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

The historic role and image of Nizamuddin shrine in Delhi

Nizamuddin Aulia (1240-1325) and his shrine have had an impact on the development of Delhi’s history as well as geography in several ways. The arrival of his Sufi order Chishtiyya via saint Moinuddin (b.1140) from Chisht, a small town near Herat (Afghanistan), to Ajmer, Rajasthan, marks almost the onset of Delhi Sultanate, the first Islamic rule in India. Like Moinuddin of Ajmer whose tomb has been a popular pilgrimage centre,2 Nizamuddin Aulia and his hospice too had a great following of devotees in his lifetime; he was even considered a competition to the popularity of his contemporary king Alauddin Khalji.3 This legendary popularity among pilgrims continued without break, devotees often considering Nizamuddin to be the real Sultan or ruler of India even after his death.4 Moreover, due to the supposed sacrality of the shrine, many Muslim kings, courtiers and even ordinary citizens who lived and died in Delhi after Nizamuddin Aulia, wished to be buried next to his grave. Thus, the neighbourhood around his shrine was used as a large and growing cemetery for seven centuries. The construction of several grave complexes such as Lodhi tombs, Humayun’s tomb, Jorbagh Karbala, Safdarjang’s tomb and hundreds of odd graves in between (many of which have disappeared since early 20th century) are a testimony to the importance of Nizamuddin shrine.

Besides emperor Humayun, several other important personalities from the Mughal family or court are buried in and around the shrine. While Shahjahan’s daughter Jahanara and a later king Mohammad Shah are buried in the space between the graves of Nizamuddin Aulia and Amir Khusrau, other courtiers buried here include Atgha Khan and Abdur Rahim Khan-e Khanan. The immediate vicinity of the shrine has a few important historical buildings such as Chausanth khamba (lit. ‘64-pillars’), Kalan masjid, and the tomb of Urdu language’s most famous poet, Mirza Ghalib, among others. Almost all visitors to Delhi, especially during the colonial period, who wrote about the places of historical interest in Delhi, mentioned the Nizamuddin shrine and even included illustrations, and in some cases from 19th century onwards, photographs of the site. Some of the European visitors include Sir Thomas Metcalf,5 who published an album in 1843 illustrating historical monuments of Delhi [See image], besides Thomas Daniell [See image], Lawrie & Company [See image], Gertrude Bell,6 and others who made illustrations or took photographs of the shrine in 19th and early 20th century.


Fig. 03

Later, many more photographs and illustrations of Nizamuddin shrine were produced in European and Indian publications, including picture postcards and small posters printed by Indian calendar producers Mirza & Sons and Hemchandar Bhargava (circa 1910-30).  In the German-style postcard series of Gruss Aus (Greetings from), one finds a 1900 postcard titled “Greetings from India” that makes a collage of three illustrations: washerwomen on a riverfront in Ahmedabad, Delhi’s Nizamuddin shrine, and the Ashokan pillar at Mehrauli, besides blank space for a short message.7 [Figure 03] Whether inadvertently or otherwise, some European postcard publishers also provided incorrect facts – a picture postcard of the shrine produced by Rafael Tuck & Sons describes Nizamuddin as “the founder of thuggism, who is supposed to have murdered the Emperor Tuglak in 1325.”8

 Fig. 04

These postcards may not have served the purpose of devotional gaze of the pilgrims since they were mostly done for European buyers. [Figure 04] But the local pilgrims arriving at the shrine may have certainly purchased the coloured posters of Nizamuddin dargah. Hemchandar

Bhargava was already producing a large variety of Islamic posters in the early 20th century depicting images of Islamic monuments and shrines including Mecca, Karbala, and Jama masjid, besides hundreds of prints of Islamic/Arabic calligraphy with floral borders. But some of these cannot be strictly classified as Muslim devotional – many also had images of heritage buildings. Other early publishers who produced such images are Ravi Varma Press, Anant Shivaji Desai and PPC – all based in Bombay. They may have had an eye on the devotional market, but some of their images of heritage buildings served for both religious as well as secular use.

 Fig. 05

Not too many varieties of devotional posters depicting Nizamuddin shrine were made available in 20th century as compared to other shrines such as Ajmer. In fact, only one standard image of Nizamuddin by Brijbasi has remained in circulation with slight variations for decades. [Figure 05] One more popular poster shows an assembly of six Chishti Sufis including Nizamuddin Aulia sitting besides inset pictures of their tombs. Some chapbooks or biographies of the saint available outside the shrine do use photographs of the tomb but only a standard view. There is simply no image of the baoli (stepwell) or other building that became the object of popular gaze or veneration in commercial circulation. A curiosity for such a popular image arises (for this study) since posters called naqshas giving rough cartographic details of pilgrimage centres such as Ajmer had been in circulation in 20th century. However, among other forms of popular publications that use illustrations of the shrine are the chapbooks containing biographies of the saint, available just outside the shrine. While the titles of some of these Urdu books show a standard photo or illustration of the shrine building, some also decorate such ordinary images with embellishments, just as in the devotional posters, to communicate their devotion to the saint. [Figure 06, 07 and 08 ]

Fig. 06  Fig. 07  Fig. 08 

2. Asher Catherine B., “Pilgrimage to the Shrines in Ajmer,” in Barbara D. Metcalf (ed.), Islam in South Asia in practice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009, 77-86.

3. Kumar, Sunil, “Assertions of Authority: A Study of the Discursive Statements of Two Sultans of Delhi,” in Muzaffar Alam, F.Nalini Delvoye, Marc Gaborieau (eds.): The Making of Indo-Persian Culture, Indian and French Studies, Manohar, Delhi, 2000, 37-65.

4. Lawrence, Bruce (transl.), Nizam Ad.Din Awliya, Morals of the Heart, New York: Paulist Press, 1992.

5. Metcalfe, Sir Thomas T., Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi, 1843, British Library, London. (An album consisting of 89 folios containing approximately 130 paintings of monuments of Delhi.)

6. Some photographs of Delhi’s Nizamuddin shrine taken (on January 9, 1903) by the British photographer Gertrude Bell can be seen at:

7. Produced by D. Macropolo & Co., Calcutta.

8. Associating the saint with thuggism may be connected to accounts of some 19th century European historians who floated the story of Nizamuddin’s direct involvement in Tughlaq’s death, which many Indian historians (such as Khaliq A.Nizami) have contested.

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