Sufi saints and Delhi go back a long way. The greatest of them, Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, made Delhi his home during the reign of Iltutmish. Qutb Sahib, as he was popularly known, was a disciple of Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer and laid the foundations of the Chishti order in Delhi. The reverence in which he was held can be gauged from the fact that the Sultan himself led his funeral prayers and that Emperors and Kings ranging from Sher Shah Suri to Bahadur Shah Zafar paid his shrine in Mehrauli a visit. Many of the later Mughals are in fact buried in his dargah compound which is the largest such royal graveyard in Delhi.
Qutb Sahib’s status as Delhi’s patron saint was challenged only by Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Nizamuddin was a disciple of Baba Farid Ganjshakar of Pakpattan (now in Pakistan) who was himself a disciple of Qutb Sahib. While Chishti saints lived simple lives, they nevertheless stayed in the cities where they had a huge following. It was probably a measure of the troubled times in which he lived that Nizamuddin Auliya left the city of Delhi (i.e Mehrauli and Siri) and settled in a village some miles to the east known as Ghiyaspur. The name of the village refers to the Sultan, Ghiyasuddin Balban, who ruled during Nizamuddin’s early years in the City. Before long the original name was forgotten and the village came to be called Basti Nizamuddin Auliya-a name that holds even today.
Inspite of his fame and reputation for piety, Nizamuddin Auliya ran into difficult times with some of the Delhi sultans-notably Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq who was notoriously insolent to him. A popular Delhi myth recounts an instance where the Sultan prohibited the sale of lamp oil in the City to dissuade Delhiwallahs from working on digging a baoli (a step well) for Nizamuddin Auliya. It was then that the saint’s disciple, Nasiruddin, filled up empty lamps with water and the wicks miraculously lit up. This earned him the sobriquet- Roshan Chiragh e Dehlvi (the Illuminated Lamp of Delhi).
Nasiruddin Chiragh Dehlvi succeeded to his master’s place after the latter’s death. Originally hailing from Ayodhya, he came relatively late to the Sufi life-becoming Nizamuddin’s disciple at the age of forty. He had a more orthodox reputation and frowned upon the use of music in Sufi sa’maas. It was possibly this orthodoxy that compelled him to leave the eclectic environment of Basti Nizamuddin and move some distance to the south. Before long a small settlement had grown up around the saint’s hujra (residence), mainly to house his close disciples and cater to the pilgrims who made the trek to see him. These were the days of Muhammad bin Tughlaq and the famously eccentric Sultan was on a building spree having abandoned his father’s citadel of Tughlaqabad along the river. The scattered ruins of Jahanpanah are all that remain of this period of frenzied construction. It is not possible to determine where exactly the walls of Jahanpanah ended but it is quite probable that the saint’s residence either lay along the city walls or just outside it. Nasiruddin Chiragh Dehlvi died at the age of eighty in 1356-deeply mourned by the people of Delhi and the Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq.
The village of Chiragh Delhi is now firmly a part of South Delhi. Administratively, it remains one of the Lal Dora urban villages where municipal by-laws and regulations do not apply. The villagers lost their agricultural land during the construction boom of the 60s. This land is now occupied by parts of Malaviya Nagar, GK III and Masjid Moth.
While it is easier to access Chiragh Delhi from the Outer Ring Road, I have always preferred to walk the couple of kilometres from Malviya Nagar Metro Station. The walk along Press Enclave Marg takes you along another urban village called Khirki that houses the Khirki Masjid-one of Delhi’s largest. It is the only Sultanate era covered mosque in all of North India. Some distance ahead is Satpula-an earth and rubble dam built to provide drinking water to Jahanpanah during the Tughlaq era. The stream it dams is the Naulakha-once Delhi’s most important water source. It arises in the foothills of the Aravallis beyond Mehrauli, feeds Iltutmish’s Hauz e Shamsi near the Dargah of Qutb Sahib before disappearing into a nullah near Sainik Farms. It then re-emerges beyond the MB Road, skirts Chiragh Delhi, bisects Panchsheel Enclave and becomes the broad stinking drain that welcomes people to Defence Colony-where it has now been covered over by a park. It finally ends its journey in the Yamuna near ISBT Kale Khan and is spanned shortly before that by the Barapula-a beautiful bridge built during Jahangir’s era and now taken over by vendors.
Returning to Satpula, it was the practice for pilgrims coming to Chiragh Delhi to bathe in the Naulakha here before walking along the stream to the village. That road is inaccessible now and one has to walk all the way to Shaheed Bhagat Singh College before taking a left and then a right at a crumbling gate built by Firuz Shah. One is now in the village proper and it is possible to appreciate how a Hauz Khas or a Shahpur Jat would have looked like before gentrification obscured all traces of the years past. The entire village was once walled-only traces of this remain now. The narrow, twisting streets inexorably turn to the right highlighting the fact that the village is oriented vis a vis the saint’s dargah. A crumbling tomb wall with an AC protruding out is the only thing of interest before you suddenly end up in the broad village square. Elders on charpoys smoke hookah under a couple of trees while a street is occupied by the main market of the village. Immediately looming to your left, at the end of a lane selling agarbattis, chaadars and flowers is the white, domed gate of the dargah.
Unlike the heavily commercialized Nizamuddin, the dargah is an incredibly peaceful and serene place. There are no touts offering to show you around, no kebab sellers, no throngs of people and none of the hustle and bustle. Instead all you find is a huge khirni tree that shelters the dargah compound and a few people lounging about. Occasionally a mother would get her ill child along who is then ‘treated’ for possession or nazar by the khadim of the dargah offering her an amulet. The village lost its entire resident Muslim population in the tumultuous days of 1947. The saint’s descendants had left much earlier, possibly sometime before the Mughal invasion. They moved to Gujarat, attracted by the opportunities at the court of the Sultans there. Some of them may still be found in Ahmedabad. The local residents, all Hindus, nevertheless, share a deep bond with the shrine-their families having lived here for more than a century. In one corner of the compound is the ruined wall of a mosque built by the Emperor Farrukhsiyar around 1715. A garish new mosque has appropriated much of the older structure. The Mehfilkhana or gathering hall, probably built by the Lodis, has also been ‘renovated’ and its antiquity is hardly recognisable.
The compound is a veritable graveyard. Apart from the main shrine of Nasiruddin Chiragh Dehlvi, there are two other domed graves that allegedly belong to his disciples. In addition, there are numerous graves spread around-mostly those of old village notables or some pious soul from Shahjahanabad who had willed his burial here. A Lodi era tomb is used as a temporary storage facility and another unidentified Lodi building has people living in it. The domed gate is probably the oldest extant building in the compound and was built by Firuz Shah Tughlaq. It is a classic Tughlaq building-heavy, sloping rubble walls with a half dome. Exiting from the same gate and going behind the dargah compound takes you to the humble tomb of Bahlol Lodi who founded the Lodi dynasty out of the mess left behind by the later Tughlaqs and the Sayyids. It is a flat roofed, multiple arched building with a central cenotaph-now used as a wicket by local children playing cricket. There was another tomb nearby but that has been subsumed by some recent construction.
The village of Chiragh Delhi does not have much to recommend itself in material terms. But if you come here in the monsoons when the gloomy grey skies turn the weather sombre and the rain has washed the tombs clean, it is possible to forget that you are in South Delhi-in the middle of 15 million fellow humans, and just for a fleeting second step back into time with nothing but the timeless gravestones and the broad canopy of the khirni tree for company.