March 9, 2007

The most emotionally powerful experience I’ve had thus far in India, outside of my work placement, has been my visit to the Sufi shrines of Nizamuddin. Deep into an ancient Muslimindia-132.jpg quarter that, according to Lonely Planet, “hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages,” are the tombs of Hazrat Nizamuddin and his most faithful follower, poet Amir Khusrau. On Thursday nights, the sacred qawwalis are sung into these shrines, and after reading a snippet about them in some long-forgotten source, I decided I had to try witness this music. It was my good luck that Raja, a CCS staff member, has a personal connection with the man who oversees the shrines and is a descendant of caretakers past.

india-139.jpgAs this is not a place westerners typically venture, I lobbied for some company on the outing, and promised the takers that I’d figure out the details. Raja gave us strict, solemn, and vaguely intimidating instruction on directions, dress, behavior, and prohibitions, as well as the rumpled business card of the shrine’s overseer Asaf Ali. We had some nervous fun experimenting for an hour or two with different types of dress to assure we were appropriately covered and set out just before sunset.

The neighborhood at night is truly medieval — an oppressive labyrinth of covered stone alleys lit by torches and small fires, and paddedindia-140.jpg with marigold sellers and shoe-minders, dung and trash covered ground, smoke everywhere, scores of severely wounded or disfigured beggers tugging at your sleeves, crowds of Muslim men shoving their way forward through these impossibly narrow passages, amidst the clamor of shouting, chanting, and devotional music. It’s impossible to explain the sensation of being a western woman, carried through these ancient seemingly endless pathways by the crush of the crowd, senses on overload from the noise and the stench of crushed petals, burning cones of incense, and any number of fetid things.

We emerged barefoot, disoriented and woozy into the darkened, open-air courtyard containing the mosque, the two tombs and some other small buildings. Feeling responsible for my friends, I checked that my head covering was secure and began approaching groups of men, showing the rumpled business card I was clutching. I was pointed to the small “office” (read: stall) of Mr. Ali, who was expecting us, and who scolded me for our lateness. (It had taken 1/2 hour to navigate the cave-like alleys.) I retrieved the rest of the group and brought them to join me on the floor of Mr. Ali’s space, where we shared chai, and had the chance to talk with a visiting woman film producer about the Sufi faith, women’s roles, and the Sufi woman’s view of the western world. Mr. Ali then tugged us through the oppressive crowds to jump the lines of the thousands of faithful crammed in this small space, to visit each of the tombs. As a man, our French friend Bruno was allowed to enter, while the rest of us sat respectfully at the marble lattice screens peering in. Bruno emerged with a look of stunned reverence he is still unable to put words to. At the tomb of the saint, our guide retrieved heavily scented and gaudily decorated prayer cloths, which he draped over our shoulders, before leading us back through the crowds towards the music.

Seated facing into the saints shine, were the qawwali singers and their ancient accordion-like instruments and collection of young backup singers. The faithful were seated around them, careful to leave the path from the instruments into the tomb clear. Mr. Ali stepped into this gap, and motioned everyone backward, and seated us closest to the musicians. Like, two feet away.

It took me so long to get to writing about Nizamuddin, because a) I didn’t have photos from inside to share, and more importantly, b) I didn’t know how to accurately describe the wonder of that night. The music is about achieving spiritual ecstasy as a way to commune with God and I’m a believer. Seated there on the cold marble, with the synchronized harmonies of these singers and the beauty and intensity of these ancient poetic songs ricocheting within this confined space and vibrating even the hairs on our arms, I was lost. And somehow, found.

Next to me sat was what I would have described before that night as as a mouthy model from Canada who rolled her eyes a lot and who soon dropped out of the program to spend time on the beaches of Goa — I expected chatter and inappropriate comments to interrupt this experience I had sought so doggedly. When we first entered the neighborhood, I noticed she had arrived wearing heavily spangled accessories, and hadn’t covered her head. As the alleyways began to narrow, I heard her wail “What the SHIT?!?! Someone just fucking threw up on my god-damn foot! I mean — are you fucking SHITTING me??” Are you shitting me, indeed. It was going to be a long night. Two songs in, this girl was leaning against me — I assumed in boredom. When I turned to look at her, her eyes were glistening with tears and she squeezed my hand and whispered “Where do I sign up?” We sat cross-legged before the rotating musicians for hours, eyes closed, legs numb, swaying for all the world like Sufi pilgrims. I’ve never had a night like it, and don’t suspect I ever will again.

(Officially, there’s no photography in this area, but if you click here, you can see some images, minus the crowds. And to get a taste of the powerful music, click on the first sample on this page.)



  1. What a wonderful spiritual exprience that must have been, Kara. You have such a great way with words, I almost felt as if I were there with you.

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