Rhythm Divine: Qawwali Sessions at Delhi’s Hazrat Inayat Khan Dargah

Listening to the masters transcend the boundaries of religion.  
Qawwali Dargah Nizamuddin village Delhi
Qawwali music creates a harmonious blend that resonates through the serene setting of the Inayat Khan dargah. Photo: Sanjay Austa

Sunset prayers at the mosque in Delhi’s Nizamuddin village have just ended. Through a half-open wooden doorway, I see a tantalising glimpse of the dargah (a shrine built around a tomb) of Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan. He was a remarkable man, instrumental in popularising Hindustani music and spreading the word of what he called “Universal Sufism” in Europe and the U.S. in the early 20th century.

The building is set around a tranquil little garden that floats like a mirage beyond the intense, almost insane energy of the crowded urban village outside the stone walls. Suddenly, the sounds of a harmonium and of a frail, yet compelling voice float down on the breeze. The Friday qawwali programme has started.

Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya Chishti Sufi Inayat Khan

Qawwali sessions at the Inayat Khan dargah attract listeners from around the world because of their inclusive tradition. Photo: Sanjay Austa

As I enter the dargah, the 89-year-old lead qawwal, Ustad Meraj Ahmed Nizami, smiles welcomingly. There are just a few people in the fair-sized, airy room, but they reflect the cosmopolitanism that the dargah welcomes: three or four devout, middle-aged local men whom I have just seen walking back from the mosque, a group of enthralled students of Sufism from abroad, and a few others who, like me, are here just to listen to the music and soak in the aura of the place. Towards one end of the room, beyond the tomb, is a raised platform built around a thorn tree that disappears through a gap in the dome above.

This modern dargah is at the far end of the village from the famous shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the medieval Sufi saint of the Chishti order after whom the basti (village) is named. Inayat Khan, who is buried here, was born in Vadodara in 1882 and trained as a Hindustani musician even as he underwent an initiation into the mystic Chishti Sufi order. After winning recognition at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, he travelled abroad in 1910. He married an American and spent most of the rest of his life away from India.

After Inayat Khan died in 1927, Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a renowned Sufi and descendant of Nizamuddin Auliya’s, provided the land for the tomb. This became the site for his dargah. “There was little more than the mazaar (tomb) on raised ground at the time,” remembers Saqlain, a son and co-singer of Ustad Meraj. “As kids, we used to sweep the ground around the tomb and roll out dhurries, so that people could sit down and listen to the music.”

Nizamuddin dargah Delhi Khwaja Hasan Nizami Mazaar

Meraj Ahmed Nizami’s sons perform to a rapt audience in the courtyard of the Nizamuddin dargah in Delhi. Photo: Sanjay Austa

In the late 1980s, a building was erected around the tomb, and a decade later, the complex was expanded to include spaces for seminar and meditation halls, a little library with an eclectic selection of books on mystic traditions from various faiths, and a Hindustani music academy that keeps the Delhi gharana alive, with the support of Ustads Iqbal Ahmed Khan and Anis Ahmed Khan. There are also a set of retreat rooms around the back of the building. Though modern, the design of the complex echoes the architectural traditions of the older buildings around it.

Every February, around Hazrat Inayat Khan’s death anniversary, which falls on the 5th of February, the place comes alive with multi-faith symposiums and performances of music and dance by famous professionals as well as by the children of the basti. All these activities, as well as the dargah’s outreach work among the community’s women and children, are supervised by the dynamic director, Dr. Farida Ali.

Nizamuddin Hazrat Delhi Quwwal bacche

Children come to Sufi sites like the Dargah Nizamuddin Hazrat to learn, among other things, that a common thread runs through all faiths. Photo: Sanjay Austa

As the music washes around me and the world outside recedes, the doorway is suddenly darkened and everyone, including the musicians, looks up. There is a group of tourists standing there with hefty guide books, clearly seeking to tick the location off their Delhi checklist before moving on. Ustad Meraj ushers them in with a smile and nod. They enter the room with visible reluctance and perch uncomfortably along the edges of the platform around the thorn tree. As someone invites them to settle down on the mattresses laid alongside the walls, Meraj pauses briefly to say, softly, “It’s alright. Perhaps they have trouble sitting on the floor.” The tourists, apparently oblivious to the disruption they have caused, sit stony-faced, and then leave in a few minutes. The music continues without them, the serenity of the place undisturbed by the kerfuffle. Ustad Meraj and his family have been singing here for over 40 years: little can disturb the essence of inclusive Sufism that pervades the place.

Ustad Meraj traces his lineage back 750 years—all the way back to one of the 12 original “quwwal bacche”—the 12 children who were chosen for training by Amir Khusrau, who is believed to have evolved the qawwali form. He is also an expert at blending verses from varied faiths and traditions into one seamless song. For instance, in the song he is currently singing, a fragment of a Meera bhajan is followed by another one that substitutes Meera’s Hindu references with Islamic ones: “I know neither about offering aarti/ Nor the rituals of puja/ My mad love/ Is an ignorant, crazy craving for your sight… I know neither about namaaz/ Nor about the ritual cleansing before namaaz/ I just prostrate myself/ When you come before me”.

The dargah’s website defines a Sufi as simply someone who has “knowledge” of both the “outer and inner life”. The word “Sufi” is possibly related to the Greek word for wisdom—Sophia. Inayat Khan pursued this idea in his teachings, and explicitly focused on the underlying commonalities between all faiths. A simple prayer composed by him is carved onto a green stone panel on the wall behind the tomb: “…Allow us to recognise thee in all/ Thy holy names and forms:/ As Rama, as Krishna,/ As Shiva, as Buddha;/ Let us know thee as Abraham,/ As Solomon, as Zarathustra,/ As Moses, as Jesus, as Muhammad,/ And in many other names/ And forms,/ Known and unknown/ To the world…”

Nizamuddin Hazrat Delhi Sufi

True to the message of Sufism, people of all religions and denominations come to pray and ask for wishes to be fulfilled at the Dargah Nizamuddin Hazrat in Delhi. Photo: Sanjay Austa

As I read these words, the qawwali performance is coming to an end. Meraj’s little grandson, who has started singing along with the other men of his family, has a request: may he sing the Bollywood Sufiana piece “Kun faya kun”? The dargah is usually particular about maintaining a classical qawwali tradition, but Dr. Ali makes an exception, and the evening ends on a rousing note.

Appeared in the October 2013 issue as “Songs of the Divine”. This story has been updated in March 2016.

The Guide

Hazrat Inayat Khan dargah near the Lodhi Road end of Nizamuddin village in Delhi, hosts qawwali sessions every Friday evening. Music begins at dusk and lasts over an hour.

Dargah Nizamuddin Hazrat is very popular among qawwal enthusiasts. It is situated near Humayun’s tomb in the eponymously named basti, a 700-year-old locality with numerous medieval tombs, shrines, and monuments. The dargah is an important religious site, but its music performances make it culturally significant too. Qawwalis can be heard almost every evening, but special sessions are held on Thur and Fri from 6 to 7.30 p.m. and 9-10.30 p.m., though exact timings vary.

Haji Ali Dargah sits on a little island in the midst of the Arabian Sea, 450 m off the coast of Mumbai. It contains the tomb of Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari and is a popular tourist attraction. Qawwalis are sung daily from 4 to 7.30 p.m. The crowds are larger and more cosmopolitan on Thurs and Fri. Mumbai also hosts Ruhaniyat, a mystic music festival around November-December each year, set in the beautiful Hanging Gardens of South Mumbai.

Dargah Sharif in Ajmer, Rajasthan, is the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti. It hosts daily qawwali performances through the day after every namaz. The state also hosts the World Sacred Spirit Festival, in February every year. Held in the majestic Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur and the Ahhichatragarh Fort in Nagaur, the festival has in previous years featured the best Sufi musicians in India.

Tomb of Salim Chishti in Fatehpur Sikri is said to be among the most beautiful gems of Mughal architecture. The Sufi saint was revered by Emperor Akbar who even named his first son Jahangir after him. Weekly qawwali sessions are held here on Friday evenings, around dusk.


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    Sanjay Austa is a photographer, writer, and a part-time apple-orchardist. When he is not backpacking around the world, he divides his time between New Delhi and Himachal Pradesh.

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