Mission Delhi – Unnamed Sufi, Hazrat Nizamuddin's Chilla

Mission Delhi – Unnamed Sufi, Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Chilla

One of the one percent in 13 million.

[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Quite a few of us Delhiwallas derive our lifetime’s understanding of Sufism from the live qawwali recitals that we occasionally attend on Thursday evening outings to one of the city’s many Sufi shrines, or — of course — from the weekly Sufi nights held in bars such as Q’ba in Connaught Place.

But have you ever interacted with a real Sufi?

The Oxford dictionary describes a Sufi as “a Muslim ascetic and mystic”; the term is derived from Arabic word meaning “wool”.

One evening The Delhi Walla chanced upon a group of long-haired starving-thin men, appearing to be in their 40s and 50s, who came close to such a description. They were camping just across the road from the marvelously serene Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Chilla — the place where the great 14th century saint lived and meditated.

Today this area is surrounded by a Sikh temple, a railway station, a discreetly situated Border Security Force officers mess and a very touristy Mughal-era tomb. Yet the world here seemed wild, unintrusive and free — at least to these five men, or Sufis, as they called themselves.

“I have no name,” said one with a long beard, and the most extrovert of the lot. Dressed in an orange T-shirt and an off-white lungi, he politely waved towards the others, saying in a mildly bemused tone, “They too have no name. They are also Sufis.”

Against a backdrop of trees and bushes, these self-proclaimed Sufis had created a sort of cozy open-air rest house in a clearing the size of a badminton court. The decoration included a calender-picture of Shirdi’s Sai Baba stuck on a tree trunk.

Each of these men seemed utterly alone. The one who had earlier spoken stood beside a tree, his eyes focused on my camera. Another one was sitting on his haunches and murmuring something — perhaps he was reciting prayers. Two other men were sprawled on the muddy ground looking up at the darkening sky. Another man in green turban seemed asleep on a white plastic sheet. His hairy chest was decked with necklaces of glass beads and amulets; he had five rings on his hands.

The sleeping man’s eyes were half-open. He looked drugged.

The T-shirt wearing Sufi said, “If you give us some money, we can cook a meal together.”

Or else?

The man shrugged his shoulders.

The rest of the men looked on at me with indifference but they showed no hostility — one of them smiled faintly and gestured me to sit.

However, the T-shirt wearing man gradually opened up and responded to my queries by giving a glimpse into his life, which he claimed was that of a typical Sufi.

“I arrived here from Kaliyar Sharif (a dargah in western Uttar Pradesh, or UP) and met them,” he said, pointing to the rest of his company. “I go from one dargah to another. Sometimes I cover the distances by walking. Sometimes I take a train or a bus. I never buy tickets. People simply offer me a seat, and if they don’t, I get off and wait for another bus, or I just walk.

“Occasionally, I meet somebody on the road who is a deewana (obsessed) like me and then we travel together. I have made many friends but usually after reaching the end of our sojourn in a dargah when it is time to begin a new journey, we go our separate routes.

“I was born in a village near Mirzapur (eastern UP). My father was a carpenter. I was never happy. One day I left home and crossed over to the other side of the Ganga. Soon I began to spend my days walking from one town to another. Sometimes a fruit-seller would give me a fruit, or I would get a free meal in a temple or a dhaba.

“One summer afternoon I reached a mazaar (sufi shrine) in Badaun (in UP). It was very hot and I was very hungry and exhausted. A maulana there gave me roti and subzi and then something happened to me. I felt so happy that I read the kalma and became a mussalman.”

My interlocutor had no luggage but everyone — even a wandering Sufi — needs at least a few possessions to get by in this practical world.

“I have two kurtas, two underwears, one thali (plate) and one katori (bowl). I wrap them inside a towel. I also have a surahi (earthenware water pot) and a lathi (stick), which I use to protect myself from animals.”

A white Young India underwear was hanging on a tree trunk.

On his immediate plans, the T-shirt wearing Sufi said, “Maybe I will stay here for a week. After that I will walk to the dargah in Mehrauli. From there I will head to Ajmer Sharif (in Rajasthan) and then I will go to meet Makhdoom Saheb (dargah) in Kashmir.”

Does he never feel lonely?

“I always find somebody in my travels,” he said.

Or else, like us city Sufis, he could get an iPod loaded with singer Abida Parveen’s Sufi numbers.

[This is the 85th portrait of Mission Delhi project]

The world is my name