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

A living shrine versus the heritage

The present tomb of Nizamuddin that is flocked by the pilgrims is basically a small square chamber with narrow verandas on all four sides. The walls of the chamber consist mostly of marble jali or screens while the roof is surmounted by a white marble dome with vertical black stripes. Most available images (archival as well as contemporary) depict this building, often along with the adjacent large mosque made of red sandstone. Interestingly, Nizamuddin’s last residence or spiritual retreat was not where his tomb is located. Rather it was situated about a kilometre away from the present tomb – a place known as the chilla khana, at the extreme northeast corner of the charbagh (square garden) that surrounds the Mughal emperor Humayun’s tomb.9 In fact, the construction of Humayun’s tomb (over two centuries after Nizamuddin’s death) may have been carried out in the space between the residence and the mausoleum of Nizamuddin Aulia for its sacrality.

The manner in which monuments such as Humayun’s tomb and Nizamuddin’s shrine have been individually treated in different ways over the centuries speaks volumes about their lives, and separates them as “heritage” and “devotional” buildings, respectively. Among the factors that physically make the Sufi shrine “living” are the visitors’ offerings, additions or decorations onto its architecture over last eight centuries. Even though the last major construction or renovation of the shrine was carried on in 1561-62 (giving it the present shape), the growth of the shrine never really stopped or culminated in a manner that could be considered final. As an expression of their devotion, the visitors - mostly rulers and rich merchants - have constantly been adding built components like marble archways, screens, tombstones, walls, railings, painted murals, and even temporary elements like curtains, lamps, chandeliers, clocks and so on, much of it with a purpose of providing comfort to the pilgrims. These offered “embellishments” however should be seen as distinct from the “encroachments” done more recently.

Besides the main tomb, the shrine has other venerable sites such as the poet Amir Khusrau’s tomb, hujra-e qadeem (the ancient room), langar khana (hall for community food), baoli, urs mahal (concert stage for qawwalis), taaq-e buzorg (an ancient niche), chilla sharif (saint’s meditation room) and so on, some of which a pilgrim is supposed to visit ritually for specific ceremonies, especially during the annual urs of the saint. Many of these were constructed or added in later periods, and have constantly been painted over or repaired with different materials. Some of the early photographs and illustrations give us a glimpse of what form and shape the shrine had earlier and how much has changed over time due to additions and illegal constructions. A location of interest for most visual chroniclers in Nizamuddin shrine is the 14th century baoli or step-well located on the north of the main grave.10 It is the oldest surviving baoli in Delhi and the only one with an active underground spring. It was meant for ablution (washing before prayers) as well as bathing for the devotees, although with use over the centuries it has been converted into a sewage tank. Some of the 19th or early 20th century images show it as a ruin which is still used for diving. The legend has it that it has five or seven natural sources of water, each tasting differently. The pilgrims considered its water sacred and drank it for healing purposes. We find many illustrations and photographs of the baoli produced by visitors from 19th and early 20th century, which allow us not only to see how its built structures kept changing, but also how it was always seen as a place of adventure for divers to jump from extremely high structures all around it.11 There is hardly any other historical monument in Delhi that continues to provide such interactivity and “use” by the visitors until today. However, the current parts of the baoli building are completely encroached upon by new constructions, some altering the heritage parts beyond recognition.

9. Lowry, Glenn D., “Delhi in the 16th Century,” Environmental Design, Journal of the Islamic Environmental Design Research Centre, 1984, 7-17.

10. According to a popular legend, the Tughlaq king was against the digging of this baoli since labourers were required for construction of his own fort (later called Tughlaqabald). Nizamuddin’s disciple Nasiruddin Chiragh-e Dehli got the labourers to work on the baoli at night using oil-lamps. But the king stopped the supply of oil for them. Nasiruddin miraculously used water to light the lamps.

11. Many illustrations as well as photographs depict adventurous divers ready to jump into the well. 

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