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A Glimpse Inside The Tavern Of Ruin by Padmavajra

by Padmavajra

Last winter, during a trip to Delhi, I paid my first visit to what is probably the most famous Sufi shrine in India: the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Ever since reading the life and teachings of this great Sufi master I had desired to see the place where he was buried. Or rather (to put it more accurately) to pay my respects at his dargah - his 'royal court' (a Sufi master is regarded as a king of the spiritual world). I have made it a custom to visit the dargahs of Sufi and Muslim saints on my visits to India.

The barakah (literally the 'power of sanctity' - what we would call the 'atmosphere') of these shrines, even the less well known ones - is often very profound indeed.

It was late afternoon when I paid my visit. The sun was low in the clear, blue winter sky, and a golden light was beginning to glow as I followed the busy main road from the red sandstone grace of Humayun's Tomb. Managing to weave my way through the snarling traffic, I entered a broad lane and joined the jostling crowds. I passed cheap restaurants, bookshops, an Unani doctor's surgery, and the recently restored tomb of the great Urdu poet Ghalib. The lane turned into narrower and narrower alley-ways, crammed with tiny shops: halal butchers with fresh pink carcasses hanging in the open air, travel agents offering cheap bus services to other Sufi shrines, the ubiquitous chai stalls, shops filled with cassettes of Sufi devotional music. And the stalls I love best ' those that sell everything required to worship at these shrines: brilliantly coloured chaddars (tomb coverings) in deep green, red and purple, embroidered and fringed with gold thread; nets of intensely sweet white jasmine; small red roses, perfumes, skull caps and tasbihs (rosaries) of coloured glass, wood and even luminous green plastic. The shopkeepers called out to me to buy from their stall; qawwali music blared from the cassette shops. All around me were people: beggars (men, women and children in dirty, ragged dress); strong-looking men, mostly in Muslim garb of baggy white shirts and pyjamas, white caps on their heads; and mysterious women, hidden from view in their black burkahs.

The alley-way became narrower still, until at last I came to the entrance of the shrine itself. Leaving my shoes outside and tying a red scarf on my head (the head is always covered in Muslim places of worship), I entered the shrine. Immediately to my left was the small structure housing the tomb of Hazrat Nizamuddin's great disciple, Amir Khusrau. Following tradition, I paid my respects to his shrine first.

I squeezed my way into the tiny room containing the tomb of the great devotee. Crammed inside, men and boys (in common with most other dargahs, no women are allowed inside the rooms housing the tomb) were sitting or standing, silently mouthing prayers. Others were silent, gazing at the tomb, which was swathed in the brilliantly coloured chaddars. The atmosphere was very still, in complete contrast to the hustle and bustle outside. I stood gazing at the tomb and those exquisite cloths ' red and green and purple, embroidered with gold, strewn with nets of jasmine and small red roses, and sprinkled with perfume. I felt strangely moved to be taking darshan of the great devotee, Amir Khusrau. It was Khusrau who composed (in Hindi and Farsi) songs of ecstatic love and devotion for his beloved master. These songs are regarded as the origin of qawwali, the most famous form of Indian Sufi music. I was moved to be near this great lover-disciple, who gave the fullest and most beautiful expression to his love, who would lose himself in songs of love. I stood, longing to lose myself ' like Amir Khusrau ' in such ecstasies of adoration.

From Khusrau's tomb, I crossed the courtyard to the much larger shrine of his beloved master Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, with its elegant white dome. Even more men were pressing themselves into the tiny space around Hazrat's tomb. I noticed that the walls of the shrine were painted with elaborate flioral patterns, and there was an overpowering smell of attar of roses, drops of which could be seen on the deep green and purple cloths covering the tomb. Men stood praying, their palms raised in elegant gestures of entreaty. Some men knelt by the side of the tomb, their foreheads resting on the low wooden fence surrounding the tomb. Some men were bent over and gathering up in their hands a corner of the chaddars covering the tomb, which they touched to their foreheads and kissed lovingly. Priests gave blessings by touching the tomb with peacock feather fans, which they would then touch to people's heads.

I left the tomb and sat on a nearby wall. As the twilight gathered, I watched the people: the priests, sleek in their smart white clothing, hustling for donations; wandering fakirs in blue and green check sarongs, white shirts and colourful turbans; ordinary people in traditional Muslim dress or westernised Indian style; women, some completely draped in black, others in brilliantly coloured saris or salwar kameez, many of them sitting in silence or prayer on the steps of Hazrat's shrine. And swarms of children. Not all the worshippers were Muslim. There were many Hindus present as well: the blessings of Hazrat Nizamuddin are for all, regardless of their religious persuasion. In fact, the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin is probably Delhi's most important shrine. As I sat watching, the call to prayer sounded through loud speakers, and almost everybody turned towards the red mosque that stands next to Hazrat's shrine. I love to watch Muslims at prayer. Even the poorest, least cultured person looks so elegant, so graceful in his slow, mindful prostration.

After the prayers had finished I began to hear the strains of a harmonium and the sound of a drum. The qawwali singers were beginning their daily evening performance for Hazrat Nizamuddin. For many years now I have had a great love of qawwali. In a mood of intense expectation, I made my way to the space between the shrine of Amir Khusrau and Hazrat Nizamuddin.

Hazrat Nizamuddin was very fond of qawwali. Every evening he would attend sama ' a formal recital of musical settings of Sufi poems. Sama (the word literally means 'audition') is a central practice for many traditions throughout the Sufi world, although not all Sufis recommend it. Some, in fact, are highly critical of the practice. But for Hazrat Nizamuddin's Chisti lineage, such spiritual concerts are an important practice. Through listening to the words and the music (and the words are as important as the music) the Sufi practitioner aims to attain a state of ecstasy (wajd). The sama of the Sufi adept take place in a small private setting, but qawwali is also performed in more public contexts for the humble devotee.

The qawwali singers at Hazrat Nizamuddin continue the tradition of singing for the beloved master. Every evening they sit in front of the shrine of Amir Khusrau, facing the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin and they sing (mainly) songs composed by Amir Khusrau ' the songs that the lover composed for his beloved. The singers had already started performing by the time I arrived. Seeing me, they urged me to come and sit near them. There was a lead singer (who also played the harmonium) two backing vocalists (who also kept time by clapping) and a man (who also sang) playing the dholak, a long two- headed drum laid across the folded legs of the drummer. The musicians were dressed in a mixture of modern Western and Indian Muslim dress. The young dholak player looked particularly 'cool' in black jeans, a long, light-blue Indian shirt and a black leather jacket. They sang and played with great force and feeling, and a crowd soon gathered.

At a break in the singing, I leaned over to the drummer and asked him if the group would sing my favourite of all qawwali songs, a song composed by Amir Khusrau himself, the Farsi Chashm-e-maste 'ajabe. It's a very famous 'old' qawwali song, and the qawwals were clearly delighted to be asked to sing it. To my intense pleasure, they were soon entering into the song's long opening lines, and then plunging into its rhythmic verses, with their ecstatic repetitions. The lead singer and backing vocalists would raise their arms to communicate a particular phrase more forcefully. Often the lead singer would direct his singing towards me, beaming with pleasure. I was quietly ecstatic listening to the best of qawwali songs in a traditional setting. I turned my attention away from the crowds towards the heart.

O wondrous ecstatic eyes, o wondrous long locks, O wondrous wine worshipper, o wondrous mischievous sweetheart. As he draws the sword, I bow my head in prostration so as to be killed, O wondrous is his beneficence, o wondrous my submission. In the spasm of being killed my eyes beheld your face: O wondrous benevolence, o wondrous guidance and protection. O wondrous amorous teasing, o wondrous beguiling, O wondrous tilted cap, o wondrous tormentor. Do not reveal the Truth; in this world blasphemy prevails, Khusrau: O wondrous Source of mystery, o wondrous Knower of secrets. [1]

Chashm-e-maste 'ajabe follows the great tradition of Persian Sufi poetry, with its abundant use of imagery celebrating all that is forbidden by the shariah of orthodox Islam. Although Amir Khusrau does not employ the image, the setting for Chashm-e-maste 'ajabe is the Tavern of Ruin. Much, if not all, Persian Sufi poetry takes place in this strange and wonderful place. The tavern (kharabat in Persian) is a seedy cabaret and drinking den, situated in a disreputable part of town. In its dim, candlelit interior, you quaff the musky wine brought by the flirtatious saki (cup bearer), gamble your fortune and lie ...

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