There is a theme running through our blog. And it’s not just us, really it’s present in all travel writing on Delhi. That is, the struggle to see beyond the Delhi of tomorrow, the mega city that is India’s capital, to appreciate its unique place in history and to find some small space where the push and shove of urban life is held at bay. How romantic! How clichéd. It would probably do us all some good to remember that we are just as addicted to the race for the cosmopolitan life as we are in need of escaping it.
With that in mind, wandering can have its disappointments when it does not deliver the otherness that the traveler is seeking. For me the Dargah-e-Aashiq-e-Allah (The shrine of the lover of Allah) was almost such a place. In a hurry to arrive, we stepped off from auto into shrubbery and set off down a dirt road. We passed an active village mosque which stands deserted outside of prayers. The late construction of the building was nothing to write home about. The road is clearly well used, however, and we passed a number of commuters on their way to pray at the dargah or turning down other paths.
It was hot, dusty, and dirty. Although the one story tall plant life blocked our view of South Delhi’s concrete roads, beggars and fancy cars – one worshiper arrived at the courtyard of the dargah in a new automobile, no doubt to give thanks for some sort of good luck, or perhaps to pray for more – was not my idea of escape.
The dargah too was a disappointment. White washed walls thick with water logged paint, unnamed graves the same color as the walls, holding a scattering of rose petals. This was not entirely surprising. The site is known for its legend, not its décor. Although the Imam of the dargah is not one to boast, or to tie his shrine to folklore, it is said that the Green Sufi could be evoked from a cave on this location. As early back as the 15th century Sufi saints fasted and prayed for 41 days, perhaps even hanging upside-down to call on the guidance and help of an ancient mystic and saint, one whose connection to God was so strong as to lend him sway over water and rain. Even in recent years his spirit has made an appearance. About fifty years ago, when Sufi saints still widely followed a tradition of praying in the Yamuna for days at a time, one saint was washed away (the Yamuna was a mightier beast then). The drowning man evoked Khizr and bystanders claimed that a green cloud formed to pull him back to shore. Khizr in spirit and flesh is seen in folk stories across the Islamic world, always with the same theme of love for Allah and a special connection to water. The Koran mentions the figure explicitly as a companion and teacher of Moses.
We walked up a few flights in the dargah with nothing grabbing us for a second look. But at least the view from up here was nice, with the Qutub Minar in the distance. The normal prayer ribbons were, instead, many colored plastic bags, adding an interesting quirk to the lattice of the roof. The legend of Khizr is not widely known amongst locals so few visitors actually make their way to this far corner. Still, we waited in line behind three other visitors, two middle aged men and an older woman. Two younger women, having finished their circuit walked by us happily chatting. This section of the dargah, the roof, was only a few meters in area with a tomb in the middle and a cave to the left. We walked around the tomb as the wind picked up, blowing flowers and kheel from the grave. We entered the cave. More like a dank room of natural rock than a cavernous retreat.
Inside there was barely enough room for two people. A reed mat lay on the floor and a green cloth covered the mihrab. A box which looked to be for incense, and interestingly not for donations, sat to the side of the mihrab.
I sat and stared at the black walls of the cave. At first I thought, ‘How long has it been since they gave this place a good wipe down?’ Then, ‘How many layers of soot cover these walls?’
A light sprinkle of rain began to fall outside, putt-puttering on the plastic bags. I kept looking forward, considering how many candles were burnt over the years to create the shinny black veneer.
The rain came down harder, splattering our backs the tiniest bit. The pattern of the storm echoed through the cave, drowning out all other noise, even my own doubting thoughts. With no way to leave we sat, silent, looking. And looking. And looking. And finally, right or wrong, I imagined the black surface expanding, becoming a tunnel, stretching back to the green one himself.
The rain stopped and we left. The return journey seemed lighter, more interesting with the drying landscape. Exiting into a village, I noticed those things I had missed in our earlier rush, like a 70 kg pig and her babies and the neighborly streets which quickly returned to a rush of honking and the metal garden we call home.
Wandering, like anything in life, is nothing but a state of mind.