Just across the busy Mathura Road from Humayun’s Tomb, and now engulfed by a busy road network and plush suburbs, the self-contained mahalla (village) of Nizamuddin, with its lack of traffic, ancient mosques and tombs and slow pace of life, is so different from the surrounding city that to enter it is like passing through a time warp. At its heart, surrounded by a tangle of narrow alleyways lined with shops and market stalls, lies one of Sufism’s greatest shrines, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah, which draws a constant stream of devotees from far and wide.
The marble dargah is the tomb of Sheikh Nizam-ud-Din Aulia (1236–1325), fourth saint of the Chishtiya Sufi order founded by Khwaja Muin-ud-din Chishti of Ajmer, and was built the year the sheikh died, but has been through several renovations, and the present mausoleum dates from 1562. Lattice screens and arches in the inner sanctum surround the actual tomb (closed to women), which is surrounded by a marble rail and a canopy of mother-of-pearl. Sheikh Nizam-ud-Din’s disciple, the poet and chronicler Amir Khusrau – considered to be the first Urdu poet and the founder of khyal, the most common form of north Indian classical music – lies in a contrasting red-sandstone tomb in front of his master’s mausoleum.
Religious song and music play an important role among the Chishtiyas, as among several Sufi orders, and qawwals (bards) gather to sing in the evenings (especially on Thurs and feast days). Comprising a chorus led by solo singing accompanied by clapping and usually a harmonium combined with a dholak (double-membraned barrel drum) and tabla (paired hand-drums), the hypnotic rhythm of their qawwali music is designed to lull its audience into a state of mast (spiritual intoxication), which is believed to bring the devotee closer to God.
The oldest building in the area, the red-sandstone mosque of Jamat Khana Masjid, looms over the main dargah on its western side. It was commissioned in 1325 by Khizr Khan, the son of the Khalji sultan Ala-ud-Din. Enclosed by marble lattice screens next to Amir Khusrau’s mausoleum, the tomb of Princess Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s favourite daughter, is topped by a hollow filled with grass in compliance with her wish to have nothing but grass covering her grave. Just east of the dargah compound, the elegant 64-pillared white marble Chausath Khamba was built as a mausoleum for the family of a Mughal politician who had been governor of Gujarat, and the building, with its low, wide form and elegant marble screens, bears the unmistakable evidence of a Gujarati influence. The compound containing the Chausath is usually locked, but the caretaker should be on hand somewhere nearby to open it up if you want to take a closer look.