After living in and around Delhi for eight years, Rashima Nagpal discovers the poeticism of the city she thought she knew well. Photographs by Atif Amin
I was not born in Delhi. Nor did I plan to spend half of my 20s here. But one after the other, eight years have passed, and here I am. I don’t know any other city that feels more like home. Somewhat paradoxically, the more I deem it familiar, the more I want to peel off its layers—the old and worn out, the young and vivid, and the many in between. And I do so every chance I get. Whether it’s aimless circles around Connaught Place, a stroll in Khan Market saunters at Mandi House, explorations of Lutyens’ Delhi, or visits to dilapidated forts, Delhi almost always has a surprise in store. Earlier this year, it revealed two of its treasures to me.
The third edition of the month-long India Heritage Walk Festival (indiaheritagewalks.org)—organised by Sahapedia (sahapedia.org)—took place in February 2020. In what was my last outdoor work assignment before you-know-what happened, I signed up for two of the heritage walks. My day began with the buzzing Nizamuddin Basti and concluded in an unexpected downpour at the sylvan Sanjay Van.
At quarter to nine in the morning, a motley group of 10 people—bound together only by a love for history—gathered around the gateway to the Basti. We were welcomed by an enthusiastic walk leader, 30-year-old Asiya Qureshi. She was one of the five who had passed Sahapedia’s unique programme that trained women from the capital’s shelter homes as tour guides. After sharing a ‘cutting chai’ with the group, Qureshi swiftly led us into the narrow winding lanes of the 700-year-old neighbourhood and drew an evocative portrait of its character.
Delhi’s Nizamuddin Basti lies at a fascinating crossroads of history, culture, and spirituality. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, when Sufism dazzled the world, Delhi became one of its major centres. Many Sufi saints found solace in the capital, including Muhammad Nizamuddin Auliya, whose dargah is at the heart of the Basti. Hazrat Nizamuddin—as he is reverently called—and his mysticism attracted people across caste, class, and race. And just like that, the neighbourhood became an ever-expanding community of Sufi followers. Many of them lived their entire lives following in his footsteps, and some even made sure that they were buried close to him. The various mausoleums that we found in the labyrinthine lanes of the Basti were proof that faith transcends life and death.
Through a web of people, we walked towards an arched passage and into a quaint square, where we could hear peacocks shrieking. Here, the Urs Mahal and Chausath Khamba face each other. The Urs Mahal hosts qawwalis during festivities—especially on the occasion of Urs, or the death anniversary of a Sufi saint. Built in 1623, Chausath Khamba is a 64-pillar mausoleum built by Mirza Aziz Koka, the son of Akbar’s prime minister Ataga Khan, as his family’s shrine. Marvellously cut in white marble—a prime example of classic Mughal architecture—it was used as an assembly hall much before the tombs of Koka and his family were installed within it. One can also find Ataga Khan’s tomb in a corner of the Basti, albeit in a dilapidated condition.
On the other side of the Chausath Khamba, we arrived in another splendid courtyard. While we got busy taking photographs, Qureshi recited a couplet to get our attention, “Ishq ne ġhālib nikammā kar diyā, varna ham bhī aadmī the kaam ke.” (Ghalib, a worthless person, this love has made of me, otherwise a man of substance I once used to be). The cue was unmistakable. We were standing at the tombstone of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, who lived from 1797 to 1869. Restored in 2009 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, the courtyard is paved with red sandstone, white marble inlays, and ornamental patterns.
I never knew there was also a baoli alongside the scores of heritage gems in Nizamuddin Basti. When Qureshi took us to the 14th-century stepwell, I couldn’t help but picture the neighbourhood in its glory days.
From the bustling Basti, I landed straight into a scene out of Dead Poets Society. In the middle of Delhi’s sprawling 443-acre Sanjay Van, a bunch of us sat down with one agenda: Ghalib. Leading this baithak were Aditi Saraswat, a video producer with an impressive knowledge of trees, and Kartikay Khetarpal, a research associate with a penchant for poetry.
That day I learnt the fundamentals of Urdu poetry. Sher is Urdu for couplet. In any sher, the first line is called misra-e-oola (oola meaning horizon), and the second misra-e-saanii. Traditionally, a sher is not read but recited. The first line is recited multiple times with great emphasis and long pauses. This is done deliberately to build suspense. Only after the listener exclaims “Wah!” several times is the second line recited—and that is when the magic of poetry happens. Multiple sher make up a ghazal.
Ghalib is popular for his ghazals. Apparently, he preferred writing his ghazals in Persian over Urdu, as Persian was the official courtly language at the time. His style of writing was largely abstract and wasn’t easily understood by many. This ‘mushkil-pasand’ (not easily likeable) poet thus took his time to become popular. Not that he cared much. In fact, he blatantly expressed his lack of desire to please people in one of his couplets, “Na satā.ish kī tamannā na sile kī parvā, gar nahīñ haiñ mire ash.ār meñ ma.anī na sahī.” (I do not harbour hope for praise, nor do I care for compense, thus if my lines are meaningless, with them, you may dispense.)
The clouds looming over our heads grew thicker as we walked deeper into the woods and recited more of Ghalib’s sher. Thunder emphasised each couplet and its impact. Even as it began pouring, we stood resolutely under a tree and made a promise to meet again, just so we could continue where we left off that evening.