The Lifting of the Veil: The Monastery and Tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Darga

The Monastery and Tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Darga

“Let God make you feel pain”

–words of advice given to Hazrat Nizamuddin by his master

A woman in a red and gold sari cries against the door of a house. She wrings her hands around the green grilled bars of the doorway, and rocks back and forth, as if against the legs of a lover. Black hair tumbles down her bowed face, and her pink socks, crumpled beside her legs, are stained with dirt. You cannot hear her crying. Indeed, you would not be able to tell she was crying at all if you were not sitting right beside her, and could see the gleam of tears on her dark cheeks, or the way her lips contorted as she mouthed her prayers. The prayers emerge in breaths– indiscernible, not because they are whispered in Urdu, but because they are meant for only one person: Hazrat Nizammudin, the departed Sufi Saint, or perhaps God.

This January was my first time in India. I came on a program to study Indian Politics and Society. That evening, we visited the monastery of Hazrat Nizammudin Auliya to learn about Sufism, a mystical strain of Islam that entered the subcontinent nine hundred years ago. Hazrat Nizammudin was one of India’s most renowned Sufi Saints, and lived in this monastery, where he fasted, meditated on God, and died. Though the house was covered in fresh white stucco, and the grilled iron door was painted a bright green, a sense of antiquity hung about the place. It rested with the stones between the dark dirt packing of the rubble walls. It settled on the shadowed gravestones dotting the hillside. We took our seats on the porch, and the Peepul trees nestled us in the monastery away from the bustle of usual New Delhi life. The sun bled over the horizon, and cast long shadows over the marble courtyard.

Dhruv Sangari, a qawallli devotional singer, sat opposite us on the porch with crossed legs. His face was framed between the collars of his black pea coat. Our professor had contacted him about our visit, and he had agreed to teach us about his religion.

“It was not conflict that heralded Sufism’s entrance into India,” Dhruv began. We listened in a half moon crescent, bundled in our American jackets and scarves. “But synthesis.”

The woman continued crying. The sun emptied itself, and the sky blossomed into pinks and velvets. Songs blared from the loudspeaker of the neighboring gurdwara (Sikh temple–readings from the Adi Granth, which, like the gudwara’s white domes, towered over the trees and smothered the quiet monastery. Birds chirped and flitted between the branches, and in the middle of Dhruv’s lesson, a Bollywood jingle erupted from a cell phone on the wall. A Muslim man with a large black mustache climbed over our shoulders and backpacks, mumbling his apologies, and yanked it out of the outlet.

“A motif of Sufism,” Dhruv continued, “is the veil. Many veils hide the face of the Beloved. We lift one, and are one step closer to God. Yet many more veils stand in our way.”

These words were like  a hand parting through the many veils in my own mind. Like Sufism, a series of veils cloak India’s identity, and with each passing day, another veil was lifted, revealing a little bit more of the culture. Thinking back on my experiences now, memories rush to my mind like the New Delhi traffic—buses, bicycles, Maruti cars, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, shoving one another down roads with the speed of molasses; through stop lights, over curbs, against traffic; vehicles blaring their horns, screaming, distinctly, but in a joint tongue,


 Here I am!

Indian democracy is as crowded as its traffic. India has twenty-one official languages, eight of the worlds’ major religions, a Hindu population divided along lines of caste and sub-caste, with tens of thousands of sub-jatis (caste communities); technological cities with high risers and skyscrapers; medieval villages with mud-thatched huts. India’s democracy is the biggest in the world. During elections, 1.3 billion people shove their votes and voices down the throat of the ballot box, filling it with their dreams and desires, shouting, as my memories do now,  “Acknowledge me, for I am India!”

But there are far too many faces, too many identities, for any one of them to claim India’s Idea. To describe India, I must do so like the Sufis, and lift the veil to the experience that exerts the most force upon my imagination. It is an experience, which, if not capturing the multiplicity of India, at least allows entry into a place most American tourists do not go: the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Darga, and the performance of the Sufi music qawalli.

That night we abandoned the monastery, and followed Dhruv through the busy Muslim streets of Khan marketplace. The hawkers’ cries, the smell of simmering rice, the groping hands of beggars, and the floating apparitions of headscarves, beards, and curious white eyes filled the dark streets. We stepped into an alleyway of bright yellow light, and winded our way past shops of glittering kashmiri scarves and saris, toward the tomb gate. We slipped off our shoes, and Dhruv led us through the archway and down some stone stairs into a courtyard. A large crowd pressed around the qawalli singers. The two leaders sat cross-legged in front of two microphones, accordions resting in their laps. An old Muslim with a white beard motioned for people to take their seats.


I was seated close to the performers. A boy, propped on his knees beside me, swayed back and forth to peak over the crowd. He looked no older than ten, and his teeth, like the teeth of the performers, was stained red with paan (a type of tobacco used with betel nut). The crowd hushed as the Sufis pressed their fingers to the keys and began. Their voices climbed to octaves Western singers dare not reach, and oscillated wildly in tune to the accordions. The lead singer on the right microphone had the strongest voice. His saggy cheeks and bulging neck quivered with the rush of wind out of his diaphragm. His eyes roamed the crowd while he sang, and at times, it seemed as if he was hardly aware he was singing—bored, as if contemplating his chores for the next day. Then, a gush of emotion would seize him, his chest would rise, his eyelids would narrow, and he would raise his hand and lose himself to the spiral of his voice.

Some men and women approached the singers and set rupee notes in front of them with bows of respect. Other times the old man glided through the audience and collected donations, presenting them before the singers and audience in an elaborate ritual. He drew ten rupee notes from his vest and waved them in the air, fluttering them from beneath his clothes onto the stone floor one after another like a never-ending ATM. The mountain of rupees fattened and carpeted the ground in reds, oranges, and greens. I tossed several rupee coins into the pile and added a flash of silver.

I don’t know how long we sat there listening. I was very tired, and the music added a sluggish quality to time. I fought to stay awake. A man, in the middle of one of the songs, rose to his feet and stepped in the middle of the circle. He did not offer money; rather, he began spinning, with a smile and his hands and eyes lifted toward the sky. Around and around he spun, and I could tell by the smiles and bright eyes of the audience that they were urging him on. But in his devotional trance, his dancing would not stop, until White Beard was forced to lead him out of the circle, where he collapsed on the steps of the nearby shop in ecstasy, and I did not see him move again.

In the tomb of Hazrat Nizammudin Darga, we entered a Muslim underground where most tourists do not go. Amidst the sea of faces, I watched several white men, not much older than me, follow their Indian friends through the crowd. I wondered where they came from, why they were here, what they were doing in India. I wondered how many veils they had uncovered. And from the marked difference of their skin, I wondered about the hidden differences in the audience: how many Hindus were there? How many Jains, Sikhs, Buddhists? How many religions were drawn here by the voices of the singers, summoned by songs of praise and love to honor the departed Sufi saints?

Back at the monastery, in an empty room, a curtain hides the relic of the Sufi Saint. Everyday, Muslims tug at the curtain longingly and peak behind it. This January, I received my first peak behind an Indian veil, and saw a dizzy mirage that has yet to depart. Now I am separated, home in America once again, hungering to return, and have another glance.


(Article written for the UVA undergraduate newspaper, the Declaration, on February 3, 2011.)