DELHI — Hidden deep in one of the predominately Muslim suburbs of this city is a Sufi shrine famed for its music.
I started hearing about it back when I began coming to India in 1998. I never knew its name, though, and finally mentioned it to an Indian friend. “But we’ve been there, twice,” he said with disbelief.
“It is my mosque, the mosque right near my house in Nizamuddin. But music only Thursday night. Come, you will like.”
The place was mentioned in my guidebook as the shrine and mausoleum of Muslim Sufi saint Nizam-ud-din, who died in 1325 at age 92. It is also the gravesite of Princess Jahanara, the daughter of Shah Jahan, builder of the Taj Mahal, and of the Urdu poet Amir Khusru. But in my book there had been no mention of either Sufis or music.
The marble shrine has undergone renovations several times since the 1300s, so what we see really only dates from 1562, but that is still pretty impressive. So is the maze of alleys leading to it, full of stalls selling religious kitsch and shopkeepers offering to take care of your shoes, which you must remove before entering the holy precinct.
(Only men may go into the red sandstone mosque, built in 1325, but anyone can view Nizam-ud-din’s tomb, make an offering and listen to the Sufi music.)
The music is supposed to start a little after sunset, but rarely gets going before 8 p.m., when the man who organizes the seating has everyone crowded around on the floor, but not so they block the musicians’ view of the tomb—for this is music to honour the saint.
The Sufis are an esoteric, mystical branch of Islam who believe in a personal experience with God through music and singing. Whirling dervishes are one branch of Sufism. They dance to experience religious ecstasy. Qawwali, as this type of devotional music is called, is likewise meant to bring its audience to a state of spiritual intoxication.
As the musicians began playing, the crowd of several hundred went quiet. A harmonium, a sort of accordion, introduced the melody. A man picked out the rhythm on a tabla, an Indian drum. Softly at first, one singer and then several others began what was clearly a prayer, then sounded more like praise and, as the tempo picked up, sheer joy.
As I had waited for the music to start, sitting cross-legged on a mat, my bum going numb, I wondered why I had come. I left several hours later thinking the tabla player was probably the happiest man in the world, followed closely by the singer. I felt pretty good myself. It was joyous music.
At one point, people had started passing money forward to the man who organized the seating. There were 10-, 20-, 50- and 100-rupee notes among the donations. They piled up as the evening went on. You may just sit and listen for free, but it’s worth every penny you choose to donate.
For information on Delhi, go to www.delhitourism.gov.in.
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