Through this photo essay, journey with writer Meera Vijayann and I to Nizamuddin Dargah in the Indian capital of Delhi. There, we’ll witness its electrifying Qawwali singers belting their lungs out to this type of Sufi devotional music that’s been popular in the Subcontinent for hundreds of years. Make sure you first click ‘play’ below, so that you can listen to Allah Hoo, one of the most well-known Qawwali songs, as you read.
At the corner of Humayun’s Tomb, the Nizamuddin Dargah rises, a stony edifice of smoky grey. Pretentious at first sight, yet rich in soul, Delhi is no ordinary city. At the grand entrance of the dargah’s inner courtyard, you begin to forget the deafening chaos and prepare to lose yourself in its music.
As dusk falls, people hurry into the courtyard. Outside, flower sellers call out to visitors, offering rose petals for a coin or two. After the death of the Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, some believe, these Sajjada Nashins (guardians who tend to the shrine) continue to fiercely guard the dargah.
Offer your respects at the mazār (tomb) of renowned poet Mirza Ghalib as the evening namaaz (prayer) draws to a close. People of all ages and faiths gather soon after, and under open skies, the Qawwals begin their routine, their voices reverberating through the compound.
As the singers break into a Qawwali, enraptured listeners look on. Though few classical Qawwal families have carried forward the 750-year old tradition, its purity remains largely unaffected. Drowning in the melody of harmoniums, verse and song, the evening begins.
Tourists regularly visit, trying to fit in, donning palm woven caps to honour both saints and singers. Unassuming travellers over the years have played a role in lending the Qawwali a worldly touch. Frayed denims, branded watches and fashionable attire have encouraged Qawwals to spring in film songs, love poetry and Persian verse to embrace their presence.
Classic Qawwals don’t merely recite, sing and compose; they also explain the subtleties to their listeners. The houses of Qawwali usually begin with the famous verse, Saba ba suen medina rukon Azin duago salam barkha, asking the morning breeze (Nizamuddin Auliya) to pay their respects to the Prophet on reaching Medina.
After an energetic performance, the evening draws to a close. Amidst cheers and applause, those who remain shower currency on the performers. As the mellow, soothing sounds of the harmonium fill the complex, a strange restlessness descends.
There is no better way to end the day than by relishing the flavours of Delhi’s streets. As the crowds gradually disperse and leave the dargah, they find several community cooks sitting outdoors, serving a delicious choice of meats and lentils to the hungry. Soak in the atmosphere sitting on a wooden bench, sipping on chai or digging into a plate of kebabs. You cannot help but leave with a sense of fulfillment.