Delhi 101: #8 Qawallis, Fairs, Prayers, Shopping… Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Dargah

The mosque and tomb of Sufi saint and mystic Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is the most auspicious spot for the devout after Jama Masjid in Old Delhi. But it is welcoming of people from all faiths – a visit is strongly recommended.

Nizamuddin, born in A.D. 1236 in Badaun in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, came to Delhi as a teenager and settled in what was then Giyaspur village – later renamed after him. You approach the complex through a narrow, crowded maze of a passage – filled with shops and kiosks, hawkers and beggars, and people of all age-groups. Brave all this – and focus on what awaits.

Delhi 101: Cover image of book by Ajay JainThis post has been taken from Delhi 101, a book written by Ajay Jain. It is about 101 surprising ways to discover Delhi, one of the most amazing cities in the world for travelers. To know more about the book and to order one, click here.

1. Care for some Pakistani currency? Besides Old Delhi, this is another place where money changers openly offer to buy and sell currency from Pakistan. It is obvious the authorities turn a blind eye to what is clearly not a permissible activity.

2. And then you have a series of dhabas or restaurants selling freshly cooked meals. Inviting you to buy meals for the poor, each of these dhabas has the hungry sitting around waiting for a passing benevolent soul to sponsor their next meal. Rates are fixed by portion. The Prophet asked all his followers to donate a part of their income for common good, and every conscientious Muslim does so to this day. When you enter the mosque, the clerics and ‘keepers’ of the mausoleum will seek donations for the upkeep of the monument, and bless you in return.

3. How about feasting yourself at one of the dhabas or the famous Karim’s, serving traditional Mughlai food? Vegetarians may not be too pleased with the menu though.

4. You could even shop for prayer materials, religious symbols, cheap gifts, clothes and sweets. These shops will offer to keep your shoes safe – you may not wear these inside. Put them in your bag and leave them at these shops – don’t worry for they are very safe. You are supposed to cover your head in the mosque. So do so with a scarf, handkerchief or buy a cotton prayer cap – white or colourful as you like. They are cheap, and you will have a souvenir.

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5. The Jamaat Khana Mosque: This mosque was built by Alauddin Khilji’s son with a semi or half dome. It has design elements including lotus patterns similar to what the Khiljis used at the Alai Darwaza in the Qutab Minar complex. Nizamuddin may have set up his base here to be close to this mosque. Like with other mosques, it has the prayer walls facing Mecca to the west – and is decorated to distinguish it from other walls of the assembly hall.

6. Nizamuddin himself was buried in a simple grave in the centre of the courtyard – he wanted it this way. But over time his devotees added their bits to show their love to what is now an ornate structure. The third Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Mohammad Akbar added the dome while his son Shahjahan added the arches.

7. Nizamuddin also built a step-well, famous not so much for its beauty but the anecdote associated with it.

8. The grave of Jahanara, favourite daughter of Shahjahan, is the most touching of all. When Emperor Aurangzeb imprisoned his father Shahjahan to take over the throne, Jahanara is said to have spent eight years with him in captivity. She chose to have a simple grave for herself, with nothing but a marble headstone and grass over it. It has remained so to this day, and visitors shower rose petals over it too. The inscription (in Persian) reads: ‘Let nought but the green grass cover the grave of Jahanara, For grass is the fittest covering for the tomb of the lowly.’

9. The Tomb of Amir Khusrau (where ladies are not allowed for some reason): He was the most famous of Nizamuddin’s disciples, and one of Delhi’s greatest poets. He was a singer and court poet to seven of Delhi’s Sultans. He is also credited to have invented the sitar, loosely referred to as the Indian guitar. So fond was he of his Master that when the latter died, Khusrau is said to have wept for six months on his grave till he himself passed away.

10. The Tomb of Mohammed Shah Rangila, one of the Mughal rulers who was soundly defeated when Nadir Shah led the sack of Delhi in 1739. His wife and children also lie buried here.

11. The Tomb of Atgah Khan, who was a favoured noble of Emperor Akbar just like another, Adham Khan. The latter, son of Akbar’s foster mother Maham Anaga, became insecure and jealous and killed Atgah Khan. Akbar was enraged and threw Adham over the walls of the Agra Fort twice – once to kill him, and another time to ensure he was dead. The tomb was made of red sandstone with a double marble dome, like Humayun’s Tomb – both were built around the same time.

12. Chausath Khamba or the Hall of 64 Pillars (Chausath means 64, and Khamba means Pillar): This is built towards the entrance to the complex. It is the tomb of Mirza Aziz Kokaltash, son of Atgah Khan. Beautifully done in marble, it marks a shift from predominant red sandstone structures during Akbar’s time to marble used by Shahjahan. It was probably built during the reign of Jahangir, Shahjahan’s father.

13. Dabir-ul-Mulk, Nazm-ud-Daula, Mirza Asadullah Baig Khan, known to posterity as Ghalib (1797–1869), often referred to as the Shakespeare of India, is undoubtedly India’s greatest Urdu poet. He lived and worked in Old Delhi (there is a Ghalib haveli or house there) but he chose to be buried at Nizamuddin basti (settlement). You can also visit the Ghalib Academy here with its large library and museum.

14. Twice a year, the Urs festival takes place to mark the death anniversaries of Nizamuddin and Amir Khusrau respectively. Try to time your visits around April and October when these take place.

15. And every evening you can listen to Qawalli sessions when Qawwals sing the lyrics of Amir Khusrau. Click here to read more about these and to watch a video.

When Nizamuddin started work on his baoli, the reigning king Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq was building his fort, the Tughlaqabad Fort. The latter needed all workers possible, and banned everyone from working for Nizamuddin. The saint defied the orders, and had the workers’ loyalty on his side. The king was in Bengal, and threatened punishment on his return. Nizamuddin’s friends kept urging him to flee, but he did not fret. Even as the king got closer to Delhi, the saint reassured all with, “Dilli hanuz dur ast (Delhi is yet far off).” The confrontation eventually never took place. The king died when his pavilion fell on him while camping at Afghanpur, a one day march away from Delhi. (Ghiyasuddin had ordered a review of his troops and one of the elephants knocked down the pillars of the pavilion he was resting under.)

An aside: Some say that the workers would work on the fort in the day, and for Nizamuddin at night. The king banned supply of oil for lamps illuminating the site. It is said water was used instead of oil and that too burned – only because it was blessed by the saint. (A solution to global warming today?) However, Nizamuddin was so incensed that he cursed the new fort with: ‘Only jackals and gujjars (a nomadic tribe) would inhabit the new city.’ It turned out to be true. Ghiyasuddin was killed, and his son Mohammed (conspiracy theories blame him for the ‘accident’) had no appetite for a fort which had no water and to this day the majestic fort lies abandonment.

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The enclosure of the grave of Nizamuddin Auliya
The enclosure of the grave of Nizamuddin Auliya
Dhabas invite you to buy meals for the poor
Dhabas invite you to buy meals for the poor



The tomb of Atgah Khan
The tomb of Atgah Khan
The market outside Nizamuddin Dargah
The market outside Nizamuddin Dargah






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