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.

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 

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.

The present crisis of heritage

The independence and partition of India in 1947 saw a complete reorientation of how the heritage, especially the Islamic architecture of Delhi, was seen and projected. Large tracts of Delhi’s lands with heritage buildings on them were earmarked for residential purposes and new colonies built on them when thousands of Hindu migrated here from west Punjab. Delhi lost an unprecedented number of heritage buildings due to illegal encroachments by the new migrants, who appropriated them not only for their urgent need but also as a revengeful act for their own loss of property in Pakistan. At least some authors have documented such loss of Islamic heritage buildings in Delhi in the hands of Punjabi Hindu migrants.12 Secondly, Delhi’s heritage worth projecting for the national pride and tourism comprised now of new colonial and post-colonial icons such as India Gate, President’s house, Connaught Place, Birla temple, Teen Murti house, and Gandhi’s cremation memorial, in addition to the older essential buildings like Red fort, Jama masjid and Qutab minar. The Nizamuddin shrine that was once a qibla or axis around which much of the Islamicate Delhi grew, went out of sight due to the modern structures and colonies built around it.

Fig. 09

Initially the Nizamuddin shrine, the baoli and other nearby structures were not even on the list of buildings that were cleaned or restored to make them presentable as Delhi’s heritage. This is mainly because many of these buildings and their parts, some dating to early 14th century, were being used as private residences, offices or shops by families that have occupied them since almost seven centuries. [Figure 09] The reason for their occupation is not only the scarcity of residential space in Delhi, but also their being profitable spaces for doing religion-based business, such as providing talisman, spiritual and medical healing, food, devotional literature, images and ephemera, besides other pilgrim-related services like the spiritual tourism. Besides such merchandise, an even larger income is generated through the donations made by the pilgrims either for the upkeep of the shrine or simply for the purpose of their salvation. For such profitable reasons, the extended families of local priests, spiritual healers, qawwals and shopkeepers are not only in competition with each other to court each arriving pilgrim but also a bit insecure about the legal status of their enterprise as well as the spaces they have occupied.

Fig. 10

The locality today is not well-kept in terms of cleanliness, infrastructure and heritage conservation. Hundreds of beggars throng the place not only for free langar food that is distributed here twice a day but also the space remaining open for them to sleep at night. According to a few pilgrims interviewed during this study, there are hardly any toilets for the visitors. The money that comes in for the upkeep is hardly used for daily maintenance except maybe for tents, electric fixtures and the essential items used during festive days. The narrow lanes leading to the main shrine are getting narrower due to illegal shop extensions, garbage and even overflowing sewers and their stink. Most historic buildings are in bad shape – partly or fully encroached upon by the local residents who applied and reapplied all kinds of harmful construction material and distasteful designs since decades. [Figure 10]

One should clarify here that the shrine keepers are not always the culprits who are damaging their heritage – they also have their own concerns of restoration and repairs of a building that they have been occupying for generations – they want to add a value of “permanence” and durability to the structure as well as more comfort to the visiting pilgrims. In today’s context they want to “modernise” the shrine. But by and large, their concept of repair and modernization starts with the applying of white marble, iron, cement and concrete to the structures, without realising that such material may actually harm the structure and would be completely incongruous to the original design and aesthetics. Many centuries old walls, lattice screens and other building parts are being painted over and over since centuries without any consideration of the damage the paint may have caused. In fact, some walls and sections of the tomb had Persian and Arabic text inscribed on them which got completely hidden from the view. Many families have been residing in structures that should have been preserved as monuments.13 Many such buildings (some as old as 500-800 years) have been broken down in the last few decades to construct new concrete buildings.14 It is not that the government authorities never made an effort to safeguard the heritage buildings here. But an outsider making an offer or effort to clean-up the shrine has always been seen as a threat to the established profitable system of the local priests, and met with a hostile attitude. Their own concept of preserving or “improving” the old buildings is usually limited to adding white marble or new paint all over the structures.

Fig. 11

Since heritage conservation and its implications on local population of Nizamuddin area is a large and complex subject of study with many aspects worth exploring, I would like to limit this report to a few example of how the recent efforts of restoration led to interesting cases of narrative formation between the restorers and the local priests and residents, especially how the latter had to “redefine” the concepts of heritage and relic in order to suit their interests. In 1985-87, after completing the listing of buildings of historic importance in Delhi, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) identified Nizamuddin Basti and the surrounding areas as conservation and environment protection areas. A dialogue was initiated with Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to take up the restoration which included upgrading, cleaning and landscaping the area around the Dargah. [Figure 11]

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) which has recently completed a large project of restoring the Humayun’s tomb was involved in the cleaning of Nizamuddin baoli and other areas.15 But their job in Nizamuddin could not start as easily as they did with a protected monument such as the Humayun’s tomb. [See video] The local residents and the shrine-keepers were up in arms against them as they feared the restoration was a ploy to uproot them from their homes and livelihood. They even employed lawyers and media campaigns to resist the efforts of restoration. This constant stand-off could actually be seen at two levels: (1) a localised one that relates to the particular heritage site and its use by the shrine’s priest class and (2) a larger one that relates to north India’s Muslim community feeling victimised by the government and Hindus.

 The larger insecurities of the Muslim community

India’s mosques and other Muslim religious shrines are supposed to be maintained by a government-controlled charity organization called Wakf Board,16 which has an amazing volume of real estate spread all over the country. But a lot of Wakf property is also encroached upon or rented out for non-religious purposes, with several hundred court cases running over disputes.17 A large number of Sufi shrines are definitely disputed since the hereditary families claim to own such properties, never allowing the Wakf board to take over its maintenance, the shrine of Nizamuddin in Delhi being one such example. Delhi Wakf Board has been trying to get its ownership since long and has only recently got the court to order its take over, obviously not without some resistance from the locals.18

Besides the anxiety of local priests about the possible “take-over” of the shrine and heritage buildings by government agencies, there is also a larger apprehension of local Muslims community itself about a possible demolition of their homes and livelihood by the authorities, since most of the unplanned homes are built on land that was entirely a cemetery until 1940s. This apprehension also arises out of a general sense of victimisation of the community through past incidents of communal violence and biases against it prevalent in India. The 1992 incident of the demolition of Babri mosque in Ayodhya (UP) in the hands of extremist Hindus and a further threat to other mosques has also made the Muslims bitter and suspicious of the Hindutva organizations and government authorities. There is now a greater sense of insecurity among Muslims about their own homes and mosques. A very recent incident of a demolition of a small mosque in Jangpura (near the Nizamuddin shrine) by the government authorities by terming it an illegal construction (at the order of High court) created much tension and violence in the area,19 bringing many local politicians and the Shahi imam of Jama mosque to lead a crowd of Muslims to regain it.20 Under political pressure, even the Chief Minister of Delhi finally declared that the mosque may be rebuilt if it was on a legal land, which the Wakf Board claims it was. But many have also commented that India’s bourgeois class (such as the Hindu residents of Jangpura colony who were against such a mosque) are turning highly Islamophobic in the recent times.21

Obviously, the tug of war for such a property has a purely religious and communal connotation and there is generally no concern for heritage conservation. In fact in many of such disputes, it is the politicians who try to gain mileage by inciting the crowds to fight for a property like a mosque in the name of religion, indirectly benefiting what is called the vote-bank for political parties. Naturally then, they used many provoking posters, banners, advertisements (in Urdu newspapers) and other mass media devices to instigate people in Delhi’s neighbourhoods “to come to the streets and protest for the mosque.” Although these posters, many put up in the Nizamuddin area too, did not use any images of the demolished mosque or any religious icon, some did use the portraits of the politicians or Imam Ahmed Bukhari himself to symbolically reach out to the community.

Even in the case of Nizamuddin shrine, the priests not only have their personal interests (of continuing to occupy the disputed heritage buildings) but also make it a larger issue of the community to garner support of the local residents and politicians in their favour. But it should be noted that garnering the larger (Muslim) public support for a Sufi shrine (or even a heritage building) is not as straightforward a matter as in the case of a regular mosque (such as the Jangpura mosque discussed above). This because a growing section of neo-orthodox Muslims are somewhat sceptical about Sufi shrines as spaces that promote hybrid culture and “innovations,” and would not bother if the existence of such a place is threatened. Similarly, a majority of north India’s Muslims are too poor and underprivileged to worry about the survival of an Islamic heritage building that they don’t “use” for religious purposes. One should note here that such an issue is not restricted to the shrine of Nizamuddin alone – several other heritage sites in Delhi and all over India are caught between the questions of religious sacrality and conservation.22 But a large number of Indian Muslims (or Muslim politicians) may like to believe that their places of worship are targeted especially because of a communal bias.

Fig. 12

In any case, common issues like cleanliness and upkeep of the shrine could not be wished away simply by political gimmicks, which some of the priests at Nizamuddin were trying. Thus, after repeated efforts of the conservation authorities, the local caretakers finally allowed the clean-up of at least some parts of the shrine. The government and restoration agencies went through a lot of negotiations and dialogue for a couple of year with the local residents and shrine keepers, besides running legal cases (since most residential settlements in the area are illegal or disputed). But in this tug of war between the restorers and local residents, many interesting narratives were created. Even though tourists or people interested in heritage have been visiting the shrine since ages, but local residents recently turned hostile to a couple of tourists and students of history/heritage who were taking pictures of heritage buildings encroached by new constructions, assuming they were part of the restoration agency. [Figure 12]

In their effort to assert the ownership and control over buildings and spaces, they employed all means, especially to mark out the territories they want to keep. The most common claim, of belonging to the “original” family tree of the saint, can be seen written in many places within the shrine outside the offices or shops that provide spiritual healing to pilgrims. Often, even unknown older graves in the vicinity of homes were appropriated as belonging to “our ancestors” by people as an excuse to encroach spaces. And the hotels or food joints outside the shrine were claimed by their owners as providing sacred langar (or community meal with spiritual importance) in order to keep their illegal occupation of spaces.23

Heritage restoration and the creation of new icons

Fig. 13

Restoration and preservation of Delhi’s heritage buildings had been an ongoing process since decades, but it got a special boost in the last 3-4 years due to a planned face-lift of the city for the Commonwealth games held in October 2010, when Delhi was to be presented to the visitors as a world-class city.24 There was a lot of pressure on Nizamuddin area, being almost in the middle of the town and close to some of the most important venues of the Games, to look clean and presentable.25 But despite a huge budget allocated for the make-over of the heritage buildings and extensive work carried out almost in all monuments, the results of some restoration projects, even under INTACH’s supervision, were not considered up to the mark, mostly because some of these were done hurriedly to meet the deadlines.26 However, the AKTC, having a much better reputation of conservation (after their massive work on the Humayun’s tomb), pushed their way through the Nizamuddin area to take on as many portions of the heritage buildings as they could. Besides the urs mahal and chaunsath khamba complex, which were available easily, the baoli of Nizamuddin was also finally taken up for cleaning. [Figure 13] According to a report of the AKTC:

Conservation works commenced following the partial collapse of the fourteenth century baoli (step-well). Conservation works benefited from the use of state-of-art technology, including Ground Penetrating Radar Survey, High Definition 3D laser scans and geotechnical assessments. The collapsed portions were rebuilt as per the original construction techniques. Prior to conservation works, a dwelling unit over the collapsed portion needed to be dismantled and alternate accommodation built for the family. In keeping with the requests of the local community, seven centuries of accumulations were manually removed from the baoli.27 

Fig. 14 

The restoration of the baoli was truly a historic event since the well had acquired dirt, grime and even sewage from the area for last seven centuries. [Figure 14] Despite being so dirty the devotees used to take out its water and carry with them as having sacred properties – some even drank it as a medicine. [See images] The conservation team took months to simply drain out the water and mud from its bottom using the latest drainage equipment. For the first time in 800 years, even the local people were able to “see” the lowest depth of the well as it was emptied out. The newly visible concentric rings at the bottom became an image itself that was published a lot in the media. In the process, the restorers also found, behind a thin wall, a secret passage going further into the basement of the building.28 Some old coins and clay utensils were also found in it. The local priests claimed that they already knew the existence of such a passage, and that it actually led to the Chilla of Nizamuddin, a mile away from the location.29 This discovery created a contestation between the restorers and the local priests since the latter were bent on trying to prove that they, being the hereditary “owners” of the place, knew such hidden details about the building even before the cleaners found them out. However, when asked about the exact location of the tunnel, they could not pinpoint it.

But besides the activities of restoration, the AKTC and other agencies also tried to convince the local residents by drawing a plan of a larger and more comprehensive rehabilitation of the area and the lives of people, involving new facilities of education, health, recreation and cultural activities in the neighbourhood.30 They also tried to revive the tradition of qawwali singing by assisting the existing qawwal families of the area to enrich their repertoire and training skills, although there had been little success in that.31 In any case, AKTC along with

Fig. 15

other government agencies was able to sponsor some qawwali concerts for the local musicians which attracted a large audience from all over Delhi.32 Another important activity was the installation of a visual exhibit for the local residents highlighting the history and heritage of the area and how AKTC wishes to restore much of it to its lost glory.

The visual exhibit and other cultural programmes were held in the recently restored Urs mahal complex and attended by a large number of local residents and pilgrims who were able to “see” their heritage from a completely new perspective. [Figure 15 ] This visual exhibit stressed on two aspects or viewpoints of heritage which were new for the local residents: 

Fig. 16

(1) seeing the old buildings as rich and pride-worthy heritage that relates to centuries-old history rather than just a ruin that can broken down to build new homes. [Figure 16] This aspect used visual presentations that showed the imaginary development of their neighbourhood through a timeline of several centuries, using archival illustrations and photographs of the monuments which the local residents may have never seen before. (2) presenting Sufism, Sufi shrine and qawwali in certain romanticised images that present it as a rich cultural heritage rather than only a devotional space where pilgrims come for their salvation. This was done by colourful photographs (taken by well known photographers) of faqirs, flowers on the tomb, architectural motifs and other contemporary images of pilgrims. [Figure 17]

Fig. 17

Thus, the local residents and regular pilgrims were able to look at the spaces, which they had so far considered mundane, in a new perspective.They acquired at least some sense of cultural heritage about a space they have been visiting or living in everyday. To involve them further, the AKTC also employed the local youth into a practice of conducting “heritage walks” for tourists and specialized groups who regularly come to explore the area.33 For this, they were trained in the history and heritage of the area, and can now guide the visitors for a small fee. Several other activities of local involvement include healthcare and education of children besides the training of local girls and women in producing artwork that reflects Islamic heritage and so on. However, this example of AKTC’s involvement with the local heritage and social upliftment, although very unique and unprecedented, cannot be called a complete success story of heritage restoration with a happy ending. Many questions remain unanswered34 and many heritage buildings still threatened by encroachment or demolition. [Figure 18]

Fig. 18

What this restoration exercise at Nizamuddin shrine could at least do was to bring some reorientation or redefinition of the concepts of “heritage” and “devotion” for their respective practitioners about each other. While the restoration agencies could not simply land there with their tools and start polishing the walls (the way the government authorities would have normally acted) – they had to device policies of a more comprehensive social rehabilitation along with heritage restoration. Similarly, even the local residents and shrine keepers could not just remain defensive and evasive about their “control” over the buildings. They had/have to overcome their fear of the “community victimization” and appreciate the long-term benefits of the restoration efforts. More importantly, the projection of a cleaner and shinier heritage (viz. qawwali, Sufi literature and cultural heritage etc.) is also likely to present a more positive image of their culture as compared to the messy and superstitious Sufi culture that they are so far being criticised for by the neo-orthodox Muslims all over the world.

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).

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.

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. 

16. Delhi Wakf board is responsible for maintenance of the mosques, dargahs, graveyards, khankahs, or any property which is pious, religious, or charitable. But a large number of its property all over India is encroached upon and disputed. See

17. Naqvi, Saba, “Wakf Scam: Allah’s Left The Building,” Outlook, Delhi, Sept. 21, 2009. Also see in the same issue: “On a Wink and a Prayer” (about Delhi Wakf Board chairman).

18. Times News Network, “Black flags, shut shops greet court receiver at Nizamuddin dargah,” The Times of India, 2009, New Delhi.

19. Mehmood, Zafar, “Jangpura Masjid: Factual Position,” Two Circles, 13 January, 2011.

20. Siddiqui, Sohail Ahmed, Selective Justice for Muslim Religious Places in Delhi, 23 January, 2011.

21. Gayer, Laurent, “Delhi’s Noor Masjid: Tales of a Martyred Mosque,” Economic & Political Weekly, New Delhi, March 5, 2011 vol xlvi No.10, p 12-15.

22. Singh, Rana B.P., “Heritage Contestation and Context of Religion: Political Scenario from Southern Asia,” Politics and Religion No.1/2008, Vol. II, p. 79-99.

23. Revealed by Hasan Sani Nizami, an important Sufi scholar, during an informal conversation in 2009.

24. Roy, Siddhartha, “Games gains: Delhi gets a world-class makeover,” The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, October 15, 2010.

25. Verma, Richi, “Delhi's lesser-known monuments get facelift for Games,” The Economic Times, New Delhi, Aug 2, 2010.

26. Verma, Richi, “Mosque makeover annoys locals,” The Times of India, New Delhi, Jun 28, 2010.

27. Humayun’s Tomb - Sunder Nursery - Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Project in Delhi, Project Brief, 2010, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, New Delhi.

28. Verma, Richi, “Secret tunnel found at Nizamuddin dargah,” The Times of India, New Delhi, 24 April, 2009.

29. Verma, Richi, “Priests aware of passage existence,” The Times of India, New Delhi, April 2009.

30. Jashn e Khusrau, A Festival of Poetry and Music as Part of Delhi Urban Renewal Programme

31. Dutta, Shweta, “Plans afoot for revival of qawwali tradition in Nizamuddin,” Indian Express, New Delhi, Apr 21 2011.

32. Verma, Richi, “ASI for more qawwali nights,” The Times of India, New Delhi, Mar 15, 2009.

33. Staff Reporter, “Now take a heritage walk at Nizamuddin Basti,” The Hindu, Delhi, Dec 19, 2010.

34. Some concerned citizen, such as Dr.Farida Ali of the shrine of Sufi Inayat Khan, have questioned whether AKTC consulted any archaeologists or historians before demolishing some structures and applying some new features on many heritage buildings.