A densely populated entanglement of narrow streets appears with almost ironic seamlessness amidst the historical monuments and posh colonies of South Delhi. This is the Nizamuddin Basti, adorning a tired but perseverant face. Its survival through years of gentrification in neighbouring residential spaces, religious ‘ghettoization’ and general lack of importance in development plans parallels the journey of the Dargah that sits at its center having endured over 700 years of Delhi’s turbulent history.
How does a place like the basti survive at the heart of capital-city sophistication? What has produced this place? What holds it together? Every question about the basti leads eventually to the mausoleum that it surrounds and the life of the Saint buried therein.
The Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia is the historic, religious and geographic origin of the neighborhood – the reason it came into existence, the reason it continues to draw thousands of visitors from around the world everyday and the reason it bustles with myriad life-sustaining economic activity.
“Sabki khwahish thi ki wo Hazrat Aulia ke kadmo ke paas dafan ho” (Everyone wishes to be buried close to Hazrat Aulia’s footsteps), Peerzada Alatamash Nizami, a member of the Nizamuddin Dargah Committee, told ThePrint. This sentiment is indicated by the fact that while the revered Dargah itself houses the burial of the Sufi Saint along with that of his spiritual disciple and companion, poet Amir Khusrau, the compound also hosts the graves of Mughal princess Jahanara Begum, poet Mirza Ghalib and scores of other unknown devotees, for unsuspecting passers-by to admire in the winding lanes of the basti, a couple of hundred metres away from Humayun’s Tomb.
The words of a resident of the basti- formerly working at an automobile assembly/repair shop and now a tea stall owner to survive the COVID-induced job loss, have stayed with me – “Dargah Sharif ke Aulia humesha humari hifaazat karenge” (The Saint at Dargah Sharif will always protect us/take care of us). This immense faith, reverence and love internalised by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood shape their sense of community and collective value system, and provide a crutch to tide over personal loss or survive the material deprivations that residents of the basti are all too familiar with.
Just as the Saint’s greatest adversary was the unjust encroachment of political power on the spirit of equality, humility and love that characterized his kanqah (building designed specifically for the gatherings of a Sufi brotherhood), so today do the residents of the Nizamuddin basti face many challenges, perhaps first among them being the maintenance of its character- ancient, small, harmonious and syncretic. Whether by the productive internal force of the community or by the negative exterior force of religious bias, Nizamuddin has remained its own, despite the vigour of Delhi’s expansion.
One needs to only set foot in the Dargah to see its traditions alive and well, with ‘outsiders’ from nearly every one of Delhi’s communities and migrants from across the country finding a place. Residents of the basti may not typically participate in the life of the Dargah, but so long as they preserve their connection to their neighborhood and their community, they can look out to the colonies that surround them and heave a sigh of relief with a version of the Saint’s famous words in their heads: despite everything, “Dilli abhi door hai (Delhi is still far away).”
In conclusion, however, it may be superficial to say that the Dargah and the basti are mutually sustaining, and neither does it capture the full complexity of their relationship.
Likewise, while from its inception, the man and the ideals enshrined there have persisted in the basti – in its continued Muslim character, its pride in communal harmony, its openness to like-minded visitors and its resistance to unwelcome external forces- as an entity, with the evolving aspirations of its young people, political and otherwise, it is today a unique amalgamation of the old and the new, while maintaining its metaphorical ‘doori‘ from the Dilli that surrounds it.
My inquiry had, therefore, ceased to examine the historical birth of a neighborhood, focusing instead on the way a neighborhood lives in the consciousness of its residents. Two equally elusive figures come to mind: Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and the Nizamuddin basti. Much to my surprise, the latter, which I have experienced first-hand, as a frequent visitor charmed by their delectable kebabs or during my three days of sensing as an India Fellow, was by far the more difficult to truly understand.