Nizamuddin Shrine’s Built Heritage and Delhi’s Urban Face-lift

Yousuf Saeed



Delhi’s historic shrine of the 13th century saint Nizamuddin is a popular Muslim pilgrimage centre, attracting thousands of pilgrims of many faiths from all over India and abroad for last 800 years. Besides being a hub of religious pilgrimage it is also a minor tourist attraction, visited by many tourists looking for an Indo-Muslim past of Delhi, especially while visiting the nearby Humayun’s tomb and Lodi garden, some of Delhi’s more famous landmarks. [Figure 01] Although debatable, the popularity of this shrine among international tourists could be gauged by the fact that the popular tourist guide Lonely Planet, in its list of “164 most essential things to do” in Delhi, ranks a visit to the Nizamuddin dargah at 37; and among the heritage sites listed in it, the shrine is ninth most popular tourist spot of Delhi!1

The neighbourhood immediately surrounding the tomb is densely populated today by mostly Muslim residents in unplanned housing clusters with hundreds of small shops selling all sorts of items from religious books and music CDs to attar, spicy food and raw meat. In this maze of heritage buildings, smelly shops and fakirs, the name and blessings of the saint Nizamuddin is the most important feature for the residents and visitors here. Even though Delhi has tombs of many great kings and rulers spread throughout the city, the local residents believe that they are all deserted (or seen as relics) while the tomb of Nizamuddin is a living space - always crowded with devotees. But this “living” nature of a heritage site is also what makes the place problematic in the eyes of the heritage conservationists and the government authorities, since those living and doing business in this area are also considered responsible for the encroachment and damage to historical buildings.


This report tries to explore how the popular devotion of visiting pilgrims to the saint and the exploitation by local priests and residents is at odds with the efforts of Delhi government to restore the lost glory of ancient buildings, especially in their current enterprise of projecting Delhi as a world-class city with sanitised heritage sites, in the midst of the much-publicised Commonwealth Games held in October 2010. In this tug of war between popular faith and heritage, the larger question to explore is: how do the two sides learn to understand each other’s definitions of preservable heritage and venerable sacred sites and archetypes. And what new meanings do concepts like “endangered” and “preservable heritage” versus relics and “venerable sites” acquire today when heritage restorers and government officials, in their effort to save the crumbling buildings, confront the local heirs or “owners” of the shrine complex, who consider any effort of restoration a threat to the survival of their devotional enterprise. [Figure 02] In one of the ways to study this confrontation, the project documents some of the images and popular visuality produced around the shrine, besides looking at the very recent developments in the neighbourhood through local sources of news and media.

1. This listing is based on their online survey that keeps fluctuating. Interestingly, a majority of 164 “things” on the list are related to Delhi’s favourite food joints and very few heritage spots. If one counted only the top heritage sites favoured in the survey, the Nizamuddin shrine comes at number 9! (accessed 18 April 2011).

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