City Landmark - Neem Tree, Old Delhi

City Landmark – Neem Tree, Old Delhi

City Landmark - Neem Tree, Old Delhi

A Walled City sight.

[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]

The night air is growing less hot, almost spring-like pleasant. The sky is pitch black, not a single star to be seen. The dozens of street stalls are lying locked, sheeted and roped. The deserted lanes are littered with trashy remains of the day—upturned slippers, stained paper plates and squeaky clean chicken bones. Most lamps are out. Some homeless citizens are slumped across a flat landing, probably asleep. A barely perceptible sound is of the shiny green neem leaves that rustle in occasional gusts of warm breeze.

This tree is among the most picturesque night-time sights in Old Delhi. Positioned directly opposite the eastern face of Jama Masjid, its nocturnal avatar is more monumental than of the Mughal-era monument, which the post-midnight darkness has reduced to a papery silhouette.

The neem is actually rooted inside a small shrine that houses the historic graves of sufi mystics Hazrat Sarmad Shahid and Hazrat Hare Bhare Shah. The tree stands between the two adjacent graves. Its massive trunk shoots up through a circular opening in the ceiling, beyond which it goes upwards to a certain height, and then spread its dense foliage—see photo.

A portion of the tree looks more sacred than the rest. The lower part of the trunk, within the shrine’s walls, is clothed in layers of silken fabrics, the colourful chaadar that pilgrims spread upon the grave. The trunk is also spotted with very many arziyan, scraps of loose flappy paper scrawled with handwritten prayers. (One arzi turns out to be a flier for a missing man).

The neem is believed to be older than the centuries-old Old Delhi, an assertion made by an elderly transgender who lives around the corner, in a pavement dwelling of canvas awning. Hundreds of years ago, she says, the area was a “bayaban,” or wilderness, full of animals and runaway brigands. That world ended in the 17th century when Shahjahan chose the location for his new capital. Meanwhile, a flower seller within the shrine repeats his claim of the tree being more than 500 years old.

Tonight, a lone man is seated on the shrine’s roof—the floor is still warm from the day’s extreme heat. The man’s back is turned towards the tree. The leaves are motionless, and shall remain so until the next gust of breeze.