City Faith – Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Chilla, Central Delhi
A Sufi shelter.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
It’s an escapist’s paradise. The chillah, or retreat, of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya is one of Delhi’s most serene monuments. Here, the city’s iconic 14th century sufi saint lived, meditated, and died. This was his khanqah—a monastery—where he also used to perform chilla-kashi, the spiritual practice in which a secluded sufi undergoes meditation for 40 days.
Most of the crowd actually goes to Hazrat Nizamuddin’s far more famous dargah. But that’s only the place where he was buried. He lived here at the chillah for 65 years.
In his time, the khanqah was in wilderness. Yamuna was a stone’s throw away. Down the centuries, the river’s course shifted further east; a railway line came up in its place. Today, despite the rumble of trains, the place feels remote. Surrounded by trees, it is flanked on one side by the stony ramparts of Humayun’s Tomb, and on the other, by the white dome of Gurudwara Damdama Sahib. Dozens of well-kept graves dot the ground behind.
Built on a stone platform, the khanqah’s veranda leads to a domed chamber, believed by some to be the spot where Hazrat Nizamuddin would pray. In a renovation some years ago, the khanqah’s grassy yard was laid with marble (in winter, the cold stone numbs the bare feet). Battered stone walls were painted white. The chamber’s grille door was done in green; it remains locked.
Sitting on the veranda’s blue velvety dhurrie, the detached world of the khanqah grows intimate and hypnotic. The very air appears saturated with solitariness.
The resident fakir lives in a neighbouring ruin with his many cats. His chamber has an alcove in which devotees light candles. According to him, the khanqah was raised by a court noble called Ziauddeen Wakeel. When Wakeel offered to build a new chamber, Hazrat Nizamuddin warned that the person commissioning it would not be able to live for long. That didn’t deter Wakeel. The khanqah took 30 days to finish. On the first evening after its completion, a mehfil was organised. As the samaa led to spiritual ecstasy, Wakeel’s soul left his body.
His grave lies in the courtyard.
The cemetery in the chillah’s backyard is as peaceful. Some tombs have potted plants. In the evening, the devotional music of gurbani wafts over from the adjacent gurudwara. The effect is calming. Come during the evening when the setting sun drenches the ambiance with beauty.
Hazrat Nizamuddin’s first address