Living, breathing: Today, the basti bustles
Photo: Saad Akhtar
Can culture become a catalyst for development? Can a living culture – that spans seven centuries – be transformed into an engine of growth and regeneration? Can a blend of music, ritual, food, crafts and local traditions be harnessed to improve the quality of life? Can a local community that has, despite occupying the beating heart of a much-venerated spiritual space, be made to shed some of its isolation? Can the effects of long years of disempowerment and disenfranchisement be remedied through confidence-building and inclusive growth plans? Going by preservation and resuscitation work currently taking place in the Basti Nizamuddin area of New Delhi, such goals seem to be entirely possible. A slew of recent initiatives in the vicinity of the Nizamuddin dargah has shown that cultural revival and urban renewal can become two sides of the same coin of development.
The area surrounding Basti Nizamuddin is indeed a special one. Literally dotted with remains of a rich and varied past, a testament to a pluralistic, multicultural society, it holds an embarrassment of riches. While Humayun’s Tomb – a short distance away from the dargah – has been declared a World Heritage Site, little is known about the seven centuries of heritage and the many gems hidden in the surrounding area. The earliest Islamic palace building in India, the Lal Mahal, built by Ghayas-ud-din Balban during the 13th century, caused this area to be known as Ghayaspur. And it was to this locale that Hazarat Nizamuddin Auliya came to stay and built his hospice. The area came to be known as Basti Nizamuddin, basti meaning ‘settlement’.
Nizamuddin also built a modest retreat a short distance away, now located near the boundary wall of Humayun’s Tomb and known as Chilla Nizamuddin. Here, he would come for periodic 40-day retreats, a practice known as chilla khichna. But it was in the basti that he lived and preached a message of love and compassion and came, in turn, to be loved by the people of Delhi as Mehboob-e-Ilahi, the Beloved of God. It was here, too, that he found the rarest of disciples, Amir Khusro, whose life revolved around his master’s, and together they witnessed the passing of a turbulent era, which spanned a succession of short-lived reigns, each more tempestuous than the other. The very first qawwalis were composed here, and it was here that Khusro handpicked a group of singers – the qawwal bachchas – and trained them to sing in a new way. As a mark of syncretism and a celebration of pluralism, the festival of basant came to be celebrated with joy, during which time the whole locality would be decorated with yellow flowers – a practice that continues to this day to mark the end of a bitter North Indian winter, and the herald of a balmy though short-lived spring.
During his lifetime, which coincided with a tumultuous period in the history of Delhi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya saw many sultans come and go as successive dynasties rose and fell. Through it all, Nizamuddin’s fame spread far and wide, and his hospice flourished, attracting large numbers of people. When the saint died in 1325 at the age of 87, Khusro, mad with grief, wrote:
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
On 1 December 2013, Afghan President Hamid Karzai accused the US of cutting fuel supplies to Afghan security forces. Despite US pressure, Karzai continues to stall the signing of a Bilateral Security Agreement.
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