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in New Delhi, the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah is the mausoleum on Nizamuddin
Auliya, one of the world’s most renowned Sufi saints. The moment I stepped into
the Dargah area, I was overwhelmed with its environment and the peace it
brought through (Figure 1). I witnessed numerous devotees doing their bit to
serve the society in different forms, remembering their god and surrendering
oneself to him; physically, mentally and emotionally. This intrigued me the
most and since I myself follow Jainism, giving back and serving the society
selflessly comes naturally to me. Thus, I wanted to research the topic of
‘altruism’ and the free voluntary help provided by the devotees in further depth.

the most popular Dargah in Delhi, it is visited by thousands of people daily.
The shrine’s courtyard is decorated with flowers and aesthetic electric bulbs with
interiors of pure gold (Figure 2). The grand Hazrat Nizamuddin tomb has lattice
screens called jallis and marble
arches. Devotees tie red threads to these screens with a belief that their
wishes would be granted. Inside the tomb, the shrine is covered with scented dark
green cloth. The walls inside the principle shrine, the site of Hazrat
Nizamuddin’s grave are draped with green curtains embroidered with golden lace.
Devotees offer prayers, shower rose petals and light fragrant incense sticks (agarbattis) before the shrines which
signify simplicity and Hinduism (Delvhi). Every Thursday, special Qawwali programs
are organized inside the Dargah which is adorned with beautiful lights and the enchanting
Sufi music echoes in one’s ears.

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I interacted with the peerzadas,
devotees and the locals, I learnt that hundreds of people visit the Dargah at
night. Sweet rice, laddoos, dal and rajma are served as langar
to all in polythene packets. Some also spend the night there. One devotee exclaimed,
“Not only Sufi music lovers but also tourists love to spend the night in
devotion as the whole atmosphere is charged with spirituality and calmness.” The
Dargah is representative of the city’s people, language, food, culture, poetry,
music and architecture. I observed a variety of things; hundreds of goats
popping up from narrow lanes, beggars, small shops selling roses and prasad to offer to Allah, people
reciting Namaaz, extreme poverty, red
sand stone marks, baolis for bathing
and drinking water, people tying the holy thread (moulis) and lying on the floor, well decorated graves, women covered
in Burqas, holy hymns and books with
religious recitals being sold, Sufi
practices, a lot of bargaining, exorcism, women banging their heads on pillars
in hopes of getting cured, raw meat and chicken being sold in every little nook
and corner and a person dabbing perfumes to all the passersby. There were all
sorts of people there and I had a couple of encounters with some who were
profusely devoted and possessive about their religion and Allah. But the one
striking thing that really caught my attention among many others was the free
voluntary help and social service provided by individuals and the Dargah

Altruism or selflessness is the secular
philanthropic philosophy, a principle or practice of concern for the welfare of
others, mainly out of faith and devotion in god. It is the traditional virtue
in many cultures and a core aspect of various religious traditions and secular
worldviews. Hazrat Nizamuddin, through his miraculous acts and teachings taught
his disciples “love and devotion to god, cultivation of moral virtues and selfless
service to humanity” (Figure 3). The paintings below depict the act of altruism.
The term altruism may also refer to an ethical doctrine that claims that
individuals are morally obliged to benefit others. Used in this sense, it is
usually contrasted with egoism, which is defined as acting
to the benefit of one’s self.

I began interviewing people, I was pleasantly surprised to see people of
different religions, backgrounds, beliefs and ideologies. This is something
that took me aback as I came with the perception that the entire area would be
strictly Muslim dominated. As I witnessed profuse amounts of altruistic help
all around, I realized that it was Nizamuddin Auliya’s success amongst all the
populations and his openness to followers of all religious backgrounds that has
lent to his reputation as a great missionary in the name of Islam. The devotees
come from faraway places to be in the presence of the saint, to seek his aid
and further offer respect that they feel is equivalent to attending the Kanqah1 in the
14th century (Synder, Michael).


first person I spoke to was a seventy-year-old lady named Shanti Devi (Figure 4).
An instance that brought me to her was when a man very rudely asked his wife
why she was wasting her money by giving it to someone who was “just fanning
them”. I was hurt by the fact that little did people realize that it was her
daily job and only means of earning. While interacting, I learnt that she was
an ardent devotee and was in awe of the saint’s teachings since five decades. She
works from 10 am to 7 pm, is blind in one eye and thus has to leave before the
sun sets. She follows Hinduism and was disowned by her conservative family who
were against her beliefs. Since then, she has been visiting the Dargah daily and
fanning the passersby. She does not ask for a penny, despite all her hardships.
All that she is paid is by the will and love of others. She earns Rs 100 – Rs
150 per day and has completely surrendered herself to the Lord. All she hopes
for is a better tomorrow!

My next interviewee was a devotee outside the Dargah selling
the food coupons (Figure 5).  He works
for seven hours a day. Everything he does is out of sheer love for the
almighty. He asks people of the higher income strata to buy the food coupons
ranging from Rs 20-Rs 80 for the poor. Since free langar is distributed only from Thursday-Sunday, the maximum amount
of food coupons are bought from Monday-Wednesday. There are a chain of small
restaurants outside the Dargah area where you can spot devotees screaming “Come
one, come all! One coupon you buy can prevent one person from sleeping hungry.”
This is what caught my eye and I ended up buying five coupons and giving it to
the less fortunate.

After this, I briefly spoke to the person at the Spiritual
and Mental Health Centre. She told me that she had once been in severe stress
due to poverty and after coming to the Dargah, all her pain and anxiety had
been cured. She thus decided to start this business and help all those who are
mentally ill and are undergoing stress, depression or are victims of black
magic. This is her way of paying back and thanking Allah and has been doing it
since the past 20 years, all free of cost! The most beautiful thing she told me
was something I would never forget, “It is the teaching of humanity, not
divinity that allows Allah’s devotees a closer connection to him. And, it is by
this connection to the moral that the miraculous can occur.”

Musta Alam, the man at the free medical dispensary, had been
working at the Dargah for a decade now (Figure 6). He had once been extremely
ill, could not afford medicines and took to the free medical dispensary that
helped him get cured. The fortunates, who wish to extend their help and support,
come and donate money which is further collected and taken to the pharmacy near
the Nizamuddin neighbourhood, where the medicines are purchased in bulk and are
then freely distributed to the ones who need it the most. The medicines range
from antibiotic tablets to the cough syrups for infants. This is the organisational
help provided by the Dargah. Musta Alam is hardly paid anything, but expresses
that he feels an inner peace and satisfaction when he distributes the
medicines. He is often given tips by the passersby and the borrowers. He
happily accepts it as a form of blessing showered upon him by the Saint.

I wanted to explore more and I happened to meet a man who I
saw making tea and coffee. I started interacting with him – only to learn that
he had been distributing beverages for free in the Dargah. After much
difficulty and fear, he expressed to me that about a decade ago, he had murdered
someone. He realized this disastrous act of his only eight years ago and since
then been depressed and full of self-hatred. “Nothing is better than serving
the society selflessly”, he said, teary-eyed. He only pleads Allah to forgive
him for all his sins someday! This conversation shook me completely and I was
left thinking about it for days.

Since we got to witness the qawwali first hand, I also got
the opportunity to speak with Shakil Khan, also known as the “pankhawala” (Figure 7, Video and CCTV
Footage). He has been fanning the visitors and lovers of sufi music, with a
huge green cloth, every time the traditional qawwalis are sung. He does not ask
for money and is only paid out of love and as a token. Khan lives a difficult
life and the alms that he gets is insufficient to make ends meet but he feels
rejuvenated and forgets all his sorrows as soon as he enters the Dargah. It was
the saint’s biggest teaching to serve the society, which is what he does. He
feels he will automatically be blessed with the best some day.         

Lastly, I also spoke to the chief incharge of the Dargah and
asked him about the other forms of altruistic behaviours that takes place
besides the usual. He told me that twice a year, there is distribution of
books, blankets and clothes for the poor, especially the children whose studies
lag behind due to their inability to purchase books. He also mentioned about an
old man who has been coming to Nizamuddin and has been distributing these items
for the last 20 years!

Throughout my entire research, I realized that the common
thread among all my interviewees was the connection that they felt with the
Nizamuddin community- the land, the place and the unifying link between the
life and teachings of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The history and lessons taught
by him continues to still live.

As a part of my secondary research, I read about one of the
most important rituals in the shrine-Dua-e-Roshni, the evening service when the
lamps are lit with a special prayer. The pilgrims gather in the shrine’s marble
courtyard and stand around a Khadim2. After
the symbolic beating of the drum, the Khadim
implores Hazrat Nizamuddin and other Sufi saints to grant the wishes of all the
devotees. Hari Babu, a frail looking elderly man has been cleaning the lamps
for this evening ritual every day for more than 40 years (Figure 8 & 9).
This man, who has become an integral part of the Islamic shrine, is a Hindu. He
comes daily to this central Delhi shrine from faraway Nangloi village in the
west side of the capital. At 76, he has to change two buses to reach Nizamuddin
Basti, the village that surrounds the Dargah. He is mostly seen in the evenings
as he is cleaning the green and yellow metal lamps of yesterday’s residual
wax. He occasionally also distributes free meals in the Dargah, which is
cooked by his wife and daughter-in-law, with love and shraddha3.
I wonder how at this age, he is able to do this daily and commute day after day
from so far. According to him, his life changed after coming to Mehboob-e-Ilahi4.
He got a job, a family and all the other things that could make him happy. So,
this was his way to offer gratitude to Hazrat Nizamuddin.

His faith in Nizamuddin resonates the experience of millions
of people across the world who found a similar calling in other saints of
various faiths and beliefs. When asked about how he reconciles his Hindu
identity with the shrines Islamic character, he replied by saying that even
though there exists a Hindu-Muslim divide, he is a human being first and this
was his connection to Mehboob-e-Ilahi (Soofi, Mayank).



After interviewing,
participating and observing I realized that if work can be worship, then
worship can be work, too. Charitable
giving, one manifestation of practical altruism, is also common to many other
faiths and religious scriptures (Figure 10).


Judaism, “tzedaka” is the idea of
donating a certain portion of one’s income to effective charities
on a regular basis. Judaism calls on followers to donate 10% of their income to
the needy. (Ritchie, Sophie). Altruism figures
prominently in Buddhism, too. Love, compassion and selfless service are
components of all forms of Buddhism, and are focused on all beings equally:
love is the wish that all beings be happy, and compassion is the wish that all
beings be free from suffering (Dalai Lama).

The fundamental principles of Jainism revolve
around the concept of altruism, not only for humans but for all sentient beings.
The first Tirthankara introduced the concept of altruism for
all living beings, from extending knowledge and experience to donation and giving
oneself up for others. Since I too have grown up in such an environment, each
time I visit a Jain temple, I meet Santlal Jain, a 48-year-old consultant
doctor who has selflessly been consulting patients in the temple without
charging any fee. He feels that this is his connection to god and that he would
continue this practice till his last breath. This inspiring gesture of his has
touched several lives, including mine.


Altruism is essential to the teachings of Jesu. Roderick
Hindery, in his book Indoctrination
and Self-deception, sheds light on authentic self-affirmation and altruism, by
analyzing other regard within creative individuation of the self, and by
contrasting love for the few with love for the many (Faust, Lindsey). Mother
Teresa is the greatest example, who spent her entire life loving and selflessly
serving the society.


The central faith in Sikhism, too, is
altruism and the belief that the greatest deed any one can do is to imbibe and
live the godly qualities like love, affection, sacrifice, patience, harmony and
truthfulness. The ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, sacrificed his head to protect the weak
and defenseless people against atrocity. The act of altruism dates back to the
seventeenth century, when the tenth guru in Sikhism, Gobind Singh gave water to
both, friends and foes in the battlefield. He believed that he was practicing
what he was coached in the house of the Guru- empathy and selflessness.

In addition, I also feel that if at all, an abrupt conversion
to the idea that there is no god can lead to a drop in altruistic endeavours.
However, after realizing that such activities should be carried because they
are good in their own right, then your altruistic efforts can continue with as
much vigour and determination.

The concept of altruism is important not just for Islam as a
religion, but is also equally important in the Dargah area and other religions
as well, some of which may be easily recognizable and others may not. Religion
can thus, promote generosity and other forms of altruistic behaviour. Cooperation
and altruism have been central to the success of human beings and remain
essential for coherent, stable societies.

1 A place for spiritual retreat and
character reformation

2 The shrine’s traditional caretaker

3 Hindi word meaning ‘faith’

4 An affectionate term used for

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