Retreating into the Sufi’s shadow

Over a month after the Mehrauli blasts, Alokparna Das visits the neighbourhood that was once a spiritual retreat of the Sufis and finds that peace still lives here

Kitna hai badnaseeb Zafar

Dafn ke liye

Do gaz zameen bhi

Mil na saki kuye yaar mein

(How unlucky is Zafar! For burial, even two yards of land were not to be had in the land of his beloved)

The epitaph penned by the last Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar echoes in the silence surrounding his sardgah or empty grave in a marble enclosure adjoining the dargah of 13th century Sufi saint, Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, in Mehrauli.On a weekday afternoon, there aren't too many devotees visiting the dargah of Qutb Sahib, as this saint of the Chisti order is fondly called. Once, the entire village had come up around the dargah, also the site of the famous Phoolwalon ki sair festival that concluded over a week ago.

A walk through this part of Mehrauli, dotted with medieval structures, is full of surprises. While the Qutub Minar and the Archaeological Park nearby gets tourists through the year, the visitors here are mainly those who come to the Sufi shrine. In the 19th century, Bahadur Shah Zafar was one of the frequent pilgrims. Deposed and deported by the British after the uprising in 1857, he died in Yangon on November 7, 1862, and was buried there near the Shwedagon Pagoda. But the poet-king had always wanted to be buried here alongside his predecessors—Bahadur Shah I, Shah Alam II—and had even marked a site for his grave. Besides, he had a special affinity with Mehrauli, particularly with the tomb of Qutb Sahib, and had built some magnificent buildings in the vicinity.

It's been five weeks since the Mehrauli blast and after a subdued Phoolwalon ki sair and not so enthusiastic Diwali, the market in the neighbourhood isn't exactly buzzing with activity. Traders in the area were unhappy over the slump in business but were quick to add that no terror attack can disturb the harmony in Mehrauli. After all, they say, this place has been the khanqah or Sufi spiritual retreat of the city for centuries.

A walk through the narrow lanes and one can catch some shopkeepers retreating for their afternoon siesta. Zafar Mahal, the palace complex with an entrance high enough to let an elephant with a full-decorated howdah enter through it, looks haunted. Compared to Adham Khan's tomb or Bhulbhulaiyan, located at the other end of the market, Zafar Mahal has few visitors. Once inside, a flight of steps took one to a multi-chambered courtyard with a terrace that provided a view of the adjoining village.

There's also the 16th century ship-shaped Jahaz Mahal across the market—quiet and peaceful, an appropriate spiritual getaway.

Walking back towards the marketplace and stopping in front of an electronic shop for some shade, one spotted an unusually narrow gate— the entrance to Hijron ka khanqah, a pre-Mughal Lodi period structure. The marble staircase leads to a huge courtyard lined with whitewashed tombs with a small terrace. The place literally translates into 'a Sufi spiritual retreat for eunuchs'. Who are these people buried here? Eunuchs? Rejected by the society, have they found spiritual solace in this khanqah? The place didn't offer any answer.

It was time for afternoon prayer and also time to say adieu to Mehrauli. Walking home from a nearby school, a group of five-six children detoured to stop at the marble enclosure that has Zafar's empty grave. A local resident at the dargah informed that the grave of the last Mughal emperor is revered as a dargah in Yangon. Well, even in his own country, Zafar has not been forgotten.

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