No apologies for the fact that this post contains no recipes, no slurping or drooling, in fact not a bite passed my lips to bring you this post; sometimes, very occasionally, something other than the food distracts me and I forget to eat. Obviously, it has to be a pretty big distraction…..this is about one of those times.
I live a stone’s throw from the shrine of Shaykh Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, one of Sufism’s most important figures, my knowledge of both the saint and the warren of gullies which press up against his mausoleum is shockingly patchy. I’ve been to listen to the haunting qawwalis which are sung at the dargah (shrine of a Sufi saint) every Thursday evening (highly recommended); I’ve eaten at Karim’s (not at all recommended); and I know from reading William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns that Nizam-ud-Din was rather a good sort. He was intensely troubled by the poor living around him and gave away what little he had; he preached tolerance and reconciliation, urging his followers to a simple life: ‘Whatever you do not wish to be done to yourself, do not wish it to happen to others; wish for yourself what you wish for others also.’ But that’s about it so in a bid to get to know my neighbourhood better, last Friday I joined a tour run by The Hope Project, a charity working to improve the lives of the ‘basti’ residents and to raise awareness of the rich cultural heritage of the area.
It seems the saint’s work is far from done. The lanes and shrine are still stuffed with unfortunates of every description but our smiley young guide steered us into some of the quieter lanes which are dotted with ancient crumbling graves, stopping off at mosques and mausoleums, some dating back as far as the 14th century, on the way. Away from the chaos of the dargah which is visited by thousands of pilgrims every day, Nizamuddin has a tight-knit village-y feel, young boys disappearing through ancient archways with the evening’s food, fruit-sellers shouting their wares, burqa’d mothers and daughters on cycle rickshaws returning from an afternoon’s shopping.
As we entered the dargah itself hundreds were seated in neat rows waiting for the end of the day’s Ramadan fast. We just had time to peek at the tombs of poet Amir Khusrau and Begum Jahanara, the favourite daughter of Shah Jahan (the creator of the Taj Mahal), before the end of fasting was signalled. As someone who’s never more than an hour away from a snack of some kind, I find the idea of containing a grumbling stomach for up to 14 hours a day for a whole month breathtaking. It’s a privilege to be able to watch the intensity of the moment the fast is broken although the intimate surroundings of Nizamuddin’s shrine made me feel slightly voyeuristic and intrusive.
Leaving the hungry to eat, we moved onto the tomb of Atgah Khan, yards from the chaos of the dargah but a movingly tranquil spot especially when the Iftar prayers, sung by a woman, started to soar.
We finished our evening at the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan, another glorious spot which also contains the headquarters of Sufi Brotherhood International amid immaculate lawn and fragrant frangipani. In the pristine mausoleum on the roof a handful of us listened to exquisite Qawwalis by Ustad Meraj Nizami before making our way, humbled and slightly dazed back into the teeming basti.
I had no idea there was such beauty and serenity on my doorstep and, as we walked the short distance home, for once I was immune to the sizzling kebabs we passed on the way.