Sheikh Jamali was employed by the Mughal court, where he composed panegyrics or odes to the Emperor. Being an excellent poet, Sheikh Jamali was titled as Khusrow-i-Saani (the Second Khusrow). His shrine is a small square structure of 25 feet length on each side but beautifully adorned with coloured tiles. These tiles contain the poetry of this great poet and floral patterns, which make it one of the most decorated tombs in Delhi.

    Usually, a city gate is named after another major city, to which it leads. However, one gate of the 7th city of Delhi, Shahjahanabad (Old Delhi), was named after the Sufi Saint buried next to it. The Turkman Gate of Delhi got its name from Shah Turkman Bayabani, whose shrine is located right next to it. Interestingly, there is a small room with a grave next to Turkman Gate with a board bearing the name of Shah Turkman. However, the original grave of Shah Turkman Bayabani is few hundred meters away from this spot, inside Shahjahanabad.

    From 1235 CE to 1857 CE for over 600 years Delhi’s history was dominated by its Khwajas or Sufi saints.

    Timeline of Sufi Saints who made Delhi their home -

    Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (1235 CE) Hazrat Shamsulddin Aarfin Turkmaan Shah Bayabani (1240 CE) Bibi Fatima Sam (1246 CE) Hazrat Qazi Hamiduddin Nagori (1246 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Tusi Haidari aka Matka Peer (1257 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Najibuddin Mutwakil Chisti (1265 CE) Hazrat Sayed Badruddin Shah Samarkandi (1297 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Shamsuddin Auttadullah "Patte Shah" aka Utaawla (1300 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Shahabuddin ‘Ashiq Allah’ (1317 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Nizamuddin Auliya (1325 CE) Hazrat Amir Khusrow (1325 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Imaduddin Ismail Firdousi (1329 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Najibuddin Firdousi (1332 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Salaahuddin Dervesh (1348 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Alaama Kamaaluddin (1355 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Nasiruddin Chirag-e-Dehlvi (1356 CE) Hazrat Sayyid Mahmud Bahaar (1376 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Jalaluddin Chisti (1383 CE) Hazrat Maulana Sheikh Jamali Kamboh (1535 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Alauddin (1541 CE) Hazrat Khwaja Baqi Billah Shah (1603 CE) Hazrat Sheikh Abdul Haq Muhadhis Dehlvi (1642 CE)

    Cover Image: Vikramjit Singh Rooprai


    Vikramjit Singh Rooprai is a heritage activist and educator, who left his job in the IT Industry to promote project based alternate education and make history-learning fun. He is the founder of Heritageshaala and The Heritage Photography Club and lives in Delhi.

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