A Sufi Shrine

A few days ago, I went with some friends to the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya, a Sufi saint of 14th century India, who lived and is buried in Delhi. Sufi shrines are centres of devotion, places where it is believed that prayers are answered, and that the spirit of the buried person makes the divine more easily perceptible to the common person. While worshipping the buried person himself crosses the limits of faith in Islam, the Sufi ideal is to worship Allah at a place that carries the presence of a person who reached special spiritual heights, making our prayers more honest and sincere, and thus, having a greater potential of being answered.

Coming off the broad road that leads to the shrine, after  walking through the arch at the entrance, one is led into a closed building in which one walks through a narrow, somewhat dark and claustrophic passage that turns at several places. Perhaps not more than three persons can walk side-by-side there. After every few steps, there is a beggar, often physically or mentally disabled, who pleas for some money. While walking through this passage, with a natural curiosity about what I was going towards, I felt a palpable sense of devotion in the atmosphere. If I had magnified it in my imagination, I would hear sounds of persons crying, wailing, and asking for help.

Soon, the passage opened into a courtyard, and in the middle of it was the dargah – the shrine, with its white dome and walls of decorative grills of various colours, and most often of golden colour. Women sat around it, in prayer, in supplication, holding beads in their hands, or just huddled together. People walked around.

“What are you looking for?”, my friend asked, responding to the expression on my face. “For Nizamuddin Auliya”, I said, half jokingly. I was feeling strange. As I try to experience the feling again, I draw a blank. For most of those people in that area, this was a place of help, where desperate prayers are answered, where life’s crises are healed, and where little children are given a blessing by being in the presence of the saint lying there for 600 years.

We went into the shrine, a small, rectangular room with the grave in the middle of it. But you cannot see the grave, because it is covered with layers and layers of chaadars – decorated sheets – that people bring as an offering to the spiritual presence of the saint. People enter, walk around the grave in the clock-wise direction, and leave through the same door that they came in from. Many stand in a corner of the room, quietly saying their prayers to Allah, in the presence of the spirit of Nizamuddin Auliya, hoping that their prayers will be heard, a blessing will come, troubles will pass. Sometimes they go down on their knees. A man in his thirties carries his little son in his arm, and caringly tells him to quietly recite what he learnt in the morning. It’s a faith being formed, a worldview being forged, in the presence of the sacred.

Coming out of the shrine, I left my friends and walked around by myself, feeling calm yet sad. The compound also has a medium-sized mosque. After walking around a bit, I went and sat inside, because it was relatively quiet and uncrowded. Staring at the walls of the mosque, my eyes became wet, and a grief surged up, with a chill going up my chest. ‘Here I am in your world, with my life, my struggles, I come back to you, the maker, like a child returns home to the parents, soiled in mud, sorry for what he has done. Take me back in your arms, comfort me, strengthen me.’

The theologian Paul Tillich famously defined religion as that which is one’s ‘ultimate concern’. The whole place, for me, abounded with a sense of ultimate concern. All of us who were at the shrine were thinking about the most important issues in their lives, praying, petitioning. It was an intense devotion, rather than a ‘soft’ devotion as one may hear in an old Latin hymn. It is this intensity that has characterized the devotional element in Sufism, as one often notices in qawwali music, which is performed every evening at the shrine.

My friends were waiting in the courtyard, perhaps a bit bored. I joined them, we talked a bit, and left the place, walking out through the same narrow lanes where the beggars sit and we hoped to return soon, fascinated and deeply touched.

~ by tdcatss on January 8, 2012.

8 Responses to “A Sufi Shrine”

  1. I found that India was/is this complex interweaving of the worlds. Poverty and wealth, the sacred and the profane, and compassion and indifference. Yet, the presence of the holy seemed always near. You capture this beautifully in your post. Thanks!

  2. Kaif, I would love to visit dargahs in Delhi with you and another friend of mine.

    Loved the way you write and blend the mundane everyday with intense moments that happen once in a while.

  3. I don’t have the insight that others do into this, so will just say thank you for sharing and letting us who are far away go with you there.

  4. I’ve been wanting to visit this shrine on a Thursday … when the time is right … :)

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