The inside story of Nizamuddin Dargah

Abhimanyu Kumar | Updated on August 23, 2019 Published on August 23, 2019

Uncommon factor: Three law students from Pune decided to file the petition after they were denied access to the inner chamber of the shrine last year   -  THE HINDU/SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

On August 26, Delhi High Court will hear a PIL that challenges a ban on the entry of women in the Nizamuddin Dargah. But are worshippers ready for change?

Advocate Kamlesh Kumar Mishra’s chamber is engulfed in darkness. The lights have gone out and the oppressive heat of a Delhi summer is bearing down on the man arranging sheaves of paper on his desk. Days away from a hearing on a PIL filed in the Delhi High Court (HC), Mishra shows no impatience in answering questions on the case that concerns the entry of women at one of New Delhi’s most iconic places of worship: Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Dargah.

The genesis of this PIL, filed in December 2018 by three law students from Pune, can be traced to the law firm that Mishra runs in a neighbourhood in south Delhi. In late 2018, Deeba Faryal, Shivangi Kumari and Anukriti Sugam were in the city as the firm’s interns when they planned a visit to the Dargah. “I had visited the Dargah about three years ago, when I saw women worshippers being made to wait outside the innermost chamber. Their offerings to the Aulia [Hazrat Khwaja Syed Nizamuddin Aulia, a 13th-century Sufi saint] were carried inside by men,” says Mishra.

The three students returned with the same observation. They were asked to wait outside the shrine when they tried to enter it last year. While they discussed the matter among themselves, the interns drew inspiration from the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision that lifted the ban on the entry of menstruating women in Kerala’s Sabarimala Temple. The landmark verdict, along with the one that granted women access to the sanctum sanctorum of Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah (passed in August 2016), encouraged the trio to take the Dargah issue to court.

On December 4, 2018, Faryal, Kumar and Sugam filed a PIL before the Delhi HC, challenging the rule that bars women from entering the innermost chamber of the shrine, built over the grave of the venerated saint. The rule restricts women devotees from performing rituals such as offering chadar to the saint. “When the Constitution allows everyone the freedom to practise religion, why should women be left out,” asks Kumar, in a chat with BLink from Pune.

Opinion on the matter — both within the community of worshippers and without — is divided. While Mishra prepares to argue the case on August 26, life in and around the Dargah continues at the usual pace. Vendors selling green chadars — the most popular offering to the Aulia — vie for attention as you walk through the crowded lanes dotted with eateries and shops selling ittar, skullcaps and knick-knacks. The queue to enter the Dargah grows longer on some evenings, when qawwali performances are held at the courtyard.

Worshippers Gulnaz and Zubeida (they give only their first names) wait for their husbands at the outer courtyard of the Dargah. They seek shade from the harsh afternoon sun while the men offer prayers inside the shrine. “This is how it works. You can pray from outside. What’s the need for going inside,” says Zubeida when asked if she supports the PIL. Residents of Narela in north Delhi, the two women seem to think that there is no need to question a tradition that has been around for nearly 700 years.

Nizamuddin resident Rani’s objection to the idea of women entering the shrine stems from the taboo around menstrual hygiene. Seated on a bench near the tomb of legendary 19th-century Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, also in the same neighbourhood, she says, “Women are unclean on a certain number of days in a month. They should not be allowed inside the Dargah.”

Most women residents of the area, claims a senior NGO official who runs an office in Nizamuddin Basti, seem to be in favour of the restriction. On condition of anonymity, she says that the women she imparts vocational training to seem to think that the ban has its roots in religious teachings.

This, however, contradicts what the Aulia himself is said to have believed. According to Dhritabrata Bhattacharjya Tato, author of Sufism: Its Spirit and Essence (2015), the Sufi saint supported equal rights for women in matters of religion and prayer. This has been discussed in detail in Siyar-ul-Aulia, a 14th-century chronicle of the Aulia’s life and times by his attendant and disciple, Sayyid Muhammad bin Mubarak Kirmani.

Mohammad Makki Ansari, one of the brothers who run the popular Hussaini Hotel in Nizamuddin, has not heard of Siyar-ul-Aulia. But he knows that many dargahs in the country give full access to women worshippers. “Dargahs in the same city allow women — Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli; the nearby Patte Shah Dargah,” says Ansari as he prepares nihari and paya for hungry customers.

Among the reasons offered in defence of the entry ban is one that relates to safety. The Dargah’s hereditary administrators — popularly known as Sajjada Nasheens — have been quoted as saying that it is difficult to protect women visitors during the heavy footfalls at festivals.

Whatever the reason behind the ban, it is only the outcome of the court case that seems to matter now.

Abhimanyu Kumar is a Delhi-based freelance journalist

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Published on August 23, 2019
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