Locatedin New Delhi, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah is the mausoleum on NizamuddinAuliya, one of the world’s most renowned Sufi saints. The moment I stepped intothe Dargah area, I was overwhelmed with its environment and the peace itbrought through (Figure 1). I witnessed numerous devotees doing their bit toserve the society in different forms, remembering their god and surrenderingoneself to him; physically, mentally and emotionally. This intrigued me themost and since I myself follow Jainism, giving back and serving the societyselflessly comes naturally to me.
Thus, I wanted to research the topic of’altruism’ and the free voluntary help provided by the devotees in further depth.Beingthe most popular Dargah in Delhi, it is visited by thousands of people daily.The shrine’s courtyard is decorated with flowers and aesthetic electric bulbs withinteriors of pure gold (Figure 2). The grand Hazrat Nizamuddin tomb has latticescreens called jallis and marblearches. Devotees tie red threads to these screens with a belief that theirwishes would be granted. Inside the tomb, the shrine is covered with scented darkgreen cloth. The walls inside the principle shrine, the site of HazratNizamuddin’s grave are draped with green curtains embroidered with golden lace.Devotees offer prayers, shower rose petals and light fragrant incense sticks (agarbattis) before the shrines whichsignify simplicity and Hinduism (Delvhi).
Every Thursday, special Qawwali programsare organized inside the Dargah which is adorned with beautiful lights and the enchantingSufi music echoes in one’s ears. WhileI interacted with the peerzadas,devotees and the locals, I learnt that hundreds of people visit the Dargah atnight. Sweet rice, laddoos, dal and rajma are served as langarto all in polythene packets. Some also spend the night there. One devotee exclaimed,”Not only Sufi music lovers but also tourists love to spend the night indevotion as the whole atmosphere is charged with spirituality and calmness.
” TheDargah is representative of the city’s people, language, food, culture, poetry,music and architecture. I observed a variety of things; hundreds of goatspopping up from narrow lanes, beggars, small shops selling roses and prasad to offer to Allah, peoplereciting Namaaz, extreme poverty, redsand stone marks, baolis for bathingand drinking water, people tying the holy thread (moulis) and lying on the floor, well decorated graves, women coveredin Burqas, holy hymns and books withreligious recitals being sold, Sufipractices, a lot of bargaining, exorcism, women banging their heads on pillarsin hopes of getting cured, raw meat and chicken being sold in every little nookand corner and a person dabbing perfumes to all the passersby. There were allsorts of people there and I had a couple of encounters with some who wereprofusely devoted and possessive about their religion and Allah. But the onestriking thing that really caught my attention among many others was the freevoluntary help and social service provided by individuals and the Dargahmanagement. Altruism or selflessness is the secularphilanthropic philosophy, a principle or practice of concern for the welfare ofothers, mainly out of faith and devotion in god. It is the traditional virtuein many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions and secularworldviews. Hazrat Nizamuddin, through his miraculous acts and teachings taughthis disciples “love and devotion to god, cultivation of moral virtues and selflessservice to humanity” (Figure 3). The paintings below depict the act of altruism.
The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims thatindividuals are morally obliged to benefit others. Used in this sense, it isusually contrasted with egoism, which is defined as actingto the benefit of one’s self.AsI began interviewing people, I was pleasantly surprised to see people ofdifferent religions, backgrounds, beliefs and ideologies. This is somethingthat took me aback as I came with the perception that the entire area would bestrictly Muslim dominated. As I witnessed profuse amounts of altruistic helpall around, I realized that it was Nizamuddin Auliya’s success amongst all thepopulations and his openness to followers of all religious backgrounds that haslent to his reputation as a great missionary in the name of Islam.
The devoteescome from faraway places to be in the presence of the saint, to seek his aidand further offer respect that they feel is equivalent to attending the Kanqah1 in the14th century (Synder, Michael).PersonalInteractionsThefirst person I spoke to was a seventy-year-old lady named Shanti Devi (Figure 4).An instance that brought me to her was when a man very rudely asked his wifewhy she was wasting her money by giving it to someone who was “just fanningthem”. I was hurt by the fact that little did people realize that it was herdaily job and only means of earning.
While interacting, I learnt that she wasan ardent devotee and was in awe of the saint’s teachings since five decades. Sheworks from 10 am to 7 pm, is blind in one eye and thus has to leave before thesun sets. She follows Hinduism and was disowned by her conservative family whowere against her beliefs.
Since then, she has been visiting the Dargah daily andfanning the passersby. She does not ask for a penny, despite all her hardships.All that she is paid is by the will and love of others. She earns Rs 100 – Rs150 per day and has completely surrendered herself to the Lord. All she hopesfor is a better tomorrow!My next interviewee was a devotee outside the Dargah sellingthe food coupons (Figure 5). He worksfor seven hours a day. Everything he does is out of sheer love for thealmighty. He asks people of the higher income strata to buy the food couponsranging from Rs 20-Rs 80 for the poor.
Since free langar is distributed only from Thursday-Sunday, the maximum amountof food coupons are bought from Monday-Wednesday. There are a chain of smallrestaurants outside the Dargah area where you can spot devotees screaming “Comeone, come all! One coupon you buy can prevent one person from sleeping hungry.”This is what caught my eye and I ended up buying five coupons and giving it tothe less fortunate. After this, I briefly spoke to the person at the Spiritualand Mental Health Centre. She told me that she had once been in severe stressdue to poverty and after coming to the Dargah, all her pain and anxiety hadbeen cured. She thus decided to start this business and help all those who arementally ill and are undergoing stress, depression or are victims of blackmagic. This is her way of paying back and thanking Allah and has been doing itsince the past 20 years, all free of cost! The most beautiful thing she told mewas something I would never forget, “It is the teaching of humanity, notdivinity that allows Allah’s devotees a closer connection to him. And, it is bythis connection to the moral that the miraculous can occur.
” Musta Alam, the man at the free medical dispensary, had beenworking at the Dargah for a decade now (Figure 6). He had once been extremelyill, could not afford medicines and took to the free medical dispensary thathelped him get cured. The fortunates, who wish to extend their help and support,come and donate money which is further collected and taken to the pharmacy nearthe Nizamuddin neighbourhood, where the medicines are purchased in bulk and arethen freely distributed to the ones who need it the most. The medicines rangefrom antibiotic tablets to the cough syrups for infants. This is the organisationalhelp provided by the Dargah. Musta Alam is hardly paid anything, but expressesthat he feels an inner peace and satisfaction when he distributes themedicines. He is often given tips by the passersby and the borrowers.
Hehappily accepts it as a form of blessing showered upon him by the Saint. I wanted to explore more and I happened to meet a man who Isaw making tea and coffee. I started interacting with him – only to learn thathe had been distributing beverages for free in the Dargah. After muchdifficulty and fear, he expressed to me that about a decade ago, he had murderedsomeone. He realized this disastrous act of his only eight years ago and sincethen been depressed and full of self-hatred. “Nothing is better than servingthe society selflessly”, he said, teary-eyed. He only pleads Allah to forgivehim for all his sins someday! This conversation shook me completely and I wasleft thinking about it for days.
Since we got to witness the qawwali first hand, I also gotthe opportunity to speak with Shakil Khan, also known as the “pankhawala” (Figure 7, Video and CCTVFootage). He has been fanning the visitors and lovers of sufi music, with ahuge green cloth, every time the traditional qawwalis are sung. He does not askfor money and is only paid out of love and as a token.
Khan lives a difficultlife and the alms that he gets is insufficient to make ends meet but he feelsrejuvenated and forgets all his sorrows as soon as he enters the Dargah. It wasthe saint’s biggest teaching to serve the society, which is what he does. Hefeels he will automatically be blessed with the best some day.
Lastly, I also spoke to the chief incharge of the Dargah andasked him about the other forms of altruistic behaviours that takes placebesides the usual. He told me that twice a year, there is distribution ofbooks, blankets and clothes for the poor, especially the children whose studieslag behind due to their inability to purchase books. He also mentioned about anold man who has been coming to Nizamuddin and has been distributing these itemsfor the last 20 years!Throughout my entire research, I realized that the commonthread among all my interviewees was the connection that they felt with theNizamuddin community- the land, the place and the unifying link between thelife and teachings of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya.
The history and lessons taughtby him continues to still live. As a part of my secondary research, I read about one of themost important rituals in the shrine-Dua-e-Roshni, the evening service when thelamps are lit with a special prayer. The pilgrims gather in the shrine’s marblecourtyard and stand around a Khadim2. Afterthe symbolic beating of the drum, the Khadimimplores Hazrat Nizamuddin and other Sufi saints to grant the wishes of all thedevotees. Hari Babu, a frail looking elderly man has been cleaning the lampsfor this evening ritual every day for more than 40 years (Figure 8 & 9).This man, who has become an integral part of the Islamic shrine, is a Hindu. Hecomes daily to this central Delhi shrine from faraway Nangloi village in thewest side of the capital. At 76, he has to change two buses to reach NizamuddinBasti, the village that surrounds the Dargah.
He is mostly seen in the eveningsas he is cleaning the green and yellow metal lamps of yesterday’s residualwax. He occasionally also distributes free meals in the Dargah, which iscooked by his wife and daughter-in-law, with love and shraddha3.I wonder how at this age, he is able to do this daily and commute day after dayfrom so far. According to him, his life changed after coming to Mehboob-e-Ilahi4.He got a job, a family and all the other things that could make him happy. So,this was his way to offer gratitude to Hazrat Nizamuddin. His faith in Nizamuddin resonates the experience of millionsof people across the world who found a similar calling in other saints ofvarious faiths and beliefs. When asked about how he reconciles his Hinduidentity with the shrines Islamic character, he replied by saying that eventhough there exists a Hindu-Muslim divide, he is a human being first and thiswas his connection to Mehboob-e-Ilahi (Soofi, Mayank).
OtherReligions After interviewing,participating and observing I realized that if work can be worship, thenworship can be work, too. Charitablegiving, one manifestation of practical altruism, is also common to many otherfaiths and religious scriptures (Figure 10). InJudaism, “tzedaka” is the idea ofdonating a certain portion of one’s income to effective charitieson a regular basis. Judaism calls on followers to donate 10% of their income tothe needy. (Ritchie, Sophie).
Altruism figuresprominently in Buddhism, too. Love, compassion and selfless service arecomponents of all forms of Buddhism, and are focused on all beings equally:love is the wish that all beings be happy, and compassion is the wish that allbeings be free from suffering (Dalai Lama).The fundamental principles of Jainism revolvearound the concept of altruism, not only for humans but for all sentient beings.
The first Tirthankara introduced the concept of altruism forall living beings, from extending knowledge and experience to donation and givingoneself up for others. Since I too have grown up in such an environment, eachtime I visit a Jain temple, I meet Santlal Jain, a 48-year-old consultantdoctor who has selflessly been consulting patients in the temple withoutcharging any fee. He feels that this is his connection to god and that he wouldcontinue this practice till his last breath.
This inspiring gesture of his hastouched several lives, including mine. Altruism is essential to the teachings of Jesu. RoderickHindery, in his book Indoctrinationand Self-deception, sheds light on authentic self-affirmation and altruism, byanalyzing other regard within creative individuation of the self, and bycontrasting love for the few with love for the many (Faust, Lindsey). MotherTeresa is the greatest example, who spent her entire life loving and selflesslyserving the society. The central faith in Sikhism, too, isaltruism and the belief that the greatest deed any one can do is to imbibe andlive the godly qualities like love, affection, sacrifice, patience, harmony andtruthfulness. The ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, sacrificed his head to protect the weakand defenseless people against atrocity. The act of altruism dates back to theseventeenth century, when the tenth guru in Sikhism, Gobind Singh gave water toboth, friends and foes in the battlefield. He believed that he was practicingwhat he was coached in the house of the Guru- empathy and selflessness.
In addition, I also feel that if at all, an abrupt conversionto the idea that there is no god can lead to a drop in altruistic endeavours.However, after realizing that such activities should be carried because theyare good in their own right, then your altruistic efforts can continue with asmuch vigour and determination. The concept of altruism is important not just for Islam as areligion, but is also equally important in the Dargah area and other religionsas well, some of which may be easily recognizable and others may not. Religioncan thus, promote generosity and other forms of altruistic behaviour. Cooperationand altruism have been central to the success of human beings and remainessential for coherent, stable societies. 1 A place for spiritual retreat andcharacter reformation2 The shrine’s traditional caretaker3 Hindi word meaning ‘faith’4 An affectionate term used forNizamuddin