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Delhi, An Affair with Divinity (Through The Lens of Khusrau)

Undated painting showing Amir Khusrau with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Photo:

Undated painting showing Amir Khusrau with Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Photo:

While I have lived in this city my whole life, my first encounter with HazrateDilli goes back to a dark chapter. An era that feels like a blur, a memory in flashbacks of sepia and Polaroid. Heartbroken and dejected by the world at large, I sought solace in its debilitation. I was no poet back then, just a naive observer of old things. I had then begun to spend time in Khan Market, a place I had ignored for most parts of my life, now, suddenly felt close so to home. On a mysterious Thursday, I crossed Faqir Chand & Sons while hurrying for an ice cream when I overhead a tourist conversing with a local about the Nizamuddin Dargah. I don’t know what part of it intrigued me. I knew nothing about this place except that it appeared in Rockstar(2011). I remembered feeling enamoured by the splendour that was showcased – the gush of colours, the hustle and the meditative cognisance that it propelled and so, it was decided in a matter of minutes that I was to visit this holy shrine. I convinced two of my friends to accompany me to watch the famous Thursday Qawwali sung by the very artists who sang Kun Faaya Kun. Their excitement was quickly replaced with concern, will we all be allowed inside? To which I replied if Ranbir Kapoor can, so can we. Reluctantly, they agreed.

Before this, Delhi had been a city of magnificent chowks and gullies with open gutters, ghumbads casually posing in the parks and bazaars, slums and mansions, new stories and old assuring you time travels, no science could ever crack. But amongst the numerous things ‘Delhi’, I simply couldn’t ignore the nazakat of this part of the city – a burst of chaos, pensive chaos, almost hypnotic, radiating in the narrow streets of Nizamuddin basti, the oldest living habitation of the city; the whiff of spices and soot, the sizzles of mutton nihari blended with the aroma desi gulab and cheap (but lovely) ittar with the labyrinth like lanes adorned with green chadar at each stall to serve as offerings at the Shrine. A sense of music prevailed which, could only be heard with the ears of the soul. A simultaneous force, that would pull you closer to your destination and take you back some seven hundred years. To this day, it is hard to describe the feeling, standing at the dehleez of the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya of the Chisti Tariqa, maybe this is what felt so…so sufi? An emotion of love that I was so alien to, now diffusing my skies

Nizamuddin Dargah

A view of the Nizamuddin Dargah from the lanes of the basti. Source: @unzip_delhi on Instagram

The mystics were finally taking over, I was spellbound by the very airs I had just tasted. I knew nothing about what I was doing and where I was going as I stood right in front of a red stone structure. Here people tied a dhaaga on the lattice walls, for their wishes to be granted. My friends and I, clueless, went with the herd of devotees. I stood there to pray when a man approached us and asked me my name. I would be honest, I was afraid that I had done something wrong to offend the sentiments of the devotees. I fumbled, N…noorr…priya. The kind man from the Dargah committee gently smiled and began to guide us on our way around the premises. “His greatest devotee, Hazrat Amir Khusrau, the prodigal poet and the music ustaad” who passed away in mourning, six months after his mentor Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and was laid to rest here, right in his feet. Legends say that their profound love, away from the earthly sensibilities, was such, that Khwaja ji himself asked Khusrau to be buried next to him as Islamic laws prohibited the sharing of graves.

Aaj Rung hai was written by Khusrau on returning from his first rendezvous with Nizamuddin Auliya. He talks about how he has found the ideal mentor to his mother.

Aaj rung hai hey maa rung hai ri Moray mehboob kay ghar rang hai ri Sajan milaavra, sajan milaavra, Sajan milaavra moray aangan ko Aaj rung hai Mohay pir paayo Nizamuddin aulia Nizamuddin aulia mohay pir payoo Des bades mein dhoondh phiree hoon Toraa rung man bhayo ri, Jag ujiyaaro, jagat ujiyaaro, Main to aiso rang aur nahin dekhi ray Main to jab dekhun moray sung hai, Aaj rung hai hey maa rung hai ri

Translation: “What a glow everywhere I see, Oh mother, what a glow; I’ve found the beloved, yes I found him, In my courtyard; I have found my “pir” Nizamuddin Aulia. I roamed around the entire world, looking for an ideal beloved; And finally, this face has enchanted my heart. The whole world has been opened for me, Never seen a glow like this before. Whenever I see now, he is with me, Oh beloved, please dye me in yourself; Dye me in the colour of the spring, beloved; What a glow, Oh, what a glow.

That that moment if Delhi were to be given a voice she would say, I am a ghazal scribbled on a slate board, alas, the iterations of all the artists that have meddled with my verses; read me and I promise you a heartbreak. And then, a sudden realisation dawned upon me, I knew why I was called here by something I couldn’t explain. A story of love, like no other, I was bound by commonalities of emotions, the feeling of brokenness, of Hazrat Khusrau.

Khusrau baazi prem ki main khelun pi ke sung, Jeet gayi to piya moray, haari, pi kay sung.

(I, Khusrau, play the game of love with my beloved, If I win, the beloved’s mine, defeated, I’m beloved’s)


A scene from the Dargah during the celebrations of Nizamuddin Auliya’s birthday. Source: Mayank Austen Soofi

The prolific author who not only invented the Tabla, the Sitar and the first Raag that formed the basis of Hindustani music but also created the music of Qawalli, I soon discover. The Father of Urdu, Tuti-e-Hind or Parrot of India, he infused sophisticated Persian with the colloquial Hindvi that seamlessly merged with the cultural landscape (set to give a rise to other emerging literary forms of Urdu such as Ghazals in the later centuries).

Khusro’s Man Munto Maula is a classic example of the Tarana composition.

Man kunto maula, Fa Ali-un maula (Whoever accepts me as a master, Ali is his master too)
Dara dil-e dara dil-e dar-e daani. Hum tum tanana nana, nana nana ray Ya ali ya ali yala, yalayala ray

The lines after the first verse don’t have any literary meaning and are sung in repetition, similar to chanting. Abi Sampa’s version is a must-listen.

Nizami Bandhu performing Qawalli

Nizami Bandhu performing Qawalli at the dargah. Source: Mayank Austen Soofi

And so, as the people began to gather for the qawwali, I sat facing Mehboob-e-Illahi (the Beloved of Allah), in all his glory.

Before this, I had only watched the performances of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Youtube but I could never understand the fascination that the audiences had with qawwali. Perhaps, one is only a metaphysical epiphany away from realising the power of divinity. Brought up in a Hindu household, I knew my bhajans and mantras, and I was told about the significance of chanting and the inexhaustible power that every syllable held. The concept of devotion through the medium of music felt familiar, however, the mannerism in which they were performed felt different. Qawwali is a magical amalgamation of soul-stirring poetry and music. A spiritual concert or sama (listening), qawwali is a core practice of Sufis to express their devotion and further their divine knowledge. Structurally, performed with a lead singer and chorus along with some instruments such as tabla or dholak and harmonium, the audience rhythmically interacts with the qawwals by clapping their hands to the music.

A typical sama could last several hours, with each piece sung for an indefinite time. It commences on a softer note until the music has suffused in the atmosphere and then, in a crescendo, reaches the zeniths of energy. Often, certain verses, intriguing-impactful ones are creatively repeated in a varied pitch alongside some stories to keep the audiences engaged. On further reading, I found out that the music is a mere stimulus, meant for emphasis, to reinforce the power of the words that leads a Sufi to its trance. Qawwali mostly constitutes a ghazal, combined using several couplets in the poetic fashion of aa, ba, ca, da.

In Sufism, love poems are written from the eyes of a (unrequited) lover to his for his piya that is God himself, implying the principle concept of love as ‘divine’. So, when Sufi ghazals talk about love, they are signifying love beyond realms of mere understanding, where material wonders cease to exist on the path to the holy communion, unlike any romantic story we have associated them with.

Khusrau raen suhaag ki, jaagi pi ke sung, Tun mero mun pi-u ko, dovu bhaye ek rung (Khusrau (the bride) spends the eve of her wedding Awake with her beloved, (in such a way that) The body belongs to her, but heart to the beloved, The two become one)

Worldly or divine, there is room for discretion for the reader but today, I feel rather naive to have taken such a profound form of poetry on face value. But the divine doesn’t judge, it only asks you to love purely. And so, when we begin to slowly uncover the very foundation; the veil of smog has finally lifted, the eyes see what had always been in front, now, with the only element that was lacking, a spiritual vision.

Apni chhab banaikay, jo main pi kay paas gayi Chhab dekhi jab piyu ki so apni bhool gayi (With my beautiful face all adorned when I went to the beloved, I saw his face, and forgot all about my own beauty)

It was celestial, the scene, how the qawwals managed to intensify the alchemy concocting in the air. At first, it was overwhelming, there was a hesitance to completely meld into the surroundings. I had, unknowingly, tied myself down and suddenly felt the tightness of proverbial ropes dampening my spirits. And just when I had had enough, it was time to pull them out from the very roots and take a baby step. As you step into the portals of euphoria everything goes out of focus, the people around vanish, the music deafens, and there remains only you- your eyes mesmerised, with tears trickling down your face; that your brokenness has finally been touched; the engines for the healing process have finally ignited and there is only looking forward now. You might be snivelling like a baby but it doesn’t matter who is around to see, nothing else matters except this feeling

Amongst the popular Qawalli of Khusrau, written in Braj, Chaap Tilak has many modern-day renditions. Here is a transliteration of the piece.

Chhap tilak sab cheeni ray mosay naina milaikay Baat agam kar dini re mosey nana milaikay Prem bhatee ka madhva pilaikay Matvali kar leeni ray mosay naina milaikay Gori gori bayyan, hari hari churiyan Bayyan pakar dhar leeni ray mosay naina milaikay Bal bal jaaon mein toray rang rajwa Apni see kar leeni ray mosay naina milaikay Khusrau Nizaam kay bal bal jayyiye Mohay Suhaagan keeni ray mosay naina milaikay

When Our Eyes Met I dressed myself up to go see my lover, but when I saw him, I forgot myself. You robbed me of everything when our eyes met.

You made me drink love’s elixir and I got drunk when our eyes met.

I was left staring— you made me an ascetic when our eyes met.

Fair arms and green bangles you caught my wrist when our eyes met.

You became the charming lover— you left me breathless when our eyes met.

Khusrau dies for Nizām— you made me a married woman when our eyes met.

My favourite one is that of Abida Parveen’s, having said that, nothing compares to the version by the Nizami Bandhu stationed at the chaukhat, in the centre of gravity. An ecstatic energy envelopes the devotees; it is a surreal sight – their heads covered, hands cupped or folded as they subsume in the piety brewing in the aura. Eyes affixed in the skies above, the bedazzling yellow lights adorned on the dome, and the lotus crest, a metaphor for faith, mounted on the top, Khwaja ji’s Noor can itself be experienced, glimmering brighter than the dome.

While the nucleus of Qawwali is spiritual, it has been instrumental in socio-political discourse. With Sufi philosophy of service to humanity above all, Nizamuddin Auliya always said, God favours those who help the broken hearted. History suggests how the Chistiya Tariqa opposed the idea of caste and other forms of oppression and propagated for justice. Even today, influenced by geographical culture, qawwali has been localised to address social concerns across the globe. The very dynamic nature of qawwali surpasses socio-cultural boundaries with a healthy linguistic melange (such as Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu in the northern region etc.). Moreover, it fosters shared culture and tolerance, much needed, in the pluralistic landscape of India where a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or a Christian sit together in camaraderie and peace to bathe in the esoterica.

On my journey back home from the dargah, everything had changed. I was not the person who had just gone on another Delhi expedition with her friends. While historians have time and again highlighted how nobody who won Delhi could conquer it, perhaps had the Sufi dimension missing from their perspective.

In Khusrau’s words:

Delhi is the centre of faith and justice The garden of Eden May its prosperity be long-lived If Mecca happens to learn about this garden It may itself go around it in reverence

I felt strange but relieved like a piece of glass had been taken out from my wound. And as for my lens, the Dehli I knew, always belonged to those who loved, and the greatest lovers of them all, Hazrat Nizamuddin and his devotee, Hazrat Amir Khusrau.

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