City Monument - Stone Jaalis, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya's Dargah

City Monument – Stone Jaalis, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s Dargah

City Monument - Stone Jaalis, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya's Dargah

Screens forever.

[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Air entwined with stone, becoming jaali.

The lattice screen has long been an element of Delhi’s architecture. One unlikely place to experience this living heritage is the sufi shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. An extensive network of stone jaalis run about the sacred expanse, like a long veil of Dhaka muslin.

Although it commemorates an ascetic fakir, the 14th century mausoleum is also a final resting ground for the history’s rich and powerful, with three extraordinary tomb chambers devoted to the Mughal royalties. One harbours the grave of an emperor, another has a princess who was among the most powerful women of her time, and the third shelters the last Mughal emperor’s brothers. This trinity of roofless chambers become even more extraordinary on realising that they are literally a jaal of jaalis, entirely composed of stone screens. (A pioneer among such monuments is located hundreds of miles away, in Kabul, where Babur’s tomb too is an edifice of jaalis.)

Emperor Muhammed Shah Rangila’s tomb chamber (see photo) faces the shrine’s courtyard. In the evenings, when the courtyard is crowded and the air swells up with sufi music, the jaalis of Rangila’s tomb chamber gives the spectator inside a thrilling spy-like view of the packed courtyard.

Similar stone jaalis make the tomb chamber of Princess Jahanara, who was Emperor Shahjahan’s daughter, and the tomb chamber of Mirza Babar and Mirza Jehangir, who were Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s brothers. The jaalis also flank the facade of the shrine’s Jamat Khana mosque, where they comprise of white marble on one side and of Dholpur red sandstone on the other. The dargah’s sanctum santorum—Hazrat Nizamuddin’s tomb— is also ornamented with jaali, surrounded by 11 marble screens, installed during Emperor Akbar’s reign.

While in the shrine, the jaali aesthete must also make a pilgrimage to poet Amir Khusro’s tomb, lying ensconced within a double layer of jaali. The outer screen of red sandstone was installed during Emperor Humayun’s reign, the inner screen of white marble came up during Emperor Jehangir’s reign. That these multitudinous layers of Delhi’s historic timelines are so finely embedded into these fragile-seeming structure triggers awe.

That said, it is possible that some of us might find the dargah’s jaalis less spectacular than the stone jaalis of say, Itmad-ud-Daula’s tomb in Agra, or the jaalis in Fatehpur Sikri. But Nizamuddin’s jaalis are certainly much more alive, striking a deep connect with the shrine’s pilgrims. During moments of intense emotions, some of them clutch their praying fingers into the jaali’s tiny openings. Many tie wish-making red threads into these jaalis. Some insert handwritten prayers.

This evening, a woman is standing in a corner of the shrine, repeatedly kissing a jaali, and sobbing silently, as if this screen of stone and air were her closest confidante.

PS: The photo shows the shrine’s Syed Ibrahim Ali Nizami