Life and death coexist in a parallel universe here

Life and death coexist in a parallel universe here

Eight-year-old Ashraf is busy playing on an old grave with his siblings, Sajida and Noor. “I am playing with my grandma,” he says.

The grave may or may not be of their grandmother.

But the children’s playground among the tombstones shows how life and death co-exist in a parallel universe at Basti Hazrat Nizamuddin.

Hundreds of tombstones are scattered across Nizamuddin, the place’s claim to fame being the 700-year-old shrine of the Sufi teacher, Nizamuddin Auliya.

The basti grew around the tomb of the medieval saint, mainly inhabited by the followers of the Sufi preacher.

Rashid Nizami, who belongs to the family of caretakers of the Nizamuddin shrine, says, “Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya was one of the greatest Sufi saints of the Chishti Order. He taught complete renunciation of worldly luxuries as the only way to attain closeness to the Almighty.”

The saint’s tomb attracts thousands of visitors and devotees.

Some visit to seek the blessings of the saint.

Others come to ward off the evil spirits that have possessed them.

The place remains a persistent enigma, offering you a glimpse of a Delhi you may have never seen.

A Delhi that is more comfortable with the past than the future.

The residents’ fascination with the dead doesn’t end here.

“Most of the graves belong to the followers of Hazrat Nizamuddin who wished to be buried close to their beloved saint. It gave rise to this tradition of graves coming up at every corner,” says Junaid, a local youth.

Nauman Sheikh, bookshop owner, talks about the “celebrity graves”, which give a unique colour to the place.

“Other than Hazrat Auliya, there is the grave of the famous Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib, graves of Amir Khusro, father of qawwali and Al Biruni, famous scientist and scholar, are also here. And then we have the graves of our ancestors.”

The graves also dot the roadsides, in gullies, mosques, seminaries, even inside people’s homes. Siraj Alam, a flower seller and father of six children, says he has two old graves of anonymous medieval ancestors in his home.

“They must have been our ancestors, though I am not completely sure of it. The thought of getting rid of these graves never crossed our minds.”

Shamshadi Begum has a different take on the graves in her house. Although not completely at ease, she respects them nevertheless.

“In Islam, it’s prohibited for women to go to graveyards. Saints don’t like it and curse them. But what can one do when there is a grave inside our very house?”

Her neighbour Zarrin disagrees. “It’s a great feeling to have the saints in our homes. They provide me a sense of security. I believe they will protect me and my family from evil spirits, and guard us from misfortune.”

This strange harmony between the living and dead go beyond people’s emotional attachment to the graves and tombs.

The thin lanes boast of a thriving commercial market.

You can buy anything from perfumes, flowers, handicrafts to religious items as well as taste the variety of local food.

Residents believe the graves and tombs help them fight poverty because the basti has drawn visitors and tourists to the many shops and eateries that line the many narrow lanes.

“I and my wife come here every weekend to enjoy the great food, even though I live in Dwarka. Chicken biryani, Mughlai chicken and shami kebabs are the regular on our menu,” says Imran Ahmad.

Many residents of upper middle class Delhi are ignorant of the beauty of the narrow, congested lanes, ruined tombstones, bustling markets, old mosques and the delicacies of this locale.

Walking through these narrow lanes, you can feel the synergy between commercial enterprise and mysticism of the Sufi teachers, the energetic sounds of the qawwali from the shrine broken intermittently by the spruikings from the stall vendors.

Indeed, the basti is a unique place to experience the cross-cultural, inter-faith and spiritual life of Delhi.