Ye zindagi, ye zindagi, ye zindagi,
Ek din tujhe daga de degi,
Isse pehle ki ye tujhe daga de,
Tu isse daga de de…1
Muhammad Anwar’s voice was gravelly, slow and deep. It rustled on the s’s and z’s as the Urdu couplets danced in rhythmic gusts from his tooth-bare mouth, carried on tobacco-stained breath.
He paused, looking at us intently through pale brown eyes.
Do you know what this means?
We shook our heads.
It means that one day this life will end. Your soul will leave your body. Before this happens, you must consciously die. Before dying to the physical world, you must die to yourself. Die while you are alive. As you go about your life—walking, talking, doing whatever you are doing—you must kill your inner demon; your materialism, your desires, your ego. He who wins over this inner demon will become immortal.
Nizamuddin Auliya has taught me many things over the years. But this is his most important lesson.
Around us in every direction, the sprawling megacity of Delhi heaved its way into the evening, yet somehow, just here, it felt quiet.
Mohammad Anwar lifted his large, bare right foot onto his left thigh, resettling himself into a low cross-legged position on the fading pink Persian rug beneath him. Opposite us, a kerosene lamp flickered within a small shrine, casting a dancing light onto its rough stone walls, and the green and yellow chadar (sacred cloth) that cloaked its base.
This open yet sheltered space, which lay at the heart of 14th Century Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya’s chilla (place of meditation), was separated from the elements by a crumbling dome. It had been Anwar’s home for more than 30 years, and was where he spent the majority of his waking and sleeping hours. There was little evidence of this, however. A tin box behind him held all of his worldly possessions – some clothing and a few pots. A pile of cement bags was stacked in the far corner.
This is Nizamuddin Auliya’s real place; his place of peace. It’s where he spent most of his time. He would go through periods of intense meditation here, disappearing underground for weeks and taking only a few dates with him. There is a chamber just beneath us, connected directly by a passageway to the dargah [Nizamuddin’s place of burial, which lies across the road]. It has a burning fire at its centre that never goes out. No-one has been able to get into it, but I’ve been there in my dreams.
Once some men tried to excavate it, but a huge amount of rubble fell and they had to give up the attempt. Another time, I tried to get into the chamber, but as I was digging at the brick, I heard a thousand voices shouting at me to stop; so I stopped. I was ill for two months after that. No doctor could cure me.
The fading Autumn light reddened, carrying upon it melodic prayers from Damdama Sahib’s Gurudwara next door, and the rhythmic chugs and passing horns of well-loaded trains, making their way into and out of Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station. In Nizamuddin’s time, more than 700 years ago, the area looked very different. The simple thatched lodging in which the Saint lived was surrounded by forest, and the Yamuna river flowed where railway tracks lie today. Devotees would visit him in large numbers, seeking relief from their worries and a lift in their spirits.
There was a tamarind tree here before this structure was built, continued Anwar, referring to the stone walled space in which we sat. Nizamuddin used to love to sit under this tree and eat his meals. One day one of his favourite disciples, a court noble called Ziauddeen Wakeel, asked him what he could do to reach heaven. Nizamuddin told him that if he built a Chilla here, his wish would be fulfilled.2 So, Ziauddeen built the Chilla for Nizamuddin and sure enough, on the first mehfil (celebration) after its completion, he went into an extreme state of ecstasy and passed away in Nizamuddin’s arms. He is believed to have gone straight to heaven, just as he had asked. He’s buried over there.
Muhammad Anwar pointed with a stout finger in the direction of a narrow stone archway, which separated us from a newer area that had recently been renovated. Through the archway and across a white marble courtyard stood a lone tombstone, covered in a bright green chadar. A pomegranate tree stood next to it; its low, leaf-covered branches arching gracefully over the grave. To the left of the courtyard was a newer mosque, where present day devotees of Nizamuddin Auliya could visit at any time of the day. A man stood there, deep in prayer.
The first time I stepped foot here I just felt comfortable, like I’d been here before. I knew this place. Ever since, I’ve remained here in a state of worship from my heart. I’ve had many lifetimes with Nizamuddin Auliya. If I told you about the kind of things I have seen, the kind of things that have happened here, you would think I was crazy. Most people think I’m stupid, mad, or full of myself. But only someone who knows, who has a connection to God in their heart, will understand.
Can you try to tell us? My friend asked.
God has shown me everything. I have felt His Light touch me, expanding my mind and heart. Illumination has come from the ground to the sky, appearing just like a bed if tulips.
Sometimes I have felt the chamber beneath me shake. It used to happen a lot when I was younger. I prayed a lot more then; meditated a lot more. Now I don’t feel the need so much. I am very much at peace. I also don’t get hungry much any more. Once I was sitting and praying and a fig fell into my bowl. It was completely ripe, and out of season. I gave thanks to God for it, and ate it. Since then, I’ve had no hunger. I barely eat. I just have chai, and a few biscuits. Maybe one roti in the evening, or some boiled eggs from the dargah. But I don’t feel hunger.
Nizamuddin Auliya has given me so much, but it’s nothing I can show you or explain to you.
As we sat together, a thin white cat slunk across the carpet, mewing as it wrapped itself familiarly around his large, weathered hands. A number of rings caught the light as he stroked her slender body. One, in particular, drew my attention. It had an oblong opaque stone, encased in tarnished copper, with a black dot at its centre, giving it the appearance of an eye. Though he had arrived here more than thirty years ago, his journey to ‘Nizamuddin’s place’ had begun many years earlier.
I felt a connection to God and a life of worship from a very young age. I wasn’t like most children. I wasn’t interested in hanging out with friends and playing. I liked to be alone. After finishing my household chores, I would go to the graveyard close to my house in Kolkata for hours, and take God’s name. I would find great peace there. Often I would fall asleep there and dream of spirits flying here and there; wandering through homes and cities, and going to the mountains. I used to watch them as they flew.
Finally, the day came for me to leave. I told my mother “I am going to Bombay, to Delhi, to Ajmer, and I’ll be back in maybe a year or two, so put your hands through my hair and pray for me.” My mother became angry, saying, “you are my son, do you think I can bear not to have you around?” But my heart wouldn’t listen and I left to travel the world. I wandered for 15 years, roaming here and there. Wherever my heart directed me, there I went.
I felt a calling to Delhi, but before that I travelled to some of the major Sufi shrines; to Kalyar Sharif in Haridwar, to Banaras, to Bombay, to Ajmer Sharif. When I came here, though, I knew it was where I was meant to be. At that time, the area of Nizamuddin was just a dilapidated block. There was only jungle here. That was a different time. You didn’t meet anyone. You didn’t get anything from anyone. You were only in devotion to Him.
A fly landed on Muhammad Anwar’s high cheek bone as he spoke, drawing attention to his piercing brown eyes and the deep crows’ feet that flanked them, extending outwards in the direction of his oversized ears like hands. He didn’t flinch. The cat, which had since curled up beside him, was chewing at his fingers playfully. Were you ever afraid as you wandered from place to place?
In the beginning I was scared. But when you keep wandering in that way, all of your fears go away. I wandered to so many places; forests, mountains, caves. Remembering God’s name and forming a relationship with Him gave me comfort no matter where I was.
Here at the Chilla, time had a way of losing its grip on the physical world; seconds drifting into minutes, minutes slipping into hours. Through a barred, low archway to one side of the shrine, one could look straight onto the lush, manicured gardens that surround Humayun’s tomb, which stands tall, majestic and angular in their midst. Nine years after the second Mughal Emperor’s death, in 1556, his son, Akbar, decided to build this monument as his father’s final resting place, close to Nizamuddin’s dargah and chilla. Today the dargah—where Nizamuddin Auliya’s body has been laid to rest—is separated from the tomb by a busy highway. It hums with pilgrims, who seek the saint’s blessings, and answers to their prayers.
After some time, my friend asked, Anwar Sahab, you said that we have to kill our ego, to die while we are alive. How do we do that?
You must kill your hunger and thirst, win over your desires, and pray to Him. The ‘food’ that you eat controls you, and keeps you entangled within the world. If you feed your desires they will grow, but if you starve them, they will diminish. Our desires are our greatest demon. Once you win them over, you will receive everything.
Are you still fighting with your desires?
Yes, I am still fighting, what else can I do? But I do feel from the inside that I have no grief or sorrow in my life. However God keeps me, I’m happy. I’m still fighting with my hunger and thirst. But as far as is possible, I try to show people the path of honesty. I always try to pray for people. I continue meditating on God always, and pray for the welfare of others.
Write down what I’m going to tell you, this is important…
Muhammad Anwar shifted his seating position once again. As he did so, the inky darkness that had descended around us seeped into my awareness. The shrine was shining even more brightly than before, its sweet-scented incense swirling softly through the air, which was once again filled with the sound of his voice…
Har ek insaan ki zindagi, ek anokhi anmol kitab hai
Is kitaab ko apne hi taap se samajh, samajh gaya to sher hai aur nahi to mitti ka dher.
It means, the life of every human being is a rare and precious book. If you can come to an understanding of it from within your Being, you will become a lion; if not, it will all go to dust.
To come to such an understanding you must look within, and examine your true nature. Never judge others, only yourself. If you could understand yourself, you would understand everything. What I mean to say is that God has put everything within us.
Nizamuddin Auliya used to say that no matter what is happening in the outside world, one should pray that God grants you peace within yourself. If everyone in the world prayed for the peace of their inner selves rather than anything else, then whatever their circumstances might be, they would find rest.
How do you advise people to cultivate those feelings in themselves? Asked my friend.
Just pray for peace.
The white cat had long since left, in search of morsels of food or perhaps more interesting playmates. The shabad from the Gurdwara next door had ceased, and the sound of trains rolling into and out of Hazrat Nizamuddin station had ebbed away. All that remained was a rich, deep silence.
Thank you to Zorawar Shukla for introducing me to Nizamuddin’s Chilla and the beautiful Muhammad Anwar, as well as for helping me with and participating in this interview.
1 The literal translation of these Urdu couplets is: This life, this life, this life. One day it will cheat you. Before it cheats you, you should cheat it.
2 Other accounts of this story share that Nizamuddin initially refused Ziauddin’s offer to build him a larger retreat, warning him that whoever built on the land where he lived would leave this world. Ziauddin is said to have gone ahead and built this structure, unafraid to die for Nizamuddin. (Ref: The Book of Nizamuddin Auliya, by Mehru Jaffer)