Muslims offer prayers five times a day. There was a point of time in my life when I did not skip a single prayer for almost 500 days. But things have changed a lot since then. As I've grown older, I've felt religion is a way of disciplining life in childhood, a stop-over during weak times in youth and a refuge in old age. Today, I am a nominal Muslim (a mere pretender?)

My mother, on the other hand, has remained devout Muslim. She is a strong believer and follower of Sufism.

In the early summer of 2008, my mother and I went on a short tour of major Sufi shrines of north India. This story is a traveler's commentary on history of these Sufi saints, glimpses of past, their present day state, representation in popular culture, mother-son relationship and some randomly connected things.

Shaikh Salim Chisti
1478-1572, Fatehpur Sikri

The first sufi on our list was Shaikh Salim Chisti of Fatehpur Sikri.

Shaikh Salim Chisti is most famously portrayed in K. Asif's Mughal-e-Azam (1960) when Akbar walks barefoot from Agra to Fatehpur Sikri seeking a heir to the throne. Salim Chisti predicts male heir. Akbar's son is called 'Salim' or more lovingly 'Shaikhu' after the sufi saint. Akbar, in reverence, built an ideal city around the seat of this sufi saint. However, water shortage plagued the city. Akbar's sons and nobles deserted the city when he died. From that day onwards, little has changed in Fatehpur Sikri and it still remains a ghost town.

We headed out of Delhi towards Fatehpur Sikri in a cab. It was the Holi weekend. As we crossed the Delhi-UP border and drove through Krishna janmabhoomi of Mathura-Vrindavan, we could see why Holi is such a popular festival here. There was hardly any business activity around. The only people in the bazaar were out to play Holi. A few hours and a couple of hundred kilometers later, we entered the abondoned city of Fatehpur Sikri. Touts posing as government guides ran along side our car window. They solicited their unwanted services with a mix of false promises and threats. But we managed to shrug them off.

Closer to the Fatehpur Sikri site, our car was stopped by local goons who had bagged the contract for a parking lot. They asked us to park the car in their parking lot while we still had a good 2 kms to go. We told them we were staying overnight and would park the car in the hotel. One of them shook his head in slow motion from one shoulder to another, his mouth stuffed with gutkha, indicating a 'No'. Our driver reversed a bit and tried to sway past them, but they quickly shifted the barricade and the car came to a halt. On a telephone pole, I could see hotel hoardings that advertised free parking in their premises!

At this point I was totally pissed off at these local bullies, a failure of our police and a sleeping government.

I asked them to take the parking money and let the car pass. The morons were confused; they asked me to talk to their boss, another bully who sat under tree shade ten meters away from the barricade. I offered him Rs. 30 (car charges) and asked him to give me a slip. He gave me a slip and coerced Rs. 50 (bus/truck charges) out of me.

Had it not been for my mom and her desire to visit Salim Chisti, I would never have come here and spent my money on this rotting local economy. Akbar's Fatehpur Sikri has stood 400 years and can wait another 50 before things improve here.

The shrine of Shaikh Salim Chisti lay in the quadrangle of royal Juma masjid of Fatehpur Sikri. Along the west wall of this quadrangle was built the magnificient Juma masjid. The other three walls featured doorways to the quadrangle. Buland Darwaza (the great door) in the north wall is the highest doorway in India. Badshahi Darwaza (royal door) in east was used by Emperor Akbar to enter the quadrangle. The entire complex was made in red sandstone with inlay work of white marble.

In the northern part of quadrangle lay a small but superbly built shrine in white marble. The door looked old and leathery - built in Ebony wood from Africa. The outer walls featured intricate lattice work in marble that rival the craftsmanship of Taj Mahal. The inner walls featured floral paintings in magnificient gold, blue and red - now pretty much faded. The canopy on top of the grave was built in sandalwood and covered with fine mother-of-pearl work. They say it took 7 lakh gold ashrafi and several years to finish the canopy.

The shrine was not huge and imposing. Yet, the work was very fine and elegant. It was extremely pleasing to the eye and would intrigue the curiosity in an artist. Though small in size, it brilliantly displayed the taste and attention to detail of the Mughal emperors.

But my favourite piece of architecture in the quadrangle was the red sandstone Juma masjid. Three superb arches with fine inlay of geometrical patterns using white marble, azure blue (lapis lazuli?) and light green formed the entrance to the mosque.

It was a Friday; I rolled up my sleeves and completed my wazu in the water tank at the center of the quadrangle. People were beginning to file in the mosque for the afternoon prayers. I joined the files and as I finished my prayers, I thought about how people have been offering prayers in this mosque in the same way for hundreds of years. 400 at the very least! Akbar the Great must have prayed here on many a Friday in the very same way.

It was an extraordinary emotion.

After the prayers, as I walked around the mosque, I was quitely transported to my dreamy images of Sumerkhand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. If Sumerkhand is anything, it must be like this.

Mom spent several hours in the serenity of Salim Chisti's shrine.

Later, we explored the complex together. There are several graves of the Mughal royal family and the descendants of Salim Chisti - and it's hard to identify which is which. Somewhere in the arches, a flight of stairs lead downwards to a closed door behind which could be an exit or an underground tunnel. The romantics and local guides would like to believe that this was the tunnel that Anarkali used to escape to Agra and further to Lahore.

We retired to a small hotel a few hours after dusk. The next morning, Mom spent a few more hours in the shrine - to a point where I would almost get frustrated waiting for her. We then walked through the adjoining palace and royal apartments of Fatehpur Sikri and headed towards Agra-Delhi by afternoon.

On our way back to Delhi, we stopped at the Taj Mahal for a few hours. There are two kinds of people in this world - those who've seen the Taj and those who haven't. Those who haven't should start hunting for a cheap flight to India. After making our way past the queues and marveling, perhaps for the n-th time, at the huge marble-wonder, Mom and I sat down on the southern rim of the quadrangle around Taj. The black narrow Yamuna shimmered in evening glow. Commandos patrolled the golden-green lawns between the Taj and river with their AK-47s. As the sun set behind the mosque on west, the gigantic monument donned an orange glow that slowly changed to purple navy black. We sat there and we talked and we enjoyed the light at play.

It was a full moon night.

One of those nights when you pay a special Rs. 500 to enter Taj after dusk and see it shine in the moonlight. We hoped the moon would come over the skies quickly and we could catch a glimpse of the sight for cheap before we made an exit. But that didn't happen. We waited for 20 mins before we gave up.

The moon did not rise till we were a few kms away from the Taj. But when it did, the moon was a beautiful sight. We stopped at Akbar's mausoleum in Sikandra to make up for the missed spectacle. Couple of hours and a filling matka-lassi later, we were back in our home in Delhi.

Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki
1173-1235, Mehrauli, Delhi

I had visited Bakhtiyar Kaki's shrine atleast four times in the past. However, I've always had to search my way to it. It is nested in a serpentine maze of narrow alleys and mushrooming buildings, and is never easy to find. The three entrances to the shrine from different directions do not help in simplifying the complex approach. This time I stumbled upon the third entrance that I hadn't taken so far. The alley leading to the entrance door was littered with filth, plastic and human faeces. I held my breath to avoid the stench and quickly parked my motorbike.

As we walked into the shrine, on our right lay the ruins of Zafar Mahal, a Mughal palace in red sandstone and white marble built by Akbar II and Bahadur Shah Zafar II. The entire structure is ill-maintained and most of the masonry work is little but rubble. The doorway and the outer walls of the palace intrigued my imagination - but just few yards behind the wall, I could see sporadic growth of shanties and slum homes. The royal apartments have either collapsed or been pulled down and encroached.

I sighed and walked into the shrine. In stark contrast to the faded ochre walls of the palace, the shrine was painted in bright white. Slaked lime had been freshly mopped on the walls and I could see the tinge of blue-dye. The wooden doors were painted in lustrous parrot green and a small domed mosque on my left sported brick red. There were way many people than I had earlier seen. A gang of qawwaals added to the patterned chaos around us with their bass-heavy yet melodious voices. The group was actually lead by a six year old as the lead singer. There was so much life and commotion. We figured it was the day of urs (death anniversary) of Hazrat Bakhtiyar Kaki.

I wondered who were the real rulers?

The ones who ruled our bodies from their high walls and busy courts; but the walls have crumpled and the courts are deserted now. Or the ones who ruled our hearts and minds; and we continue to flock to their little graves, light lamps, burn incense, tie threads and sing qawwalies even centuries later.

Some of the lesser Mughals (emperors of India after Aurangazeb) are buried in the vicinity of this shrine. I can't read Urdu, so it wasn't possible for me to identify any of them. Zafar himself wanted to be buried near Bakhtiyar Kaki. Alas, the British had different plans for his destiny. Khushwant Singh's novel Delhi mentions Bahadur Shah Zafar II coming to Bakhtiyar Kaki's mazaar before the 1857 mutiny. He enjoys a ride from Shahjahanabad to Mehrauli on his favourite elephant Maula Baksh and rests in Zafar Mahal for a few days.

I went to the mazaar to pay my respects. Women are not allowed close to the mazaar, so Mom had to stay outside the marble jaali and offer her prayers. As I went through the motions of offering chaadar and phool, I thought to myself "So close, and I don't feel it. So far, and she can't stop feeling the power. World, you are a wicked comedy." My mother clinged to the jaali, her fingers tight around the lattice, and prayed till a tear rolled down her cheek; sometimes, her intensity stirs me up.

What she asked, I never asked her.

Our usual conversations in places of worship are like, "Mom, let's go." and "Son, let's stay for a little while more."

When I thought we were finished, I told her I would wait for her at the gates. While I was waiting at the gates, a man wearing a long flowing black cloth walked past me. His skin was dark brown and his face and shoulders shone like a moon in black sky. His hands had an unnatural glow - something that I couldn't help but notice. A few minutes later, Mom came tumbling down a sloping corridor and casually mentioned, "Did you see the man in black?"

Impatient as much as I was to get home, I found myself saying "Do you want to meet him?"

We walked back in and found the man in black seated in the mosque courtyard, leaning against a pillar. He wore a sagely smile on this lips and a band of black-metal around his wrist. The conversation wasn't around religion, history or history of religion. It was around simplicity in life. Around how it's possible to live a simple fulfilling life. Nasir baba surprised us with his English, understood well what I did for a job, and never disclosed what he did for a living. He spoke softly and smiled often. I wondered if he was also a poet. And a real-life sufi.

Hazrat Nasiruddin Mahmud (Roshan Chirag-e-Dilli)
1274-1356, Chirag Dilli, Delhi

Our third sufi stop was the dargah of Chirag Dilli.

Nestled amid wide ring-roads and long flyovers is a small basti called Chirag Dilli of antiquity of a thousand years. After asking for directions at several pan-walas and getting the same ambiguous directionless, distanceless replies ("Go straight and take a left/right"), Mom and I finally stumbled upon the basti entrance. We walked through a brick and sandstone rubble that must once have been a city gate. Now trees grew out of cracks in the structure and Vodafone and Airtel billboards hung shabbily all over it.

The alley was lined up with all kinds of shops - grocery, lingerie, plastic, juice. A swarm of house-flies lay suspended in brownian motion in the air. Preity Zinta and Aishwarya Rai posters welcomed the customers of a beauty parlor. A strong stench filled the space and made me wonder how these shops continued to do business in this basti.

After walking about 500 yards, we came to a place that was much calmer than the chaos that we just walked through. The gate was a white dome structure. A few yards away on the street, a bunch of old taxi drivers lazily indulged themselves in a game of cards. Two flower shops just outside the gate sold phool, chadar and attar. The shop owner told my mom that this shrine saw few visitors.

"Only those invited by Hazrat himself would make it here," said the phoolwalah.

This was surely what my mother wanted to hear! He told us that jaan-nasheeni of the Chistiya order ended here. It started with Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer, followed by Bakhtiyar Kaki of Mehrauli, Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar of Pakpattan (now in Pakistan), Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya of Dilli and Hazrat Nasiruddin 'Roshan Chirag-e-Dilli' of Chirag Dilli. But if this was true, then what about the disciple of Chirag-e-Dilli, Khwaja Bande Nawaz of Gulbarga?

The phoolwalah said he got the khilafat and not the jaan-nasheeni. Now this fine difference between 'khilafat' and 'jaan-nasheeni' was something I did not understand. We picked up our phool chadar and attar and walked in. The tomb, mostly ochre and brown, had green and white walls that were recently painted. There were very few people inside. Peacocks and peahens roamed freely in the compound. We paid our respects at the grave and spent some time in serenity.

Later, I got into the car and told my driver, "Chalo. Humayun's Tomb."

"Humayun Tombs?" our driver guessed. "Wahi joh Nizamuddin ke paas hai na?"

"Yes," I said.

Humayun's tomb in my view is the most underated monument in Delhi. The green sprawling and majestic gardens (char bagh) around the red sandstone tomb are a serene and peaceful sanctuary for city's birds and book lovers. The sun was still going down. The sky was a tinge of purple. Peacocks loitered in the garden under a tree. There were barely any tourists - Indian or foreign. We walked the corridors of the tomb and

It was in Humayun's Tomb that Bahadur Shah Zafar II took refuge with his family during the 1857 revolts. The English came knocking soon and took away his sons. His sons were later found brutally murdered outside the Delhi city gates. Zafar himself was tried in his own court in Red Fort and later dispatched to Rangoon for a life of exile.

We walked in the several beautiful monuments around Humayun's Tomb at dusk and reached Nizamuddin dargah around twilight, which lies across the road.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya
1238-1325, Nizamuddin, Delhi

If there is a stretch of walk that will take into the medieval dilli of 16th or 17th century, the walk from Nizamuddin basti entrance to the shrine should be it. Phoolwalahs in archaic stone arches, small restaurants selling fresh bread and steaming hot chakna, smoky kababs grilled on hot ambers, vendors selling all things exotic from prayers rugs to attar to hookahs. Travelers to India will take in this sight very well.

The dargah, as usual, was bustling with crowd. The mujaawar, as usual, hurried the men inside the shrine. And the women, as usual, we restricted to the outside jaali.

I met Mayank Soofi Austen in the dargah. Nothing surprising as one would expect Mayank to be here three evenings out of seven. Mayank is the author of a charming and popular city blog on Delhi. He sat in a corner of the courtyard pouring over a thick ragged book (a Jane Austen?). I went up to him to say hello. A soft spoken guy, Mayank later showed me the marble graves of Mughal kings, princes and princesses that lay around in the courtyard.

Mom and I spent rest of the evening at the dargah. The courtyard was well-lit and the shrine even more so. A groom and his relatives sought blessings at the shrine before they headed off to the marriage ceremony. And a pack of raucous qawwaals led by a spectacular voice tore the silence of the evening. After another hour, we headed to Karim's in Nizamuddin basti for some smoky kababs and delicious nahari.

So dargahs of four Sufi saints and graves of three Mughal emperors later, we reached the end of our tour. My mother returned one immensely rich and happy person from these visits. Through out the journey, I often tried to connect myself with the Sufi saints. And it would not be entirely incorrect to say I failed. Perhaps I am happy finding my peace in things I do everyday, the city streets and sometimes in the mountains.

Tags: India

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  1. Read about the visit to the Sufi Shrines, and the Mughal Graves, with your mother. Thank you for sharing. Beautiful descriptions. - Syeda Jebeen Shah
  2. I always thought I was a big sucker of Indian history, but after reading Sufis of North India I guess I am not. I have always wondered how those people lived back in those days. Gigantic architectures, rustic landscapes, majestic command, vibrant bazaars and cut off from the outer world with no care whatsoever for the Obamas and the Oprahs; all with a dose of serenading sufi music in the evenings. I would kill for a life like that. - Rakesh Verma